You cannot come to this city and be oblivious to its enchantment. Melbourne was pretty enough, quiet, somewhat stuffy in parts; Sydney, well this is a living, breathing soul.
As you walk down Pitt Street in the heart of this capital of the Aussie liberals, there is a man playing the guitar and singing Simon & Garfunkel in a voice that makes Paul Simon come alive. You walk a little further, and a violinist promises to make your dreams come true through his music. Everywhere, people, Australian, Chinese, South Africans, Greek, Indians, are stopping, chatting with each other, with strangers, smiling and laughing, some singing along.
It is New Year's Eve and there is an infectious spirit and a joie de vivre to Sydney that is irresistible. It wraps you up and takes you along, willy-nilly. So, if Zaheer Khan said on New Year's Eve that he and his teammates would not be looking back at what happened in Melbourne, and would only look ahead to the New Year and a new beginning, you want to believe him, even while a cynical, practical voice within mutters, “Duh”.
Smells like team spirit
“We're a team,” said Zaheer, refusing to apportion blame on the batsmen or any one player. “We play as a team. Sometimes, the batters succeed, sometimes the bowlers, but we're going to do our best in this Test and back each other up fully.”
The problem, and whatever the Indians say, they well know it, is that the Aussies play like a team too. And more often than not, the batters and bowlers succeed simultaneously.
When you look at this Australian team, there are some obvious questions: What makes them this good? Is it only an undoubtedly superior set of skills or a mindset? Or, a combination of both? And why do the rest not come even close in terms of consistency?
A question of faith
Well, let’s start with the most important ingredient in the making of a world champion side — skills. This Australian side (and others over the past decade) have looked like they have a superior set of skills.
But that doesn’t really mean they play a cover drive differently or bowl an out-swinger with a completely different action? So what’s the difference? It probably lies in complete conviction and a self-belief that those executing those skills in pressure cooker situations, day in and day out, can deliver.
A half volley is a half volley at any stage of the match but when you need only four runs to win with one wicket in hand, you tend to miss hit it.
Players say it’s not because you don’t know how to play a cover drive but because their bodies get stiff and their reflexes impaired because of the result at stake. Likewise, it’s relatively easier to bowl a yorker at some other stage of the game than at the death, when a batsman needs three off the last ball --- it requires immense self-confidence and a mastery over the skills required.
Planning, that vital edge
The Australians seem to have conquered that mental barrier and more often than not, are able to deliver the goods in tight situations. Or, otherwise, because they plan.
It’s like what Mitchell Johnson planned for Dravid, when he bowled six straight maidens to the Indian: “I kept it outside the off for him, it was part of the plan. He is a very patient sort of batsman and we needed to be patient too. We could feel the pressure building.”
Then again, a champion team doesn’t become a champion side overnight. It’s a long process and happens in phases. First, you start winning more matches than losing them. Then, you start snatching victories from the jaws of defeat frequently. Someone or the other puts his hand up consistently and takes the game away from the opposition at the nth hour.
A winning habit
“We do not allow ourselves to think of failure,” Adam Gilchrist remarked. “Fail can be a nasty word, specially when it’s working around in your mind.”
If you keep winning, it becomes habit, everyone in the team has an idea of his role and the percentage of fulfilling that particular role keeps going up. The team works on autopilot, but at the same time, guards against complacency.
Johnson, asked if he was more secure of his Test spot now, said he definitely wasn’t. “Not at all. You need to keep performing and getting wickets. There are a number of bowlers, any one of whom can come up and grab a spot. I need to focus on what I have to do.”
Being the best
Then, as a team, you reach a stage where you not only think, but absolutely believe, that your side is best in the world and no team can beat you, regardless of conditions, form or fitness. This Australian unit has reached that peak and managed to stay there for longer than any other cricketing nation in the history of the game thanks to its impeccable structure.
They put a huge price tag on getting an Australian cap and once a player makes the cut, he makes sure that the Baggy Green stays with him for a long time. There’s no arbitrary chopping and changing in their system, no makeshift openers, and as Ponting said, “never any guessing”.
It’s the end that matters
They’ve consistently also maintained that to keep winning, it’s vital to get over the fear of failure. The team works in percentages, backs itself to win most matches and is prepared to lose one here and there in the bargain. Only Australia could have lost the game to India in Adelaide in 2003-04 after scoring 400 on the first day. They still didn’t change their way of playing because of just one failure. They maintained the same scoring rate and played for a result.
The secret of their success lies in scoring really quickly, so as to give their bowlers ample time to bowl the opposition out twice. You have to scalp 20 wickets to win a Test but even a quality bowling side needs time to do that. The Aussie batsmen complement their bowlers perfectly in this regard.
“We’re as good as anyone can be,” Ponting has reiterated on several occasions. He needn’t say it, it shows.