The Ashes 2013: Winning – the habit that destroyed Australian cricket

England v Australia: 2nd Investec Ashes Test - Day Four

As the straps are put on, you start to feel jittery. It’s like that the body knows that something’s about to give. Then as it slowly goes up, the heart starts to thud. It thuds so loud that you can literally hear it.

Then comes the drop. It starts with a fluttery feeling in the stomach, and as you proceed to the loops, you close your eyes and start screaming your lungs out to show the world that you love it, when actually the truth is that you don’t even know what’s hit you.

That’s how you feel on a roller coaster, and that’s exactly how Michael Clarke feels right now.

“It’s obviously been extremely tough, and you probably take it more personally when you’re captain of the team as well…”, Michael Clarke said after the 347-run loss in the 2nd Test at Lord’s with a straight face but when you hear him say, “What can I say? The crowd laughed when I said we could win the series…”, you know that the ego has been badly bruised.

Six straight Test matches lost in a row and the country wants answers. The cricket fraternity wants answers. One look at Michael Clarke and you know that he can’t breathe properly unless he screams and his stomach wants to churn out of his body.

Micheal “Pup” Clarke is awfully lost and so is his team.

Rewind a year back. Double hundreds, triple hundreds, white-wash wins – Michael Clarke was winning and winning big. He smiled and lashed out witty one-liners to the media while another man with salt-pepper stubble went ducking the brick-bats and mending rifts in his side.

Things change and boy, they change fast!

At Lord’s, Shane Watson approached the crease with his laboured run-up and delivered the ball just short of the driving length. Joe Root went on the back foot and tried to punch the ball through covers. The ball seamed just enough and caught the edge. The ball flew at a comfortable catchable height and bisected the first slip and the wicket-keeper perfectly for a boundary.

It was Brad Haddin’s catch, and he made the first movement to get to the ball. However, he decided to pull out at the moment that eventually put Clarke off at first slip. As the ball travelled towards the third-man boundary, Haddin and Clarke looked at each other with an expression that summed up the state of Australian cricket.

“We want to land the first punch.” – Matt Prior proclaimed before the start of the Ashes.

England did land the first punch, but it wasn’t hard enough. However, Australia made sure that they got knocked out at Lord’s, thanks to a horror display of skills and decision making.

Australia have been poor, period. They have failed to put up a fight, have not been able to take advantage of England’s weaknesses, have been a nightmare with the willow, but most importantly, have made poor decisions.

And that’s how superpowers fall and empires collapse. It happened to the West Indies in the 90s and the wheels are now coming off the Aussie regime. They are not used to it because Australia have seldom lost. They have been the most prevailing force in the game and have dominated the cricket world.

But winning can be dangerous. It is an insane cocktail that lulls us into a false sense of security and leads into a world of power and dominance that, believe it or not, becomes our biggest enemy.

Cricket Australia is the latest victim of the “winning” drug.

Everybody wants to win. Kings wanted to win wars, politicians want to win elections and teams want to win championships. The thirst of winning is so much that “experts” write books and give lectures about “How to win!”

Winning is good, in fact very good. It’s the best habit that one can get into, but once you slip, it hurls you down an extremely slippery slope. Just like all great schemes come along with an almost invisible asterisk, winning too brings along the baggage of arrogance and ignorance that leads to incompetence.

Australia v England, 3rd Test , Sydney, January 1994-95

Remember that floppy hat, green sunglasses clad, evil grin faced Mark Taylor? If you have been following cricket from the 90s, and your team faced his troops, you must hate that man. Standing with his arms folded in the slip cordon, Mark Taylor built a team that had incredible potential.

He then passed on his group of would be greats to an even more dangerous man, Steve Waugh. Under him, they hunted like a pack of wolves and became the worst bullies in cricket – they didn’t only win, but demolished oppositions. He himself thrived under pressure situations and forged his team into a winning machine that refused to stop bludgeoning the opponents.

Then came the Punter and the hate reached its zenith. The would bes attained greatness and Ricky Ponting galvanized a great team into an invincible one. They became far superior than others and made winning look easy. The more they won, the more arrogant they became.

However, the air of superiority often blinds the best. The flipside of arrogance is negativity. It breeds a negative-minded culture, hostility and poor decision making that makes one ignorant towards the developing chinks in the armour.

And that’s where Cricket Australia went rogue. If a decision-making process is flawed, decisions go awry and ACB’s (as it was called then) ill-informed decisions have left Australian cricket in shambles.

One can keep tagging this Australian side as “not good enough” and Clarke as a failed leader. But is that the complete truth?

After every game, Michael Clarke faces the fury of hostile questions from the media and the abuse and criticisms of the nation but in reality, he has very slim control over the management of the organization that runs the game.

The seeds that Cricket Australia sowed a decade ago, by restructuring the Australian Cricket Academy, have finally come back to haunt them. Since then, they have let Rodney Marsh leave, handed out central contracts to not-so-worthy players, scheduled the Big Bash, sent the young Australians to the finishing school called “the IPL” and have traded the domestic tournaments in pursuit of easy moolah.

They added one more this season – sacking Mickey Arthur two weeks ahead of their most important series in the calendar.

Michael Clarke wasn’t involved in any of these decisions, yet he is the man who has to face the wrath of the nation.

Of course, as a captain, he made mistakes. The “homework-gate” scandal could have been handled better. He should have taken a bigger role in mentoring David Warner. Calling a team-mate a “cancer” wasn’t classy and not promoting himself at number three is a sign of shortsightedness.

However, Clarke’s mistakes are mostly knee-jerk reactions to situations whereas Cricket Australia made bigger ones by rotting the system that once produced class talent. They ignored the evolving cracks in the structure and were too arrogant to accept that there were any flaws because the team was winning.

Suddenly the cracks have opened up and they aren’t winning any more. The flaws have become so prominent that even the class of Clarke can’t veil it any longer. When he scores, the Aussies compete; when he doesn’t, the middle order crumbles like a cookie.

England v Australia: 1st Investec Ashes Test - Day Three

Even the best leaders can’t lead an inept team. A good leader finds the strengths of a team and capitalizes on them to make them efficient. But what if the resources lack in basic skills?

What can Michael Clarke do if Phil Hughes looks lost against spin? What can he possibly say if Shane Watson keeps playing round his legs? How can he stop Ed Cowan fishing outside the off stump?

The Aussie castle is collapsing and as it falls into pieces, Michael Clarke is exposed and lost.

Right now he needs inspiration. The Aussies are going down; they might as well go down swinging. He needs a gang of street fighters, who will skirt the rules and land rabbit punches at the opponent to bring back the series on an even keel, rather than a group of school boys who submit their homework on time.

Can Australia get back to their winning ways and script a fairy tale comeback?

No, they can’t and Australia right now, needs more than winning. With 2-0 up in the series, Australia would be more surprised if England doesn’t inflict a white-wash.

Right now, more than a win, Australia need their swagger back. They need their arrogance back. They need Clarke to get back in form, come up at three and take charge.

They need to get the process in order before they start winning. Getting the house sorted should top the priority list rather than winning because the last time we checked, even “the one” with the Adonis DNA and tiger blood couldn’t handle “Winning!”

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