Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Winning, the Aussie way

8th March 2020 will forever be a historic day in cricket, women’s cricket to be specific. Not just because it was the final of women’s T20 world cup, but because of an attendance of 86,174 people at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). It was the highest attendance for a women’s cricket match globally and the highest for any women’s sport event in Australia. It was a day of unprecedented enthusiasm and passion for women’s cricket. However, something not so unprecedented was an Australian domination in the final of a world cup and the Australian women’s team winning the T20 world cup for the record 5th time in last 6 attempts.

There was a lot of hype about this final in India also. The fact that India had reached the final of women’s T20 world cup for the first time was exciting enough, but 8th March being the International Women’s Day and birthday of Indian captain Harmanpreet Kaur made the media report more prominently about this final than it ever did before for a women’s match. India had convincingly defeated this Aussie team in the tournament’s opening match, with young sensation Shafali Verma taking apart the experienced Megan Schutt in the first over with 4 boundaries as well as Poonam Yadav spinning a web around the Aussie batters with 4 wickets. India came into the final on a winning streak throughout the group stage and it was touted as their best chance ever to beat the Australians in their own den and win the cup for the first time.

But what happened in the final was totally anti-climactic, from India’s point of view. Australian openers Alyssa Healy and Beth Mooney batted the opposition out of the match. The pressure of chasing a big score in a world cup final in front of a massive Aussie crowd proved too much for the Indian team and they capitulated to be bowled out under 100 runs. Unfortunately for the Indian fans, it was a painful reminder of another day in March, 17 years ago. Australian men’s team decimated the Indian team in the ODI world cup final on 23rd March 2003 in Johannesburg in a similar fashion. Being a 15-year-old fanboy at that time, that defeat was heart-breaking, on par with the miserable loss in the 1996 world cup semi-final defeat against Sri Lanka. But since that day, if there is anything we have been used to seeing, is an Australian team that plays like a well-oiled machine on the cricket field. The Australian team did have a tough time in the early years of this decade when their team was rebuilding, but they recovered sooner that other teams would have hoped for.

But what is it that exactly makes the Australian teams almost invincible in the finals of a world event? Is it the fault of opposition players, like when Indians dropped the Aussie openers in the initial overs? Or is it the luck of Aussie captains winning the toss and making a mockery of the opposition? One can’t argue about this as in the 4 ODI men’s world cups that Australia has won from 1999 till 2015, they won the toss only once in the final (2007) and in the 5 T20 women’s world cup wins, Australia won the toss only twice in the final (they in fact lost the only time in 2016 after winning the toss). So, the toss is not a deciding factor. As far as the below par performance of the opposition teams is concerned, the pressure of the final match is on both the teams. Then why does an Australian team triumph in the finals, more often than others?

A major reason for this lies in their grassroot structure of cricket. Starting from their age group cricket, I would dare to say even the school cricket, the level of performance expected is top notch. The players toil hard and the overall level of cricket in their domestic league (Sheffield Shield) is also not in any way lesser than International level. Also, the level of facilities provided to the players and the training and ground infrastructure is world class. But these can be managed with loads of money, as available with Indian and English cricket boards. But that does not seem to reap the same rewards for India and England.

The major difference between an Aussie side and other teams is the MINDSET. The Australians are fierce, fierce competitors, and the mindset of bringing your A+ game when it really matters comes naturally to them. It is not that the other teams do not practice as hard as the Australian team or they are any less talented. The difference is in their approach to the game when the pressure is paramount, like in a world cup final. Yes, of course, the hours of hard work and sweat is a major factor in honing the skills, but how your brain reacts to the pressure of a final is something entirely different. And the Australians have also evolved from the time of Steve Waugh, when the sledging or the so called ‘mental disintegration’ was their primary weapon to win half the battle. That approach culminated in the sorry episode of ‘sandpaper gate’ fiasco in 2018, when captain Steve Smith and vice-captain David Warner were banned for a year, along with youngster Cameron Bancroft. It was a result of the aggressive team culture, where the captain was expected to be a tough guy and do ‘whatever it takes’ to win. After this incident, the newly appointed captain Tim Paine and the new coach Justin Langer made all possible attempts to mellow down the now infamous Aussie aggressiveness on the field. It was a face-saving attempt by the Australian board to change the culture of the team. However, it is ironic that previously, they tried to convert a calm and gentle guy like Steve Smith into an aggressive captain like Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting or even Michael Clarke, who famously sledged James Anderson to “be ready to have a fu**ing broken arm”. Tim Paine is exactly the kind of guy that Steve Smith would have been, had he been allowed to handle the matters in his own way.

Previously, the Aussies used to go after the opposition captain and star player in press conferences, to gain a mental edge before even a ball had been bowled. Now, they act like they themselves are the ones under pressure, by praising the opposition. A case in point here is the statement by Megan Schutt before the final, where she said that she hates to bowl against India and especially Shafali Verma, who smacks her bowling at will. This clever move put all the pressure on the 16-year-old Indian opener, who felt obliged to deliver in the final. This resulted in her dropping Alyssa Healy in the very first over and then getting out on just the third ball of the innings to none other than Megan Schutt. The moment Megan came in to bowl the first over, I dreaded the fall of Shafali’s wicket and that’s exactly what happened. No doubt, it involved some superb planning and execution on part of the bowler and her captain, but still the mental aspect of it cannot be underestimated. It brought back the memories from the men’s world cup final in 2003, when Glenn McGrath snared Sachin Tendulkar’s wicket in the very first over and killed almost any hope of an Indian win.

It has been more than 2 decades since the rise of one of the greatest teams to have played this game, the Australian team at the start of the millennium till almost the end of the decade (1999-2009). The women’s team is matching them now, especially in the T20 world cups. What is similar between the two teams is the killer instinct, the hunger to succeed, the confidence to feel better than the opposition and the skills to prove it on the field. The fact that Aussies enjoy the big stage is a major difference between them and other sides. In each of their world cup wins, there has been one standout performer in the finals. In 2015 men’s world cup also held in Australia, it was Mitchell Starc, who removed the Kiwi captain and their most important batsman Brendon McCullum in the very first over of the final, for a duck. The Kiwis never recovered from this setback and handed Australia almost a one-sided win. This time around, it was Alyssa Healy, whose onslaught at the start of the innings set the stage for a huge score in the final. It can not be considered a coincidence that Starc and Healy are married to each other and were both the player of the match in their respective final matches. In fact, Starc left the national duty and skipped the final ODI against South Africa to come and cheer for her wife in the final. One must imagine the pressure on Alyssa also, but all through the match, she was smiling and seemed to enjoy the setting, rather than getting bogged down. This mental aspect of the Australian teams over the years has been a pivotal cause of their continued success in big matches. The Australian Cricket Board must also be applauded for allowing Starc to come back home and support the women’s team and his wife. It is in stark (excuse the pun) contrast with the unnecessary trolling and criticism faced by Anushka Sharma, wife of Indian captain Virat Kohli, when she goes to support her husband and team India, and the team loses. I am sure that no such lashing out would have been seen towards Starc had Australia lost the match and Healy failed miserably.

It is therefore a challenge for other teams and players to match up to this strong mindset and self-belief of the Australian players, if they are to succeed against the Aussies in finals. The Australian team’s win percentage in finals of world events is surreal. I remember starting to watch cricket first during the 1996 world cup. The charisma, clinical performance, and the grit of the Australian team then also impressed me a lot and used to make me nervous whenever they used to face the Indians since then. It is a process that they have developed and mastered over the years. The onus is on other team managements to prepare their teams to match up to and overcome this winning way of the Australians.

Nishant Raizaday for DieHard Cricket Fans

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