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Daniel Brettig

Australia have an identity problem

Playing the "Australian way", verbally and tactically, has yielded mixed results. And it does not help that the snarl of the Waugh-era team does not sit naturally on Steve Smith's men

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Australia: too nice to kick ass?  •  AFP

Australia: too nice to kick ass?  •  AFP

Following Australia's Test-series hiding in Sri Lanka, much focus rested on how the batsmen were unable to find a workable method against spin, and on the touring spin bowlers struggling to match the efforts of their Asian counterparts.
However, the strongest post-mortem line to emerge from the captain, Steven Smith, was less about technique than attitude and noise. "We've got a pretty quiet group and we need that sort of energy, come South Africa and the summer as well," he said between tours. "I thought in the Test series in Sri Lanka we lacked a fair bit of energy in the field and that probably cost us at times.
"We've got some pretty quiet characters, so even if it's not making noise verbally, it might be just about having a bit more presence and the old Australian way of puffing your chest out and making your presence felt for the quieter guys. It's trying to do that, get into the game that way and try to provide some sort of energy that way."
Whether or not Smith's suggested approach is the correct one, the issue he raised was pertinent. This is very much an Australian team still seeking to find an identity for itself after a series of retirements. The performances of the Test team in Sri Lanka, and of the ODI side currently in South Africa, suggest they are still a ways off.
The search for an identity and mode of operation true to the team is not new. It may surprise some to note that many of the greatest sides ever assembled went on just such a quest. West Indies worked their way to a position of world authority only after reasoning they had to become harder-nosed than the "great entertainers" label they had worn since the 1961 Tied Test. Steve Waugh's Australian side stumbled early, enduring a decidedly indifferent first two Test series before embarking on a run of 16 consecutive wins. Finding the right level of team discipline and mutual respect was part of this, as was setting lofty goals to focus the mind.
Clearly Smith and the coach, Darren Lehmann, need to find the right approach for this team, as distinct from that of the combination led by Michael Clarke that preceded it. "The old Australian way" is one such, but far from the only one. There could be no greater contrast, for instance, between Brad Haddin, the outspoken wicketkeeper and vice-captain, who remains close to Smith, and his successor behind the stumps, Peter Nevill. I spoke to Nevill recently about his perception as a "neat and quiet" wicketkeeper.
"I think that's a common misconception, saying that I'm not vocal, because I'd be the most vocal person on the field - it's just purely directed towards our team," Nevill said. "But if Steve was to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'I'd like a bit more of that out of you', then I'd certainly oblige.
"Even without thinking about it, you find a nice little equilibrium where you're comfortable operating at. For some guys, they like to get into a verbal contest, and they find that gets the best out of them. I've never needed to do that to get myself in that optimal space. It hasn't been something I've ever thought would that help me play better if I did that'."
Most dangerous to Smith's team would be trying to take on a persona inauthentic to the group of players currently wearing the baggy green. The search for a team identity was central to the experience of the former New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum, and as he related in his Cowdrey Lecture, it did not begin until the Black Caps realised, during a grim South African tour, that they had been pretending for too long:
"Ultimately we concluded that individually and collectively we lacked character. The key for all of us was, the team had no 'soul'. We were full of bluster and soft as putty. It was the first time I had really stopped to consider this in 11 years of international cricket.
Recognising many of the young men under his command at Somerset to be quiet, diffident types, Chris Rogers encouraged a brand of hard cricket that did not force them into overt displays of braggadocio
"The significance of what occurred that evening day was that we recognised that we had to change. We wanted to personify the traits that we identified in New Zealanders - to be humble and hard-working. We wanted to be respected by our long-suffering fans in New Zealand. We wanted to be respected by our opposition; and before we could demand this we had to learn to respect them."
Later McCullum reflected that this was not a one-size-fits-all approach. It worked because he was leading the New Zealand team: "The things that worked for us may not work for everyone. In changing the way we approached the game, and respected the opposition, we wanted to be true to our national identity."
Herein lies the dilemma for Smith and Lehmann. To play the game "the Australian way", both verbally and tactically, has been shown to work at home. But on foreign shores it is now patently clear that it does not. Further complicating things is that most of the men under Smith's command are not the loud and rambunctious characters of old. If anything, they may at times find themselves identifying more with McCullum's approach.
It is important, as well, for the Australians to understand that not every team from down under has played the game exactly the same way. Allan Border's collective had more of an obvious snarl than Mark Taylor's, personified by the likes of Merv Hughes, yet they played the game more conservatively. Taylor gave way to Waugh and a style that became uncompromising and arrogant in the most overpowering way, before Ricky Ponting dialled back somewhat on stratagems like sending the opposition in to bat, or forsaking nightwatchmen.
In the aftermath of Monkeygate, Ponting's men felt hemmed in from making unbridled attacks on opponents, yet at the same time struggled to be nimble enough to take the fight to them with bat or ball rather than words. Clarke's sense of adventure on the field corrected that to a large degree, but also started a trend of overseas humiliations that Ponting, ever the fighter, had largely been able to avoid.
There is one more example worth noting of a team finding itself this year, in the English county competition. As an Australian Test player, Chris Rogers was not always totally comfortable with the extremes of aggression practised by some of his team-mates, though he acknowledged the effectiveness of the approach.
Granted the opportunity, with Somerset in his final first-class season, to define a team for himself, Rogers assessed both the club and the players within it. Recognising many of the young men under his command to be quiet, diffident types, he encouraged a brand of hard cricket that did not force them into overt displays of braggadocio.
Instead he sought unstinting effort and attention to detail, and enjoyment of shared success. In doing so, Somerset went within a day of their first ever County Championship title, crucially finding a way to defeat Yorkshire outright at Headingley. In recent years that has been close to an unthinkable result, much as success in India has become a similarly distant dream for Australia. From his hotel rooms in Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, that is a tale for Smith to ponder.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig