Australia: are you England in disguise?

No killer instinct, riddled with self-doubt and with the media on their backs, the Aussies are acting like Poms.

Duleep Allirajah

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Something strange is happening to the Aussies. They’ve forgotten how to win test matches. They had England on the ropes in the first Ashes test at the Gabba but couldn’t land the knockout punch. And now they’re making excuses and beating themselves up about it. Very uncharacteristic. It begs the question: Are the Australians losing their Aussieness?

England’s Great Escape at Brisbane wouldn’t have happened in the past. When Steve Harmison bowled the widest wide you’ll ever see – straight to second slip – in his first delivery of the 2006-2007 tour, we knew the Ashes were lost. England weren’t mentally up for it and the Aussies immediately realised that. They sensed blood. They went for the jugular. They wanted it more. End result: a five-nil series whitewash. This week, the Australians found themselves in a similar position at stumps at the end of the third day: England reeling, there for the taking. But the Aussies couldn’t finish them off. England’s batsman fought back and the Aussie bowling attack crumbled. It was a draw which felt like an English victory. All very un-Australian.

The lack of a killer instinct is a sure sign that the Australian cricket team is no longer the invincible force it once was. The winning mentality, which we all thought was hardwired into the Aussie DNA, is no longer there. Last year, Andrew Strauss claimed that the Aussies had lost their aura. And he was right. The swagger is gone. The players are no long brimming with self-belief. They don’t strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. ‘An aura is when the opposition teams, even though they are on top, are not confident they are going to beat you’, explained Strauss. ‘We certainly felt that in 2006-07. Even when we had good days, we were thinking what is going to happen now? Is Gilchrist going to blast a hundred or Warne take five wickets from nowhere?’

Not only has the Australian bowler attack been exposed as toothless, the infamous ‘Gabbatoir’ has been demystified. The Brisbane stadium had an aura of its own. Intimidation Central. Australia haven’t lost at the Gabba for 22 years. On the eve of the match, the Australian predicted that England would be greeted by ‘40,000 rabid Australians out for their usual diet of Poms for breakfast, lunch and tea’. But by the end of the match the Gabba was silenced. It was just another cricket stadium, hushed except for the strains of the Barmy Army singing ‘God Save Your Queen’.

The aura has disappeared, the winning habit has gone AWOL, and now the Aussies are starting to acquire some typically British traits. During last summer’s Ashes series, as I wrote on spiked, the Aussies were reduced to whinging like Poms. After the first test in Cardiff – a match that was also drawn when the Aussies should have won – Aussie captain Ricky Ponting complained that England had repeatedly sent out the physio as a time-wasting tactic. Aussies complaining about gamesmanship. Anyone see the irony? Kettles. Pots. Black.

The Australians of old weren’t averse to a bit of gamesmanship. They used every weapon at their disposal to gain the upper hand. They practically patented the dark art of sledging – or ‘mental disintegration’ as former captain Steve Waugh described it.

But times have changed. Last summer, Cricket Australia reportedly wrote to every member of the tour party telling them to tone down the verbals. Players were instructed to ‘be strongly competitive without displaying visible aggression such as sledging’ and to ‘avoid spitting and swearing’. I’m not sure whether the players observed the ‘thou shalt not sledge’ commandment, but it’s a symptom that the Australian sporting psyche is changing. The abrasive schooner-drinking larrikins of old (eg Jeff Thomson, Merv Hughes, David Boon) have been supplanted by fragile, self-doubting pretty boys (eg Mitchell Johnson – the first Aussie ever to miss a test match as a result of a tattoo). As I said, un-Australian.

The post-match media inquest in Australia was a rare spectacle. Aussies beating themselves up? It’s the kind of sporting self-flagellation that the English excel at. ‘Rarely can roosters so quickly have become feather dusters’, wrote Greg Baum in The Age. ‘Here, shudder to think it, is England’s future, and Australia’s.’ One local newspaper featured a picture of Ricky Ponting beneath the headline ‘Clueless’. ‘Ashes humiliation’, was the damning verdict on the front page of the Australian (I know, I know, it was only a draw. The poor chaps are taking this really badly.)

Does all this mean that England will retain the Ashes comfortably? Don’t count your roosters. The Aussies may have lost their Aussieness but England ain’t the new Australia. The first innings batting collapse revealed familiar English failings. The British choking gene evidently hasn’t been eradicated. If truth be told, both teams are fairly evenly matched. The worrying question confronting the Aussies is whether this is just a temporary halt to the production line of Natural Born Winners or symptomatic of a deeper sporting malaise. Is mid-table in the world cricket rankings an aberration or the shape of things to come?

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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