July 27, 2012

They don't make 'em like that anymore

In the past there were cricket teams who used to put the fear of god into opponents. Not any longer

When he was playing golf that seemed to come from a different universe, Tiger Woods didn't only beat opponents, he often took away their will to compete. Opponents looked at him with awe, eager to see what he would do next rather than thinking of ways of combating him. Woods had that aura that sportsmen dream of possessing. When he was scorching the back nine on the last day, there was an air of inevitability about it all. His opponents had bestowed on him the cloak of invincibility.

Michael Jordan had it, and Roger Federer did - the mystical quality that injects hopelessness into the opponent; which causes them to temporarily abdicate their skills and drool over what is on display. It takes a long time to build this aura and only a few defeats to dissipate it. When the inevitability of victory is dented, it is almost as if opponents are being shaken out of their reverie and awoken to the fact that victory is a possibility. Federer might only have lost a few games here and there, but it made opponents sense an opportunity where earlier they were overwhelmed by the aroma of despair.

Only two teams in recent times have managed to bring this aura to cricket. Both used to win matches before the contest began. Both got into tense situations, but then, almost inevitably, both they and their opponents on the park believed the champion was going to win. West Indies through the late '70s and into the '80s were like that, and so were Australia for about 15 years from the mid-90s.

The 1948 Australians, in the eyes of some the finest team assembled, produced some stunning victories that gave birth to such a legend, including scoring 404 on the last day of a Test to win (aided, no doubt, by the fact that the English bowled 114 overs, but that only marginally diminishes the significance of what Australia did).

The great West Indies added to their aura significantly when they chased down 344 in 66 overs on the last day of the Lord's Test in 1984. They had an ageing Clive Lloyd at No. 5, Jeff Dujon at six and Malcolm Marshall at seven. England must have fancied their chances - they even declared their second innings (even if at nine wickets down) - but by the time the game ended (and Viv hadn't even come to the crease!) they must have been left wondering just what they needed to do to win against West Indies. The news would have travelled: you can't beat these guys, and that would have led to West Indies winning a couple more matches before those games began.

England might have thought the tide was turning against Australia in the World Cup of 2003 when they made 204 for 8 and had Australia 135 for 8, needing 70 at a run a ball with two wickets in hand. I was watching that game, and at no point did it cross my mind that Australia would lose. Seriously. They just had their air about them, and of course they won. When you win games like those, the opposition starts to believe in your invincibility. The aura appears.

In recent times, with Australia having slipped and the leadership of the Test rankings yo-yoing a bit, no team is able to generate that kind of aura. Nobody seems scared of anyone anymore, and that may be good for the game. India didn't seem too inclined to go for it in Dominica in July 2011, when after a slow phase of batting they needed only 86 from 90 balls with seven wickets in hand. India had the opportunity to make a statement about their strength; instead they suggested they, the No. 1 team in the world, weren't confident. You don't build an aura like that.

And England allowed the opposition to score 637 for 2 at The Oval last week, often bowling as if they just had to do something with the ball in hand since they had run in 15-20 yards with it. Champions don't give an inch; England were offering a mile at times. The series might well have a twist but by the time the game ended, England's image had been dented.

There is no aura in cricket anymore, no runaway leader in tennis, it seems mandatory that every major in golf must have a different champion, and Formula One is struggling post-Schumacher. Only Spain in football can now claim to have that aura. Unless, of course, that occasional cricketer from Jamaica scorches the track at the Olympic stadium in the next couple of weeks.

Harsha Bhogle commentates on the IPL and other cricket, and is a television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here