Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Why the Aussies keep winning

Even though it was stunning how Australia snatched victory from the jaws of nothing in the second Ashes test on a featherbed in Adelaide, it wasn't suprising. It wasn't surprising because this generation of cricket fans has seen that team pull incredible feats of heroism on a regular basis.

So what makes Australia so special? This last test showcases a microcosm of their strengths and makes for a very interesting study. There is a lot to a winning ecosystem, so I'll focus briefly on the elements in play on the field that make them winners.

Their batsmen make time for their bowlers. All of the Aussie batsman start by batting in third gear and can motor into fifth if the situation demands it. It's in the mentality of the batsman: if a ball is to be hit, you have to try and hit it. If you don't, it's considered a failure of small proportions, but a failure. The Aussie coaches and commentators rarely criticize their batsmen for attempting legitimate shots and losing their wickets. Contrast this with other teams who tend to suck it in, grit their teeth and adopt a defensive attitude for various reasons: the fall of a wicket, the loss of some form, a tight situation. When Australia scores its runs quickly, their bowlers get extra time to bowl the opposing batsmen out. And as is well known in cricket, the team that can take 20 wickets wins the game. Witness the rare draws played out by a team like Australia and it'll give you some measure of how important this particular area is to their success.

They know how to pick and execute from multiple game plans. The Aussies may not have pioneered specific game plans for specific players and situations (The South Africans under Bob Woolmer broke new ground there), but they seem to have multiple game plans ready to execute. More importantly, they have a great success rate at picking the right one and executing it with discipline. Just as well as you have to know your opponents strenghts and weaknesses, you have to know your own. And game plans need to be flexible in order to accomodate situations. In the second Ashes test, Australia used in-form Hussey ahead of Damien Martyn to put quick runs on the board when chasing to win. Similarly, Warne assessed the mental situation of the English batsmen and the state of the game quickly before switching his disappointing leg side line to a more attacking line in the second innings, resulting in matchwinning figures.

They know how to drive home the advantage. A few deliveries from Brett Lee and Shane Warne is all it took to unsettle the English batsmen on the last day, which resulted in one horrific hour in which England lost four wickets. To turn that into a win of historic proportions takes a lot of initiative and execution, both of which the Australians have because they have a stable set of very experienced players who have won a lot in the past and know how to go about it.

They are masters at the mental game. This has been a mixed blessing for Australia. While applying pressure through a number of crude sledging techniques - infamously called "mental disintregration" by previous captain Steve Waugh - has allowed Australia to turn many a session into a favorable one, they've also attracted a lot of brickbats. As a result the Aussies are widely admired but much less respected. Recent statements made by the captain and administration to change this view have been undone by on-field behavior to the contrary, making it obvious that the purported changes have not reached below the surface.

They play each session with specific goals. The Australians set specific short term goals within sessions. The next 25 runs or the next wicket to break a partnership. Setting smaller goals relieves the pressure of any intimidating situation and allows the player to create a pattern of success by attacking smaller targets. The Aussies also construct their innings in terms of partnerships rather than individual scores. It's not as important for one or two batsmen to score big as it is to establish one or two big partnerships. This tends to spread responsibility among more players.

It helps to have four all-time greats. Captain Ricky Ponting has had enough banner years to make the ICC top ten list of all-time great batsmen. His runs by the bucketful have reinforced many totals while making light of tricky situations. The bowling department is sheparded by Shane Warne and Glen McGrath, who are #1 and #3 respectively on the list of all time wickettakers in Tests. Their bowling techniques (finger-spin for Warne and pin-point accuracy for McGrath) make them forces to reckon with on any wicket. Wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist is such a destructive force of nature with the bat - his invincibility only recently tempered by a run of poor scores - that hardly anyone mentions his work behind the wicket: he is the second leading wicketkeeper of all time in Tests.

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