December 18, 2013

A pretty big deal for Australia

Their regeneration has come from unpromising circumstances, and all levels of their leadership have had plenty to do with it

Ryan Harris: whole-hearted © Getty Images

The regeneration of Australian cricket is complete. Never was it better illustrated than with the ball bowled by Ryan Harris to Alastair Cook at the start of England's second innings in Perth and by the celebration that followed. The ball was a gem, a beautifully pitched little inswinger that nipped away just a touch off the seam to burst through the defence of the most bloody-minded opening batsman in the game. The celebration was an uncharacteristically extravagant thing, as Harris, completely unable to contain himself, spread his wings to run and fly. They eventually caught him, to wrap their arms around him, but it took some doing.

Commentating on Channel Nine, the perceptive Mark Taylor noted that Harris was similar to Malcolm Marshall, a reference to his method and skill. Taylor is right. Marshall had that remarkable ability to make the ball kiss the surface at pace, moving it this way and that and exposing flaws in batsmen who appeared impregnable to others. Marshall was a whippet of a man; Harris is different and not called "Rhino" for nothing. His pace comes from an enviable alliance of rhythm and strength and the movement of the ball from a perfect position of the wrist at release. Of the faster bowlers to have worn the green and gold jumper since Glenn McGrath said good night and good luck, Harris stands out. Day upon day, hour upon hour, he brings the best of the spirit of Australia to the team.

This regeneration has come from unpromising circumstances, and already the Australians must know that sterner challenges await, especially abroad and most immediately in South Africa. Made to look foolish at times in England and castigated for the catalogue of injuries that still rob Australia of their best young bowling talent, the selectors have had most of the team forced upon them. Frankly there was not another seamer or spinner worthy of the honour and so Harris, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon were thrown together and sent round to Craig McDermott's place for a barbecue. They talked a bit of cricket and a bit of nonsense, shared a few beers around the barbie and came out firing like Lillee, Thomson, Walker and Mallett - the class of 1974-75.

It is one of the great stories: the one about the Australian team captained by Michael Clarke, which was two batsmen light and down to its last four decent bowlers but gave England the most fearful thumping.

How on earth?

Leadership first and foremost. Clarke is a cracking cricket captain - imaginative and full of purpose. Indisputably the boss, he sets standards of preparation and performance that match his esteemed predecessors. He has sympathy in his arsenal but finally got some players who didn't need it. The nannying in England really grated. The simple swap of a few men has led to a seismic shift in intensity, resistance and belief.

At a lunch on the day before this most revealing match, Allan Border said he thought the difference in the Australian team was attitude. He liked the hard-nosed look and felt the Australian way was to get in the face of an opponent with a clear show of aggression. Well, Clarke has done that all right and encouraged a few of his charges down the same road. That nice-looking George Bailey gives them a mouthful, and having David Warner back in the side sure sorts the fight-club approach. Even Mitchell Johnson, a gentle soul really, has turned into Iago's green-eyed monster. They are on the line, indeed at times have crossed it, but Clarke is smart enough to throttle back before the ugly tag is attached. Impressively, each Australian player applauded Ben Stokes' magnificent hundred, a trick England missed when Warner and Shane Watson achieved the same.

One Test match takes a week of a man's life. One match! The more that man overthinks it, the more he disappears into the abyss. The trick is to lighten the load, dissolve the enormity, free the mind

It has always seemed unlikely to me that bowlers who are trying to knock an opponent's block off are then obliged to applaud his success against them. Harris did so with genuine warmth, not a passing wave. "Rhino" is a proper hero. He bats like he wants to end each innings with a sentence for ball-slaughter. He fields as if each day is his last on this planet and he smiles when the game brings him pleasure. He almost cried when the microphone was thrust to his mouth at the close of proceedings. Ye gods man, get a grip!

Among the other leaders are McDermott, who has the bowlers in the palm of his hand. "Pitch it up," he says loudly, "and if not, hit 'em on the head." It is a culture. Even now, McGrath reckons its simple: "Hit the top of off stump with a couple of bouncers thrown in," he says, before adding, "it's just not that hard." Fancy never finding out that bowling is hard.

Mike Young, the freewheelin' American-born baseball coach, was brought back from stalking deer and hunting bears to chew tobacco, crouch by the boundary edge on one knee and remind the players about the value and fun in fielding. It cannot be a coincidence that stumps have been hit with greater regularity and wonderful catches taken as a matter of course.

So to Darren Lehmann, a man of the people. Unsurprisingly, the coach is receiving a mighty rap. Australia likes its winners organic and Lehmann's story is exactly as you would imagine it might be - unfussy and still driven by its roots. His impact on the team is fascinating and it should neither be underestimated nor overestimated. He has, in a subtle way, returned the players to the amateur days that made Australian cricket so irresistible. Of course, the schedule of international matches prohibits him from bringing them from paddock to plate, so to speak, but the basic principles of playing the game for its own sake are loud and clear.

A fully professional first-class system was always a threat to Australian cricket. Once cricket is everything, it is nothing like it can be. In itself, the word "professionalism" leads to misconceptions about effort and preparation, for it implies that any stone left unturned is a failure of responsibility to self and team. The reality is that one Test match takes a week of a man's life. One match! The more that man overthinks it, the more he disappears into the abyss. The trick is to lighten the load, dissolve the enormity, free the mind.

Lehmann does this. He urges players to improve and he urges them to relax. He gives slack, while taking no nonsense. He cares little for excuses, only for the facts. The mantra might be: make some runs, take some wickets, hold your catches and we will have a good night on the end of it.

Imagine the hoolie those cricketers had last night. Four years, three months and 25 days since their country last held the urn, they had it back. It really matters in Australia. It is still on terrestrial television for a start and everyone, everywhere, is given a feel for it. Now, all those people know who the bloody hell that bloke Ryan Harris is and if they want a role model for the generation that lies in waiting, they should choose him.

England appear lost in their own seriousness. Time to take a leaf out of Lehmann's book. If cricket is everything, it is nothing like it can be. After all, in the ten-match series, the score is 3-3 with two to play. There is always an upside.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK