Under the Southern Cross I stand A sprig of wattle in my hand A native in my native land Australia, you bloody beauty.
NOT once has Ian Healy had the chance to sing this jaunty bush number—Australia's traditional dressing-room ditty to mark victory—on this tour. And as the cobbers stare at a brownwash, the designated cheerleader in the Aussie camp must be wondering what dragged Australia "from the ethereal height of invincibility to the dust and din of defeat". So fast. So soon.
This is a script gone horribly awry for Mark Taylor and his men. The 'world champs' came here to correct that minor aberration in their post-1995 record: the defeat in the one-off Delhi Test two years ago. And to become the first Aussie side to win a series in India since 1969, "the year Shane Warne was born, when Sachin Ten-dulkar's parents (probably) hadn't even met".
Used to winning wherever they went, they came here like this was the final frontier. But after receiving a pasting from pretty much every opponent—India, India 'A', Board President's XI, Bombay—the hype-cast Aussies are quickly coming to terms with the cruel label that Mohammed Azharuddin and his men earned long ago: "Tigers at home, lambs abroad".
In the 28 days since they arrived:
Also: Azhar's boys hit up the most runs India have ever scored in a day (369 in 90 overs) against the world's winningest team; Bombay became the first state team (after Karnataka beat the West Indies in 1978-79) to beat a touring side; and Shane Warne's magic stood exposed as a load of myth, although the final analysis does no credit to the wile with which he bowled.
By expelling Adam (Dale) and Steve (Waugh) from Eden (Gardens) in Test match #1409, Azhar has erased memories of a disastrous 1992 tour. On Top Down Under in Madras and Calcutta, the record at home between the two nations is even: 28 Tests played, eight won, eight lost, 11 drawn, one tied. It's down to the wire in Bangalore.
What happened? Were the Aussies ordinary? Or the hosts extraordinary? Both. Says Neil Harvey, the former batting great, who saw the scoreline go up 1-0 after Sachin followed up an unbeaten 204 with an unbeaten 155: "It was embarrassing to sit there and watch it all. Warne probably needs a holiday." Adds Phil Wilkins of The Sydney Morning Herald: "We were thumped."
The Indian win, as usual, conceals the cracks: placid pitches; no regulars to partner Sidhu and Srinath; born-again Rajesh Chau-han's poor run; some astounding selections (Harvinder Singh for the first Test and V.V.S. Laxman for the second) and non-selections (Venkatesh Prasad, Abey Kuruvilla).
But to tourists drained by the heat and humidity, daunted by the crowds, nervous about the food—and outbatted, outbowled and outwitted—Azhar's 'bunders' drove home a simple truth to Taylor, one of the great post-war 'sikan-ders': a captain is only as good as his team. "These are the players that make up the greatest team in world cricket," crow Aussie fanzines on the internet. These:
Only the last-four (Healy, Warne, Paul Reiffel and Michael Kasprowicz) have managed to stave off total ignominy adding vital runs. But in retrospect, the Aussies will rue the blunder to leave behind at least two Test-worthy lefthanders—Mathew Elliott and Michael Bevan.
Kumble's poor show in the last 18 months was caused by southpaws Jayasuriya, Ranat-unga, Anwar, Sohail, Chanderpaul, Adams. With only Taylor in this toporder, and taken care of (by Ganguly!), it's been "sweet, sweet, sweet" for the leggie against the Aussies who are mostly back-foot kings.
As Peter Roebuck wrote in The Herald: "The deficiencies of the Aussie batting order have been such that this Aussie bowling attack hasn't been able to fill." Back home, it's being called the worst pace attack to leave the island-continent since Kim Hughes' 1979 team. Without Glen McGrath's experience and the pace of Jason Gillespie, the newball mantle fell on Kasprowicz, Reiffel and Paul Wilson, the last two themselves falling prey to injuries.
The inexperience showed: in Calcutta, the Indian top-six with a combined average of 52 in 1997 took on an Aussie attack that comprised a debutant (Wilson), an offspinner in his second Test (Gavin Robertson), two part-timers (Blewett and Mark Waugh), a rookie (Kasprowicz)—and Warne.
Result: carnage. Openers Sidhu, Mongia and Laxman were judge and jury. The mid-dleorder—Dravid, Sachin, Azhar and Ganguly—were executioners. In eight first-class innings on tour, the Aussie bowlers conceded 2,535 runs for 40 wickets at 64.3 apiece. Also, the tactical blunder of focusing on eliminating Sachin gave caged tigers like Sidhu (62, 64, 97) the ideal opening to strike.
But it's the wipeout of Warne as a potent force that stands out amidst the Aussie ruins. On placid tracks on which even Kumble earned purchase, it was a big comedown for the blond inspin's original lair, in spite of his prodigious turn, in spite of his fighting spirit. Without McGrath or Gillespie to get the initial breaks, Warne found himself bowling to openers who relish spin bowling already into their 20s and 30s. The battle is already lost when Sachin and Azhar walk in. And not to bunnies like Darryl Cullinan but to batsmen bred on spin.
As Malcolm Knox wrote in The Herald: "The Australians paid the price for not knowing their opponents and mistaking their foes' strengths for weaknesses." Back home the greater worry is not that the Aussies lost a one-sided battle of skills, but also the psychological war of wills.
Teams wins, teams lose. What's palpably absent is the hardboiled Aussie grit to fight and bounce back. In 1986, Dean Jones pissed in his pants, vomited on the ground, battled cramps and still stuck around to score 210 to prove a point to Alan Border. Taylor's men in contrast are painted as a bunch of ninnies who want to coop up in their five-star rooms.
"What is it about the Indian experience which confronts rather than challenges the elite Australian cricketer?" asks Mike Coward in The Australian. "There are few of this team who are enjoying their cricket here. The toporder batsmen again gave a good impression of cricketers who...didn't want to be in India." Ken Piesse, of Australian Cricket, says Indian conditions and Australian cricketers don't go together. "In India, it's the hardest cricket they have played in their lives. They're not used to the conditions, the population. Every step they are hounded. It's difficult. They do tend to react badly, almost as if they are in jail."
Former Test player John Benaud disagrees: "You can always find excuses for not playing well enough. Let's admit it, we were just not up to scratch. We're not playing to potential. It's a down-period, a hiccup. India's been playing much, much better cricket. They've been threatening to for a while."
When India first won a match against Australia 29 years ago, The Pioneer wrote the result was "incredible as much as the sacred cow jumping over the moon" and said it compared with the other great event of '69—man's first rocket to the moon.
Circa 1998, the year man found traces of water on the lunar surface; the Indian win—in a ocean of washouts—must be a bit like that. Rare.