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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Wayne on December 19, 2013, 0:03 GMT

    I do agree with Mark Nicholas that the turn around has been a team effort. I think Lehman and his support staff have done a great job in instilling some confidence into the team. Although we were trounced in India, we were more than competitive against the Saffers and England away. Winning breeds confidence. I would like to think that we will be competitive in South Africa next year. Over the past 5 years, our away record has not been that bad for an ok side. We have won in Sri Lanka, West Indies and drew in South Africa. In my opinion the pitches suit us in South Africa. We are yet to lose a series in South Africa since they came back to test cricket in the early 1990's. South Africa have some wonderful cricketers and truly deserve to be overwhelming favourites. I would like to think that the Ozzi brain's trust are watching the current SA V India series taking notes. We are going to need to have excellent plans against the long SA batting line up if we are to be competitive.

  • Murray on December 18, 2013, 23:26 GMT

    I honestly believe Brad Haddin deserves recognition in our leadership team. He has been simply magnificent this series. @ AussiePhoenix agree 100% - wish we could bottle him ! A quick note of interest....... Harris is bowling quicker than Steyn did in 1st day V India. PS I hope Mitchell Marsh watched Ben Stokes VERY closely, no question in my mind he's always been a better player.

  • Dummy4 on December 18, 2013, 22:44 GMT

    "Impressively, each Australian player applauded Ben Stokes' magnificent hundred, a trick England missed when Warner and Shane Watson achieved the same." Exactly.

  • Samuel on December 18, 2013, 18:34 GMT

    I'd argue that the regeneration of Australia is far from complete - in fact, this team is almost a tacit admission that the attempted regeneration failed. Old heads like Haddin and Johnson, who many were screaming to never be seen again in an Australia shirt after the last Ashes down under, have come back into the side as the younger players elected to take their places either aren't up to standard or are permanently injured (it is entirely to their credit that they have come back in & performed brilliantly though). And the fact remains that Australia have in general still been pretty damn good at home even despite a relative lack of quality for their standards - even in the loss to South Africa last year they were the better side for a large part of the series and it was only in the 3-1 loss to England that they were genuinely poor. So no, Australian cricket is not regenerated, not yet anyway. There's still a tonne of work to do there. But always better to start from a positive base!

  • Mashuq on December 18, 2013, 17:20 GMT

    You're a better writer than a commentator, Mark, but well done in both (but there'll only ever be one Greigy). This is a particularly good piece, especially the recognition of Rhino as the quintessential Aussie hero, although it's sacrilegious of Tubby to compare him to your team-mate Malcolm. Agree entirely @timmyw on (December 18, 2013, 13:01 GMT) about pulling our heads in a little bit when playing South Africa mainly because, as you say, our batting still leaves an awful lot to be desired. We need to get Hughes into the playing XI in South Africa (and believe me I've never been a fan of his), but Bailey, sadly, just won't cut it. I'm really looking forward to actually seeing a couple of those tests in person. Hoping Rhino plays and the away record in South Africa stays intact!

  • Frank on December 18, 2013, 13:32 GMT

    I like you more and more as a commentator and writer every day and for the first time, during the winter ashes series I missed you, slats and JB, as we only receive the sky commentary and I had to put up with the likes of atherton, Nasser and possibly the worst commentator of all time Strauss. Anyway, I think you've been great during this series as a writer and a tv host. I have also loved the additions to the nine team aka huss, warnie, Vaughn and of course bumble

  • Allan on December 18, 2013, 13:14 GMT

    Another fine read. I think this is what makes Harris probably the premier player behind Clarke (as a leader, not just player). Harris sets a tone in the team which no-one can ignore. Try, try and try again, and if it hurts try harder. Everybody knows he's playing on one knee and each match could be the end of his career. You don't see him slacking off in the field, getting special treatment, shirking duties (as some 'star' players in other teams do). Nope, Harris just keeps on giving. And his numbers show it, but all you really need is to watch a replay of that ball from the start of the second innings. Where would the team be without him?

  • Tim on December 18, 2013, 13:01 GMT

    I strongly disagree that Australia have a shot at being number one in South Africa. That team will show a lot more fight than this tired English one has. I wonder how this Australian attack will go against the likes of Amla, Kallis, Smith, De Villiers in their own back yard. Perhaps even DeKok will be playing and he looks pretty good to me. Even South Africa's lesser batsman are strong. I thought our batting line up was better last time we were there and we were shot out for 47 in one innings by Steyn (Who I think is the best in the world) and Philander. So before everyone gets carried away with this achievement, which by the way I think is astounding I reckon we should just pull our heads in a little bit and realise all this talk of Australia being number one is a bit pie in the sky, and just enjoy the moment. If they win in India and South Africa the same manner as here then sure. I think our batting still leaves an awful lot to be desired. Keep that Mo Johnson. Keep that Mo son.

  • Izmi on December 18, 2013, 11:53 GMT

    After a period of nearly 6 years and several ups and downs it seems Australia is back in business to be ranked as the number one team in world cricket . A 5 nil series victory in the ashes and a series win against South Africa would make them a formidable side in world cricket once again. I reckon coach Darren Lehman and Craig McDermott have done a tremendous job with virtually the same team of players that were written off less than six months ago under former coach Mickey Arthur. The whole attitude of the team seems to have changed for the better and players seem to be enjoying their game which could be the reason for the success in the current ashes series. Already there were promising signs in the last ashes in England and the limited over series against India that this current team was going to win the ashes. They have not only outplayed the poms in batting, bowling and fielding but have virtually destroyed the England team that it would take a very long time to recover.

  • rob on December 18, 2013, 11:35 GMT

    @ Drakester Bomber: I'll play along with their little game. All right, 3-3 it is then. I'm happy with that because wasn't it supposed to be 7 or even 8-0 Englands way by the time the Aussie leg was decided? 3-3 looks a hell of a lot better than 6-0 so Ok, bring it on I say.

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