Some Delhi summer in the mid-1990s, as clinking milk cans announced the dawn and the heat flexed its muscles, I escaped for an hour to America. Switched on the TV and there he was, live, a glistening Michelangelo in Nikes. Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls, in the NBA play-offs, was that perfect moment when sport and art collide. They were also the personification of winning.
Towards the end of many games, seconds left, scores close, was when you felt the full, bruising force of the Bulls’ will. Unlike lesser teams/players who flinch at such moments, like the cricketer who feels the vomit of anxiety rising when asked to bowl the final over, the Bulls lived for this.
Outstanding teams want the ball, the challenge, this examination of themselves, this chance to show off, this opportunity to scar the opposition. It sounds like a fair description of Ponting’s posse.
The novelist Scott Turow once said: “Michael Jordan plays basketball better than anyone else in the world does anything else.” We could simply say Australia’s one-day team plays cricket better than any team plays any other sport.
Ponting’s men are not beautiful like the Bulls; not as widely known as Manchester United’s kinetic kids of the mid-1990s; not facing as deep an opposition as Brazil’s 1958, 1952 and 1970 World Cup football teams; not as constantly refilled with great players as Australia’s Davis Cup teams between 1950-67, which triumphed 15 times in 18 years.
But with four straight World Cup finals, three straight wins, 29 straight unbeaten matches, they could be the finest sports team we’ve seen from the stands, in a sport we understand better than most. They have afforded us that rare opportunity to see excellence at such close range that you can feel their intimidation.
And this is the first thing about exceptional teams. Their ferocity scares rivals. South Africa’s semi-final suicide was nothing but the response of a fearful team. Some of it is understandable. To overcome Australia in a major event demands almost perfection, and this knowledge, that to win, nothing must go wrong, is unbearable, it freezes the mind.
The second thing about extraordinary teams is their refusal to take prisoners. The Australians know they’re a few zip codes ahead of everyone in ability, and they articulate it. Ponting’s mention of “the way we have made some of these other teams look” was pointed, true, and calculated to widen existing mental wounds.
Thirdly, the phenomenal team, wrapped in a cling film of confidence, will mostly find a way to victory. During Manchester United’s peak, it was not a matter of if they would score, but how many. If they were down, they would come back. It was as sure as a Tiger Woods 20ft holed putt on the final hole. It is the inevitability of genius.
When Australia lost five straight matches prior to the Cup, whispers of their mortality surfaced. But the Australians know how to win, they expect to win, they are best prepared to win. Glenn McGrath noted that what he would miss most in retirement was “the self-belief that we can win every single game we play”. Of course, they were going to triumph in the Caribbean.
Fourthly, the exceptional team amends the very vocabulary of its sport. Once cricket’s shorter game was considered a “lottery”, where “on any given day, any team can beat the other”, and we celebrated the “glorious uncertainty of one-day cricket”. Till Australia found a way to replicate its brilliance day after day, writing such a compelling textbook on the science of one-day victory that we’ve had to dustbin those phrases. This team has redefined what is possible in cricket.
Finally, for all its unique cluster of match-winners and unfluctuating aggression, the outstanding team is built from honest labour. For the Australians, sweat is an aphrodisiac. The better they do, the harder they work. The more they achieve, the higher they set the bar.
A former player mentioned last week that the hardest-working Indians do one-tenth of what the Australians do. Minus a little for exaggeration and it’s still clear the distance between Australia and the subcontinent is not just an ocean of skill, but sweat.
How good are these Australians? Let’s just say this. In his untouchable days, it was said Pete Sampras wasn’t No.1 in the world, but Nos.1 to 5. The next best player was only worth No.6. Sometimes, it seems the same with Australia and cricket.
Write to Rohit at firstname.lastname@example.org