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Kevin Mitchell on an unusually sloppy Australia
Some passages of play live in the memory more starkly than others, for reasons that have nothing to do with glorious cover drives or great catches, and everything to do with intangibles such as bloody-mindedness and commitment to the cause. They are the moments when you can almost see into a player's soul.
One that is impossible to forget is Mike Atherton's eyeballing duel with Allan Donald in the fourth Test of the 1998 tour at Trent Bridge as England chased down 247 to win. It was such a collision of attitudes and temperaments that it could have been written by Shakespeare.
At the Waca in the early 1980s Dennis Lillee looked ready to punch Javed Miandad's lights out in an incident that did neither much credit but certainly made for interesting television.
Of the current wild men, Andre Nel can be relied on to stir up reaction in the opposition with the odd snarl. The coolest man on the planet, Chris Gayle, only has to lift an eyebrow to get opponents riled - or the Australians anyway.
And who among Inzi's Pakistan team-mates would dare go near him after he'd run himself out yet again? Shane Warne, as his recent sledging of Ian Bell showed, might not have mastered the art of wit and repartee but he always kept the pot boiling.
More recently another moment to stir the blood arrived at the MCG midway through the first match in the ODI finals between Australia and England. England were progressing comfortably, 149 for 3, needing 105 from 102 balls to win, with Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood well set, each having compiled decent half-centuries. Australia had collapsed from 170 for 1 to 252, falling eight deliveries short of batting out their 50 overs and were unusually slack in the field, even after early wickets had put England under pressure for the eleventeenth time this tour.
Glenn McGrath, particularly, was out of sorts on his 37th birthday and final appearance for Australia in Melbourne. He dropped Bell early, an appalling miss in the deep. He was smacked on the head taking a return at the bowling crease. Collingwood cracked him for a nonchalant straight six. He fumbled and fumed, a teapot waiting to spout.
Elsewhere the ground fielding was sloppy, the returns poor. In short, everything was going wrong for Australia. And that doesn't happen very often or for very long.
Then Brett Lee, always such a heroic trier, was brought back. In the outfield the mood was transformed in an instant. Matthew Hayden looked as if he wanted to murder someone. Brad Hogg, tongue permanently out, was manic, clapping his hands, eyes blazing. The Michaels, Clarke and Hussey, bounced on their toes, eager to get into the game. Ricky Ponting, who had not looked ecstatic at some of his side's ordinary fielding, was on edge. The whole team seemed energised as if they'd taken a communal shot of some banned substance.
It is said cricket is not a game you can play revved up to red all the time. And that is true. But there are times when a common feeling runs through the side, unspoken but palpable. After nearly two hours of torpor, you sensed Australia were about to explode.
And Lee struck. Firstly, he risked serious injury with a dash-and-dive at the batsman's end in trying to run out Bell. He ignored Ponting's offer to help him to his feet and marched with purpose and fire back to his mark. Next ball ... he produced a quite brilliant 94mph yorker that went through Bell and the celebrations began. Game on again. It was a moment of extreme emotion and high drama during an otherwise irrelevant one-day match that attracted a poor crowd in a town where a stranger's funeral is considered a potential ticket-seller.
Why did Lee stretch and strain so valiantly in such a lost cause in such an ordinary game? Because, probably, he can't play any other way. It illustrated vividly the intensity of this Australian team. They are never beaten - even when they seem to be. They have that invaluable quality of being able to draw on reserves not seemingly available to others.
It's as if they all just know that this is the time to get serious. Opponents are aware of this, of course; they're just usually powerless to do anything about it. England over the past few years have attained a similar level of self-belief - who could forget their win in the dark at Karachi, or Flintoff's young team performing minor miracles at Chennai, or, indeed, winning the Ashes back (if we are allowed to mention that again)? But, pointedly, so shattered were they after being consistently hammered by the Australians, that doubts began inexorably to crowd out their confidence.
It leaks into the commentary box too. I might have been dreaming but I'm sure I heard Geoff Boycott say, when Australia had reached 170 for 1, that they would go on to get 290-odd and England would be lucky to reach 260.
So what happened next? Collingwood held his nerve and, front of his shirt drenched, saw England home with his second century in succession. "One of the great one-day innings," as Atherton described it.
And, yes, it was only another ODI ... but tell that to the players involved in a game where emotions ran extraordinarily high. Long may it be the case that they care enough.
Kevin Mitchell is chief sports writer for The Observer
© The Wisden Cricketer
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