Wisden Cricketer / Features

August 2005

How the Aussies went mental

Australians did not gain a psychological hold on their opponents overnight. They have been working on it for generations. Gideon Haigh explains.

Gideon Haigh

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Australians did not gain a psychological hold on their opponents overnight. They have been working on it for generations. Gideon Haigh explains.



Allan Border: widely credited with the idiom "mental disintegration." © Getty Images
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Cricket neologisms come and go. The "corridor of uncertainty"? A bit naff now, really. "Back of a length"? The pretentious version of "short of a length", innit? "Bowling a heavy ball"? A vestige of the convict game, perhaps.

One recent idiom, however, shows a definite staying power. "Mental disintegration" is again the leitmotiv of the Australian approach to this summer's Ashes series. "Mental disintegration?" said Ricky Ponting in response to a question on the day of his team's departure. "That's what it's all about, really, trying to keep England under pressure from ball one of the series until the series ends. That's what our whole cricket theme, if you like, is based on."

If we like? We like a lot. A Google search for the phrase "mental disintegration" produces 228,000 hits. One half expects it to see it written as mental disintegrationTM, under licence from Steve Waugh's sports marketing company, with mental toughnessTM its wholly-owned subsidiary.

Repetition, of course, has diluted it to banality, rather as it has one-day cricket. "Mental disintegration" is now just the portmanteau version of "pressure", which was probably first inserted in a soundbite by Alfred Mynn. But it did not start out that way.

It is Allan Border who has been credited with the concept, during his pitiless 1989 campaign to regain the Ashes when he was so famously bloody-minded to everyone that the Queen was lucky not to get an earful about the fall of Singapore. He says, however, that he recalls its origination at the end of the tour, in the dressing room during the sixth Test at The Oval, and ascribes it to his fellow Queenslander Carl Rackemann, who had spent the tour as a supernumerary.

The context was a conversation about a declaration on the final morning. Australia were 4-0 up and had England on the rack again. But, while some players were urging a closure and setting a target, Rackemann pressed for the full Torquemada treatment. "Full mental and physical disintegration" would result only if Australia batted longer than England expected, forcing them into the demoralising state of bowling and fielding in futility. Border was persuaded. After all, why did England, so feeble all summer, deserve a target? The proposition he proffered at lunch on the last day - 403 in 65 overs - ensured that only Australia could win. It might well have sufficed had not bad light ruled out the last 20.5 overs with England 143 for 5.

"Mental disintegration", then, originally conveyed not an expression of totality, as Ponting is now employing it, but a matter of degree, like the extra notch on Nigel's amp in This Is Spinal Tap. This was the way it entered Waugh's lexicon four years later, when Border applied it at Headingley. Border and Waugh batted most of the second day in partnership, being 175 and 144 at the close respectively. But the former surprised the latter by batting almost another hour the next morning with the objective being to cause "further mental and physical disintegration". England slid quickly to 50 for 3, barely lasted the rest of the day and were rounded up by an innings and 148 runs - a result that also disintegrated Graham Gooch's captaincy.

Like everything in cricket, this approach has ancient antecedents. Cricket is a game in which the act of aggression and the instinct to dominate have always operated within certain bounds of propriety and taste - something lately given actual black letter form in the 2000 revision of the MCC's Laws of Cricket. Australia, traditionally, have set those bounds a little wider than England, understanding intuitively that they need be only a little wider to represent a considerable advantage.

Perhaps mental disintegration's forefather is the immovable Warwick Armstrong, that roundhead in the age of cavaliers. This time a hundred years ago he was bowling outside leg stump to packed leg-side fields, disputing umpiring decisions and remonstrating with opponents - a truculence more unsettling in times more polite.

Armstrong even psyched out Jack Hobbs, when the latter benefited from an umpire's indulgence at Headingley in July 1909. "The Australians made a rare fuss," wrote Jack Hobbs in My Cricket Memories. "They gathered together on the field and confabulated. The chief offender was Warwick Armstrong, who got very nasty and unsportsmanlike, refusing to accept the umpire's decision. This upset me. I did not know whether I was standing on my head or my heels, with the consequence that two balls later I let one go, never even attempting to play it, and it bowled me. I still bear this incident in mind against Armstrong."

Armstrong was certainly the antipodean archetype that Percy Fender had in mind when he gave a speech to the Junior Imperial League on the eve of Australia's 1926 visit to England in which he sought to summarise the Australian way of cricket - its intensity, its lack of inhibition - which he contrasted with more staid English mores. "We are going to see certain things in the Australian game which are not to their detriment but which are not in our game," he forecast. "We are up against a lot of things which we don't do but which other people do." According to Fender's biographer Richard Streeton, Australians were aghast at such an imputation; the truth, of course, always hurts.

Nor is it a coincidence that the most successful of England's captains have seemed almost Australian in their combativeness and obstinacy. Fender saw Douglas Jardine as "a man cast in the toughest Australian mould, ‡ la Armstrong"; Neville Cardus thought it "a pity his [Jardine's] opponent is not Warwick Armstrong". Len Hutton, whose boyhood primer was The Game's The Thing by Armstrong's contemporary Monty Noble, drew freely on Australian inspiration: "I admire the Australians' approach to the game; they have the utmost ability for producing that little extra, or instilling into the opposition an inferiority complex that can have, and has had, a crushing effect. Australians have no inhibitions."

If anything, then, Border rediscovered an Australian tradition rather than establishing one - a tradition that might be felt to stretch back to the country's colonial inheritance and the desire to shrug it off.

In perhaps the most famous essay about cricket by an Australian intellectual, `Cricket versus Republicanism' (1977), the philosopher Robert Stove gave a memorably succinct explanation for the Ashes edge his country enjoyed: "The margin of superiority is slight but it is consistent and therefore calls for explanation. I have heard dozens of theories advanced to account for this. My own belief is that it is due to a difference in attitude towards the opponent: that whereas the Australians hate the Poms, the Poms only despise the Australians."

In one of the more delightful essays about cricket by an English intellectual, `On The Boundary' (1981), Melvyn Bragg described his country's habitual recourse: low-level resentment. He recalled being stirred from a snooze at the screening of an Ingmar Bergman film after a particularly galling defeat and interrupting Liv Ullmann's monologue with an audible grunt of "bloody Australians!"

The Border risorgimento did, however, have an additional dimension, passed down to the present. Australian teams of the last 20 years have been perhaps the most ardent apostles of the doctrine of play as "work" - a devotion instilled by that formidable taskmaster Bob Simpson during his decade as coach.

Practice under Simpson, and later Geoff Marsh and John Buchanan, became more than a means of enhancing skills. It served purposes of building collegial feeling, and showing that the Australians meant business. "We never talk about hard work, just valuable work that has to be done and therefore might as well be enjoyed," explained Simpson. "I just tell the players that it's an opportunity to show what they can do, to show off, if you like."

It had an effect. John Wright described seeing Simpson orchestrating a fielding drill on the lawn of the hotel at Chandigarh in October 1987, the morning after Australia had beaten New Zealand in a gruelling one-day match. Wright said he knew then Australia would win the World Cup. There is no doubt that not only have Australia been stronger, fitter and better prepared than any of their international opponents over the last two decades, but that this Stakhanovite reputation has preceded them.

In theory the `hard work' solution, with its underlying conviction that there are no limits to a player's potential for improvement, is accessible to all. In practice it is a seed that often falls on stony ground. Both Simpson and Buchanan brought their philosophies to England, at Leicestershire and Middlesex respectively, and got nowhere. "The big problem with Bob," complained Leicestershire's James Whitaker afterwards, "was that he wanted us all to be Test cricketers." As Simpson responded: "Just fancy that!"

The difference in the belief in the capacity for continuous improvement in Australia and England has had some illuminating manifestations over the last decade or so. Consider, for example, the contrasting fortunes of Darren Gough and Glenn McGrath - not as bowlers but as batsmen. When they first met, in Australia in 1994-95, Gough had the makings of an allrounder - or a `newbotham', as such players are known in England. He had all the shots, plus some of his own design, which he paraded in a bravura half-century at Sydney.

When Gough left Australia, it was with a Test batting average touching 35. But over his next 50 Tests, this average dwindled to 12. His batting became ineffectual, even ridiculous, like an annoying comic catchphrase. More embarrassing still was Gough's indifference to his declining effectiveness; ah well, he comments airily in his autobiography, he "never was one for keeping up an end", as there was "no fun in that".

At the time of that first encounter, McGrath was averaging less than 2. A box placed in front of the stumps might have done as well. This was amusing to everyone except McGrath, who never looked other than baffled and betrayed after each cheap dismissal.

McGrath, amid a certain amount of derision, took on as a coach Steve Waugh himself. The investment yielded dividends more or less immediately when McGrath lingered 10 minutes at the crease at Sabina Park in May 1995, allowing Waugh to achieve his only Test double-hundred. McGrath's improvement since has been steady. By the end of his next tour of England, McGrath's average had increased to just under 4. His last 450 runs have been garnered at a tick under 9. The sum may seem paltry but in the space of nine runs from McGrath a Gilchrist might add 30 or 40. McGrath's autobiography devotes to his batting an entire, typically earnest, chapter. "You see, the way I look at cricket is there are 11 batsmen in a cricket side," he insisted. "We all have a job to do and we're expected to do it with a certain aplomb."

Seldom has the doctrine of mental disintegration been so methodically enforced as at the Gabba last November, when McGrath joined Jason Gillespie with their team 118 ahead on first innings just after tea on the third day. The teams seemed close to parity as the New Zealanders contemplated their second dig in advance. But, with nothing other than orthodox strokeplay, the last Australian pair made increasingly merry. They added a record 114 by their separation, their partnership lasting longer than the eventual response of the visitors - a demoralised 76.

The interlude, nonetheless, was not merely about Australian strength. The New Zealanders were complicit in their own downfall, slack bowling and outcricket allowing the partnership to establish itself. Advantages in cricket are not always taken; sometimes they are ceded.

Such is the case with Australia's psychological edge in the Ashes: it is something they have both acquired and been given. It is, therefore, in England's power to change. And, if we could get through a whole a series without any further need to talk of mental disintegration, one could almost resign oneself to occasional use of "corridor of uncertainty" and "back of a length".

© The Wisden Cricketer

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