Monday 20 November 2017

Aussies flying economy class on journey into the unknown

Dion Fanning

In the build-up to an Ashes summer, one thing has to be endured above all others: the idea that the ongoing decline of the Australian cricket team is inherently hilarious.

Of course, there is something comic in the wounded pride of the Australian sportsman, driven as so many of them are by braggadocio. But we will be cursed for the next few months as every handover to the sports guy on every UK news bulletin will be accompanied with that death-rattle chortle which signifies they're now having fun. It's time to lighten up because Rob is here with an update on an Australian collapse.

Then they will laugh. They will laugh as if Sid Caesar is in the studio and Woody Allen is back writing his gags. They will laugh as if Peter Cook has just rolled in to deliver the sports news himself. They will laugh as if a ballboy has just slipped at Wimbledon.

Some of us will feel only dread. There is the dread of undeserved laughter which, with the Ashes and Wimbledon, could spiral out of control. There is the accompanying dread of the news anchors turning to Rob in a state of hysteria which, in less tolerant times, would have seen them taken to a home for the bewildered or sedated with a course of Quaaludes.

This is not the real cause of the dread. The real cause of the dread is that they may be right. There is a real danger that all we will do this summer is laugh at the Australian cricketers as they are humiliated. There may be fans of English cricket who want this but I suspect many more would prefer an Ashes as bewitching as the 2005 series.

The Australian cricketer provokes strange emotions in the English cricket fan. He does to them what Michael O'Leary does to the English tourist, terrifying and disgusting them in equal measure as they enter the Ryanair website with a sense of mounting terror, like the customers approaching the 'Soup Nazi' in Seinfeld.

There was a cruelty to the great Australian cricketers that encourages this new giddiness. "You've just dropped the World Cup," Steve Waugh is supposed to have said to Herschelle Gibbs when Gibbs failed to hold a catch in the World Cup semi-final at Headingley. Waugh didn't actually say it but that doesn't really matter.

The Australians have always worked on the outer limits of what is fair and decent, which again has a resemblance to the Ryanair website. People book flights with a feeling that Michael O'Leary is actually in the room, a disturbing presence on their shoulder as they try to arrange a trip to Florence which isn't going to lead to some ritual humiliation at 5.0am in Stansted.

The Australian cricketer and O'Leary provoke some post-colonial feelings in England. They have become used to Australian brashness but the Irish are meant to be full of twinkle. We are people who will provide good times and smile politely while our accents are mimicked.

O'Leary, like the Australian cricketer, exudes that borderline obnoxious air of total self-regard and over-powering self-esteem which is accompanied by an essential derision for the bullshit arts. At their peak, Australia, in the late Peter Roebuck's phrase, "played behind barbed wire" as they intimidated with their ferocity as well as their gifts.

So it was no surprise to read of the split in Australian cricket following the failure of four players to complete a management exercise and their subsequent suspension from this week's Test in India.

The four players, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson, Usman Khawaja and Shane Watson, were asked, along with the rest of the squad, to suggest three ways of improving things after Australia's defeats in the first two Tests. When they failed to come up with anything, they were suspended. Watson returned to Australia to be with his pregnant wife.

Australian cricket has always had a problem with coaching. Shane Warne was particularly dismissive of John Buchanan, the coach for some of the glory era, honing his line that the only coach that side needed was the bus to the ground until it became an after-dinner staple.

Buchanan used to encourage them to write poetry and he would introduce books like Tuesdays with Morrie and Who Moved My Cheese?

So the new Australians are following tradition in responding as the old ones did to the motivational tools. Yet last week Mike Hussey, who retired before the India tour, said Buchanan's handling of Warne was great coaching.

"He almost tried to get into an argument with him or challenge him with things that were a little bit left-field," Hussey said. "In my mind that's absolutely genius coaching."

Barcelona were a football team many said needed no coaching until they were forced, in tragic circumstances, to go without a coach for much of this season. Last Tuesday they played with as much ferocity and grace as they have ever managed but they are still a side that needs a leader.

Buchanan might not be able to do much with this Australian side but he did more than men like Warne recognised which was part of his talent. But it is Warne's genius that they are truly missing.

Australian cricket is suffering and English cricket can be forgiven for laughing. It is as if they came across Michael O'Leary weeping at a check-in desk and pleading to be allowed on a flight, only to be told he was wearing the wrong shoelaces.

Australia have been here before. In 2006, Buchanan took the Australian players to a boot camp. Warne complained loudly. One day, however, he announced to Buchanan that he had learned three things from the session. Buchanan perked up. Perhaps his methods were penetrating and he asked Warne what they were. "I'm fat, I'm a weak prick and I want to go home." He had found his motivation.

dfanning@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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