Just what is the Australian way?

MS Dhoni exchanges handshakes with the Australia team, after what turned out to be his final Test Getty Images

There's often a bit of an overreach at play whenever the cricket commentariat lays its boots into "ugly" winners, particularly so in Australia. If Australian sides that are in the habit of losing get a raw deal, it's nothing in comparison to the reaction when they win in ways that don't fit within a narrow band of acceptable character traits: aggressive but respectful, attacking but not foolhardy, hard but fair, a little bit of larrikinism but don't get out playing a T20 shot.

You also know that Australian cricket is in a decent state of either self-satisfaction or complacency when the debates about the right and wrong way to win surface. Remember the early 2000s, when a certain percentage of Australians became so riddled with the cricket-fan version of white guilt that they started hating their countrymen for the way in which they eviscerated everyone before them?

Then there were smaller knock-on arguments - is it too arrogant to bat Adam Gilchrist at six and pick five bowlers? I always think of that one now whenever Australian cricket experiences some fresh sort of turbulence. Remember when that was our biggest concern?

Firstly, a clarification: it must be stated that disliking the way in which a team wins is a different thing from merely taking a personal dislike to certain characters within a cricket team - which was easy enough to do with those Australians, as it often is with rampant winners. This is about "the right way" and "the wrong way" of doing things on a cricket field. Entirely subjective, you say? Well, yes.

Anyway it's back with a vengeance, so much so that our fidgety, golden-bollocked run-machine captain Steven Smith - two Tests into a leadership reign in which his personal statistics stand at 367 runs, one win, one draw, one Man-of-the-Match award and one Border-Gavaskar Trophy, is apparently not so golden after all. That series victory? He won it "the wrong way". Defending, not attacking. Snuffing out the chance of a loss rather than funkily chasing another tick in the win column while also risking a loss. Not Clarke's way, not the Australian Way.

But what exactly is this trademark Australian Way of playing Test cricket? Traditionally we've viewed this question through the prism of leadership. That is, it's the Australian captain who dictates the style in which Tests involving Australia are played (sorry Mr Kohli, you're excused Mr Dhoni) and does so in accordance with and due respect of certain traditions.

This can be instructive, of course, but the problem is that in searching for a national cricket identity this way we tend to focus too intently on a narrow range of examples, selective ones that generally sit at polar opposite ends of the defence/attack spectrum.

Going on press reactions to the draw in Melbourne (a limited, skewed but convenient sample of general sentiment) it would seem that many assumed that Smith, having been at close proximity to the brains trust during the Clarke era, would simply stroll on to stage and turn it up to 11. To them he didn't ensure a series win, he removed the chance of a whitewash.

But what Smith actually gave the press was a glimpse, perhaps misleading, of the far different kind of captain he might be from Clarke. It was an alternative narrative and not a uninteresting one, I would posit, pushing this side on to a path distinct from that of the gung-ho attack dogs of the previous summer. The media response? Give us a cliff-top guitar solo or sod off. Oh, and here's your Grammy.

The concept of an Australian Way is seen elsewhere on a regular basis. In this India series, you might have noticed it in the way David Warner - perhaps not the arbiter most worthy of self-appointment - revealingly detailed his thoughts on the right and wrong ways to sledge opponents. The Australian Way, you'll be pleased to hear, is the right way - an international standard, in fact. Music to Brad Haddin's ears, though perhaps not to the Indian batsmen.


The Australian Way is a concept that goes back generations. When I think of it I think of it expressed most literally in Jack Pollard's Cricket - The Australian Way, the motza-selling, standard-setting instructional manual. In endless updates and revisions since it was originally published, in 1961, Pollard's manual became as much a fixture on the bookshelves of Australian homes as Gideons bibles in the bedside drawers of two-star hotels. The covers of early editions featured Bob Simpson cutting. In the '70s Doug Walters drove expansively, and then for 1980s versions it was Allan Border rather aptly hooking against West Indies.

"The problem is that in searching for a national cricket identity this way we tend to focus too intently on a narrow range of examples"

I have the Walters version of 1971, in the foreword to which Sir Donald Bradman claims that any problems with cricket "should be attributed to those who play it and to their approach". And what is the Australian approach, Sir Donald? Well, he doesn't really have time for that, he's too busy railing against "the welfare state" that has sapped the physical strength and moral fibre of "our youth". Not exactly an upper in this instance, the Don.

Flip across the page, though, and Pollard himself gets to the point pretty quickly. This is "an exclusively Australian expression of how to approach the game", he says, "and also to express the great challenge for young men to play aggressive, positive cricket".

So that's it then. Aggressive, positive cricket. The Australian Way.

Pollard's book was a pretty effective coaching manual, to be fair. It's easy to see hundreds of thousands of young Australians having picked it up and learned something about the game that they then went and put into practice. Perhaps its secret genius, though, was planting a notion that there even was a distinctly Australian way of playing the game.

Was this actually the case, though? Were you to read Pollard's book in search of the tao of Australian cricket you might be left a bit confused, because Australianness comes across a bit rubbery and the reader too is constantly pulled in different directions, often within the one page, often within the one sentence.

In his chapter on "How to Approach Your Cricket" (which for the purpose of this argument we're reading as "how to approach your cricket in an Australian way"), Brian Booth uses an anecdote about Bill Lawry chasing down and whacking to the Calcutta boundary a ball that had slipped out of Indian spinner Rusi Surti's hand as proof that "Australians always play the game hard". Barely a few paragraphs later, though, Booth implies divided opinion in Australian ranks over Wally Grout's decision not to take the bails off in the 1964 Trent Bridge Test when Fred Titmus had been knocked off his feet in the process of taking a quick single.

In the latter instance, Booth said that just as "many agreed" with Grout's sporting gesture as "others were upset". "Grout could have justifiably removed the bails," said Booth, perhaps offering his own take on the matter. But then "this was one of those good things that happen on the field" and "the game is the thing". Are you clear on that? No, me neither. If the Australian team can't decide on the Australian Way, what hope have we got?

Booth sits on the fence when it comes to walking too, praising walkers and non-walkers in equal measure. "This is an individual matter," he says, "and there are no hard and fast rules on it." Make it up as you go, the Australian Way.

The other pertinent chapter in which you hope to locate the point at which cricket becomes Australian cricket is Richie Benaud's on captaincy. Surely here there will be hints as to how Australians win games in an Australian way. Err, nope. Benaud talks almost exclusively about luck and understanding and accommodating different personalities. He lists his primary leadership influence as Keith Miller, a man never deemed fit by administrators to officially lead his country. The Australian way, it has to be said, seems a hell of a lot like the rest of the world's way.


Fast forward 43 years to Allan Border's new book, Cricket As I See It, and the first chapter doesn't mess about: "The Australian Way". Border says with some familiarity that the hallmarks of Australian cricket are aggression and an attacking spirit - "Australians try to win games of cricket from the first ball. If they get into trouble, they try to save the game." Or if you are Border in your last Test, you bat for 225 minutes for 42 and a draw out of spite for South Africa's "dull" and "boring" cricket. Pundits aren't the only ones who like to have it both ways.

The truth is that Steve Smith will need to find his own way, just as Border and the 43 other men who have filled the role had to. The Australian way will be his way. As recently as 12 months ago, you'll remember, a decent chunk of the cricket world's population didn't fancy Smith a Test batsman and that doesn't seem to have halted his progress.

If all else fails, though, perhaps Smith could at least lean on the Chappellian theory: "Look at what England have done and do the opposite".