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Through clouds of overthought and failure, a better Australian team emerges

Equally important as the series sweep over Sri Lanka is that the Australians have earned back some of the respect they had lost

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
The four Australian century-makers from the Canberra Test  •  Getty Images

The four Australian century-makers from the Canberra Test  •  Getty Images

"Do. Don't think ... don't hope. Do. At least you can come off and say, 'I did this ... at least I did something'."
This snatch of the former Hawthorn coach John Kennedy's halftime speech to his players during the 1975 VFL Grand Final is one of the more celebrated pieces of sporting oratory in Australian history. At the end of a summer in which the national men's cricket team has had to reckon without the critical talents of Steven Smith and David Warner due to their Newlands scandal bans, it was worth pondering just how much the collective led by Tim Paine and coached by Justin Langer had been able to sort effective actions from complicated thoughts, hopes and ambitions.
Given the intensity and deep thought that Langer in particular has committed to the job since he took over as coach back in May last year, a fairly long list of decisions might now be put down to overthinking, however good intentioned, and also the mental drain of Test cricket:
Mitchell Starc bowling at first change in the Perth ODI. Aaron Finch as a Test opener. Marnus Labuschagne as a No. 3. Peter Handscomb in, then out, then in for one Test, then out again. Pace bowlers electing to pitch short with a still-new ball on day one in Sydney. Marcus Stoinis in the Test squad. Matthew Wade not batting high enough to be considered. Kurtis Patterson picked from outside the original Sri Lanka squad. Will Pucovski called up one game after returning to cricket from mental health issues and then not chosen. Glenn Maxwell not being selected at all. One (Mitchell Marsh), two (Josh Hazlewood), three (Pat Cummins), four (Travis Head) vice-captains.
Through all these contentious and sometimes overwrought decisions, there was a sense of learning by trial and error, in much the same way as Cricket Australia and its rights holders unpicked the complex realities of dual broadcasts on Seven and Fox Cricket, alongside three radio networks all equally eager for their regular pieces of access. No two players summed this up for Australia better than Starc and Usman Khawaja, players expected to take on senior mantles in the absence of Smith and Warner but waylaid by crises of confidence, injury and distractions outside of the game.
We've got some really good characters, some really strong characters, and people we can build a really strong Australian cricket future on
"A real lesson in a lot of the younger guys in the team (is that) Test cricket is not always easy, no matter how good you are. You have to work really hard," Paine observed in the aftermath of the Canberra Test. "Whilst those two guys haven't had outstanding summers or as good a summer as they would have liked, the way they went about it at training and the way they led our group in terms of effort and how you prepare to play Test cricket was great to see.
"For the younger guys to see them go through a really tough period, not throw in the towel and keep working away and get the results they did in this Test was a really good lesson in perseverance. I know a lot of the young guys will really learn a lot from that."
There were differing approaches for Khawaja and Starc to reach some kind of improvement. Khawaja leaned heavily on the comfort and support of his wife Rachel while sticking more or less to the same plans and thoughts he has long held close to his batting game. He eventually found it somewhat easier to concentrate simply on the next ball in what was at best a moderately challenging situation in the third innings against a Sri Lankan team already well and truly behind in the match.
Starc, meanwhile, was fortified by the support of team-mates both in public and private, but also resorted to sticking on the blinkers to avoid the myriad opinions of commentators and supporters. At the same time, he looked outside the team bubble - gilded or not - for the morsels of advice he needed to be who he always has been: an extremely fast, intimidating left-arm bowler with a hint of unpredictability. New South Wales bowling coach Andre Adams has certainly had a better week in Canberra than his national team equivalent David Saker.
For Paine, the clarity Starc and Khawaja were able to find at the end of a long and largely disappointing international summer was a useful lesson in terms of the game's mental dimensions. So often against India, the Australians appeared either distracted or harried into errors they might not have otherwise made, caused both by the quality of Virat Kohli's team but also the weight of the occasion. Granted a simpler challenge against Sri Lanka, they were able to shape their games into more sustained and constructive displays.
"When everyone is struggling in sport and cricket in particular, a lot of it is in your own head," Paine said. "At times we've got to find ways to get out of our own head and Starcy was probably a pretty good example of that.
"I was really proud of the way our boys rallied around Starcy and, even when he wasn't at his best, kept reminding him of how important he is to our team and how we think he's one of the best bowlers in the world. Eventually I think we got through to him and I thought he bowled superbly this game. I think it was a real lesson for all of us but particularly the young guys in our group."
Though there were plenty of unknowns for Australia at the start of the international season, it must be said that a final scoreline of 2-1 losers to India (somewhat flatteringly) and 2-0 victors over Sri Lanka (an accurate reflection) was a good pointer as to where Paine and Langer's men stood. In making a couple of straightforward selection calls to include Joe Burns and Patterson on the basis of consistent performance, they were able, too, to unearth a pair of players likely to ideally complement Smith and Warner in England later this year.
And if Paine and Langer both seemed exhausted by thoughts, words and deeds over the past four months, they were also content that in terms of the way the team's players conducted themselves, they had pulled back some measure of respect from an Australian public that had so decried them in the wake of Newlands. "I'm really proud of the way we've gone about it," Paine said. "We spoke at the start of the summer that our main priority was to win back the respect of our Australian public and our cricket fans.
"Sitting here now, I think we've gone a long way to doing that. I think we've still got a little bit of work to do, but we're on the right track. I couldn't be prouder of the way our coaching staff, our support staff and our playing group have gone about things in some really difficult times, and it's in these difficult times that you see the sort of characters that you've got in your group. It's confirmed to us that we've got some really good characters, some really strong characters, and people we can build a really strong Australian cricket future on."
For all of Kennedy's exhortations, the Hawthorn side of 1975 were not able to do as he asked, turning a 20-point half-time deficit to North Melbourne into a 55-point defeat. Even so, Kennedy's message lived on, particularly after the team went on to reverse the result over the Kangaroos in 1976. It's that sort of longer-term success that Australia will hope to get after the many travails and missteps of 2018-19.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig