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April 3, 1999


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'Reputation doesn't turn the ball like McGill does'

Ashwin Mahesh

Australia take the field against the West Indies in the fourth Test this weekend, requiring victory to retain the Frank Worrell trophy.

Widely reputed to be the best Test team in the world, the boys from Down Under will be looking to give their all. Led by the resolute Stephen Waugh, ever his gritty self, the Aussies aren't likely to go down without a fight.

The greater question hanging over Australian cricket, however, doesn't call the team's competitive nature into question. Instead, what appears to hold these Australians back more than anything is the burden of their own past successes and one man's failures during those glory days.

There is no doubt that this team has its pillars of strength. Perhaps modern cricket's most courageous and determined batsman, Steve Waugh is without equal as a doughty fighter. The regularity of his stirring contributions to Australian cricket is stunning. Despite Brian Lara's higher rating on the Price Waterhouse Coopers scales, Waugh is arguably the better man; his consistency, doggedness and the unqualified respect of his peers and selectors bring additional strengths to the Australian side.

The enormous reserve of batting talent that the Australian selectors have been able to call on adds to Waugh's strengths. Michael Slater has established himself as a top-notch opener, graceful under pressure. His recent second-innings hundreds, each representing significant parts of the team's total in those innings, must rate among the best of his career. The foolish run-out in the third Test notwithstanding, he will carry much of Australia's early hopes into the field. This is especially true, considering that Matthew Elliot is likely to be dropped in favor of Greg Blewett, whose astonishing domestic season has propelled him back into the national squad again.

In the middle, Ricky Ponting has wrested his rightful position once more. Rightful, because he is clearly Australia's finest prospect for the future, possessing both the talent to justify his selection and a shrewd cricketing mind to boot. Glenn McGrath has proven himself indispensable to the Australian attack, and mercifully so at a time when Warne's hold over his opponents has waned. Jason Gillespie has been solid in support, and must be considered the second strike bowler.

But the pluses have come at a price. Indeed, even Waugh's successes in the face of his team's failures may well carry an attendant price. In the shadow of Mark Taylor's magnificent run as Australian captain, Waugh was called upon to do only the things he was best at - namely to go out in the middle, put the best price he could on his wicket, and guard it. But now the burden has shifted. It is gratifying to see that Waugh's batting has not suffered from his captaincy, but the day may well dawn when his assurance as a batsman is eroded by the criticism that he isn't quite in Taylor's class as a captain.

That would be regrettable, for it is not Steve Waugh's fault that his team has lost. Instead, it is the legacy of Mark Taylor's latter-day failures as a batsman that has set the stage for the current difficulties.

Taylor, you might recall, was not called upon to perform with the bat very much in the twilight of his captaincy, his 21 innings without a half-century will probably stand for a long time in the annals of selectoral patience. Ably held together by the Waugh twins and other batsmen in good nick, the Australians struggled through Taylor's failures, holding him up as a captain who merited his place in the squad on his leadership alone. Therein lies the bigger problem for today's Australians.

The stalwarts of the golden era are faltering. Mark Waugh's lazy elegance notwithstanding, his consistency is not up to the mark, with just one fifty to his name so far in the series. Record-breaking Ian Healy is having a very poor series with the bat, his 31 runs from six walks to the wicket is second-last in the team, only marginally better than Stuart MacGill's 25 runs from the same number of tries. In the past Test, he added to the small stains on his otherwise remarkable career, dropping Lara at the death of the battle. And Shane Warne's 100+ runs per wicket is a far cry from his pre-injury days.

Amidst the inexplicable loss of form to three of their leading lights at the same time, Australia finds its hands tied, unable to drop them and make way for the pretenders to their thrones. The generosity the selectors showed to Mark Taylor during his enormously long run of failures is returning to haunt the current team.

Warne has already referred to the considerate treatment Taylor received from the selectors, and is asking that he too should not be judged quickly. Meanwhile, Stuart MacGill must surely feel the burden of Warne's earlier successes counting against him. Having clearly outperformed Warne repeatedly throughout the last few weeks, he will certainly rue being dropped, should that happen. As vice-captain, Warne is involved in selection decisions, a fact which further complicates an already difficult matter for the Australians.

Ian Healy, clearly faltering with the bat and not quite himself with the gloves since Taylor's retirement, must look over his shoulder more than the others. Given Adam Gilchrist's considerably weightier batting skills, Australia might opt to go with the younger man in the Tests as well. It would be a shame for Healy to be dropped; Australian selectors have in recent years permitted most of their big names to retire at times best suited to favorable chronicling by historians, and are more than likely to afford Ian Healy the same courtesy. Were Healy to be dropped for injury, however, the situation could become complicated if Gilchrist lives up to his promise.

And Mark Waugh, besides fighting off the many contenders for the batting spots, must bat in the psychological shadow of his less talented but more accomplished twin. After all, no one says of Ricky Ponting or Michael Slater that they lack Steve Waugh's obduracy, for it is not expected of them. Brother dearest casts a long shadow, and without the constant reminder of Mark's more dashing successes, the shadows lengthen quickly.

The burden of success weighs mightily on the team. On the one hand, the extraordinarily talented individuals who have brought such glory to this team - Mark Waugh, Ian Healy, Shane Warne - are stumbling, and to Australia's discomfort doing so together. At the same time, their potential inheritors - the many contenders for the middle order spots, Adam Gilchrist, Stuart MacGill - are playing with a promise that is hard to look away from.

These choices are comparable to those that other selectors make routinely, no doubt. But Mark Taylor's extraordinary run as captain during an abysmal run as batsman has added an extra dimension to the game he has since retired from. For all the talent the current Aussies bring to the pitch, they are confronted not merely by the history of their own successes and the strategies that have brought them this far, but as well by the ghost of one man's failure during an otherwise remarkable time.

To move on, they must either hold faith with the past and as with Taylor, give senior players the time to rediscover their sterling abilities, or take the bold step towards replacing them with talent better suited to the immediate pursuit of victory. The selectors appear to have gone part-way in this realization, dropping Warne but keeping faith with Healy and more predictably, with Mark Waugh. Perhaps it is to the game's greater gain if the reputed players are dropped, much as one might regret that. For reputation doesn't turn the ball like MacGill does, and it certainly doesn't score runs or make catches in the thick of battle.

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