Australia’s cricket recovery more than win deep – Sydney Morning Herald


Australia celebrate their Ashes triumph.

Australia celebrate their Ashes triumph.Credit:Getty Images

Belinda Clark, herself a great of Australian cricket, stepped into the role of overseeing national team high performance following the departure of Pat Howard last November.

Tim Paine: a leader for this time and the new Australian way.

Tim Paine: a leader for this time and the new Australian way. Credit:AP

Asked about Australia’s revival, she notes that solid processes were already in place when she assumed the position on an interim basis.

“The key was to get everyone into the point where they were at the right mindset, they had the right people around them, the staff were empowered to go and do their jobs. I think a combination of those things over time, they are little steps but if you make them regularly enough you start to realise that you’re getting into a jog and a run,” Clark said.

“Ultimately we ended up with a group of players that are trying to be their best and play the game in the way it should be played.”

Australia is still far, far from the finished product. It has been lucky in this Ashes series to strike England with their head still in another place. Whether or not England’s World Cup win was a distraction, some Australians played more first-class cricket in England in the lead-up to the series than most of the English. In that sense, this is reminiscent not so much of 2005 as 2010-11, when the visiting team came better and more painstakingly prepared than the hosts, and it told. So be it. As noted, winning explains itself.

But the transformation of Australia is more than win deep. They are disposing themselves as cricketers in a different way. They are playing within the spirit as well as the letter of the law. If they feel the occasional need to deliver a home truth to an opposition batsman, they do it with a carefully maintained grin. Whether this is enlightenment or simply the spotlight and their consciousness of it, time will tell. But Paine has emerged as the leader for this way and this time.

Steve Waugh has been moved to remark how different they are from the Australian cricketers of his day.

David Warner is something of a bellwether. An attack dog in the old dispensation, he is in this reformed parliament a contained figure on the field and an affable presence off it. You would hardly know that he is having a wretched series. Of course, some note the contraction in both runs and personality and wonder whether it is coincidence or correlation. Maybe he does …

The reintegration of Warner, Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft was a carefully thought-out process, which involved independent leadership consultant Tim Ford.

It was a challenging process logistically, says Clark, given Bancroft, Smith and Warner were playing in different competitions, some overseas, as the national team went about its own routine busy work.

Steve Smith (right) speaks with England's Jack Leach (left) during day one of the fifth Ashes Test.

Steve Smith (right) speaks with England’s Jack Leach (left) during day one of the fifth Ashes Test. Credit:AP

They’re still chatter-boxes out there. But it is not the vicious sledging of old. Even Matthew Wade’s contributions, picked up by the stump microphones and broadcast widely, is not so much sledging as trash talk, a different beast. It is like Paine’s interactions with Indian wicketkeeper Risbah Pant in Australia last summer, but not as clever.

The Australians are not unwitting about this; they know they are on air and craft their message accordingly. Never forget the red flag that should have been raised at the start of the South African tour when Australia asked for the pitch mics to be muted.

A mountain was made of the molehill moment in the Australians’ celebration in Manchester when they appeared to poke fun at bespectacled England spinner Jack Leach.

Outrage over Leach conveniently ignores that the English crowds also have their affectionate fun with his image, that Jofra Archer is on tape mocking Steve Smith’s mannerisms and that Leach made great and well-broadcast play of re-enacting his ATG single in the heist of Headingley. Was that not also rubbing it in to the Australians at a fragile time? Was it not taking the piss?


Of course it was. Of course the Australians were. It’s bi-play, a standard of sport. The Australians’ only mistake was to do it in front of the press box. Clearly, they still have at least one lesson to learn about discretion.

This Australian squad is young, less world-weary and appears to be more together than its predecessors. Former captain Steve Waugh, drafted in as mastermind and mentor, has been moved to remark on how different they are from the Australian cricketers of his day. Steve Smith is killing England with runs, but also kindness, acknowledging good balls, nodding mini-tributes. It must be driving England spare.

Langer’s methods appear to owe a little to footy, his other love (he is a West Coast board member). Even a bit of footy double-talk has crept into the discourse. Travis Head wasn’t dropped for the fifth Test, Mitch Marsh was rotated in. It’s team balance all over again.

It works as long as the bottom line adds up. Now, we can happily accept that the new environment and the encouraging results are cause and effect, and can consign to a back-room filing cabinet former captain Michael Clarke’s belief that Australia are at their best only when bristling with nastiness. Paine is pretty big on his footy too by the way.

But it would be a mistake to think that the job is done, or even half-done. At the end of the Australian summer, Paine said Australia still had far to go, with their charm offensive and as a cricket team. Now, they have won the Ashes, a seven-league step. But the batting is still in its own mini-crisis, covered up by Smith’s singular brilliance, and the long-term succession plan is not obvious. There are serried forces lined up against Smith. The bowlers all have stood up, a triumph, but also such a rare state of affairs that the element of luck must be considered as well as all the good management.

Clark describes the efforts of the much-maligned Howard – under whose leadership the Duke ball was implemented in Sheffield Shield cricket, Australia A tours became a priority, and high-profile Australian players again flocked to play county cricket in England – as “critical”.

“One of Pat’s great strengths, and it’s great that people have recognised the work that was going on years before this happened, is his ability to pinpoint problems, and put things in place to address them,” Clark said.

“He had a great vision for doing that, and then had people working with him.

“If that wasn’t in place, there’s no way in the world that what we did in the last eight months was going to make a difference.”

She insists though, that “it’s never the work of one person”, hailing others including team manager Gavin Dovey.

The success of Marnus Labuschagne this series, after months of toil with Glamorgan, typifies the importance placed on getting players ready for English conditions.

The plusses will not always align so serendipitously. The glasnost is not guaranteed to last. Test cricket is a highly stressed and stressful pursuit. The competition is fierce, from within and without. Self-conviction leads a sportsman to the top, and reinforces him there, and sometimes deludes him, leading to disgruntlement when the coach does not share it.

Langer is good at making everyone feel part of a grand plan. When Head was dropped this week, he and Langer walked laps of the Oval for half-an-hour, Langer bouncing a footy as they went. Without needing to know what was said, it was textbook.

Australia's coach Justin Langer.

Australia’s coach Justin Langer.Credit:AAP

But not all will be as understanding as Head. Some players will think others have played games that should have been theirs, that the coach has, if not played favourites exactly, been patient to a fault with some and too summary with others. This applies whether winning or losing. If winning, the standbys will chafe, thinking that history is passing by. If losing, they will think they could make a difference, if only they got a chance. The potential for implosion is ever present. Then there is the opponent …

For now, it can be said that Australia, revamped from boardroom to team room, looks to be on the right path. It is acutely aware of how easy it is to stray from it. But the best thing about this overnight revolution is that the bad old days are not that old. They’re still vivid, even livid, in the memory. It should mean that there should be no descent into old ways, not soon.

Cricket Australia pathways manager Graham Manou, the former Test gloveman, has led the efforts to make sure that the 2019 Ashes aren’t a flash in the pan.

Clark has returned to her community cricket portfolio, proud of what has been achieved in less than a year.


“I walked away from it thinking, ‘Gee we’ve got some good people.’ They got down, they got their hands dirty, and Justin was outstanding through the whole period. I’ve got no doubt that they’re going to get better and better with the way they’re approaching things at the moment.”

One of Waugh’s driving forces as captain was that he did not want his team to know the winless wintriness of his early days in Test cricket. Similarly, Langer and Paine seem to take as their mandate that Australia never revisits the darkness and devilry of Cape Town. Winning the Ashes is so much more fun.

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