The villains of OZ

What is it about sporting domination that turns off the average viewer of our times?

Australia won it’s fifth cricket World Cup (out of 11), and reasserted its super-power status in yet another lopsided final. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find one neutral fan that genuinely loves and admires this strong, ruthless ODI outfit. The same could be said for Sebastian Vettel’s four-year old domination of F1 with Champions Red Bull, and Mercedes’ current domination with Hamilton and Rosberg, who are openly struggling to find competition outside their own garages.

What’s not to admire though? 
Steven Smith had a Bradmanisque summer to remember. His is a classic rags-to-riches (in cricketing terms, bowler-to-batsman) story: He came in as a blonde bombshell of a leg-spinner to fill in his team’s tweaking hole– one that it still has: no specialist limited-overs spinner. Still, they’re World Champions, in a similar way India became World Champions 4 years ago without a single tearaway fast bowler in home conditions. In three years, Smith has become his country’s premier batsman in both forms of the game. He has been at the forefront of their hugely successful period since losing the Ashes in England. The last time an Australian youngster was hyped so much, he became Michael Clarke. The last time a German youngster was hyped so much, he became Michael Schumacher.

What’s not to love about this team? 
They go hard at oppositions, sledging them and not holding back on the field, letting their passion often get the better of them. They mock, chuckle, chatter and rile crowds up to get them involved in a more personal way. Then they promptly attribute this to their ability to respect teams off the field, and their irritating tendency to follow ugly spats and equate diplomacy with ‘thirst’, ‘drinks’ and ‘beer’. 

They don’t behave like gentlemen, because let’s face it, there is no such thing as a gentleman’s sport in this day and age. The nicer guys of cricket, New Zealand and South Africa, have nothing to show for their spirit and attitude on the field. Australia’s ugliness and unpleasant demeanor over the decades has only gone on to serve them better, and perhaps make them ever more vilified and hated when they lose. They rarely lose, but when they do, the world takes an opportunity to remind them how unsporting behavior rarely results in success, and how fate and conscience trumps skill. But that isn’t true, is it? 

When Indian players, otherwise known to be too sweet to play competitive sports, go hard at rivals, they’re hailed for their ‘killer’ attitude and aggressive spirit. Because India doesn’t have a legacy of ruthlessness and rudeness on the field. They have a general air of acceptance, of being able to wear the ‘second best’ tag better than others, and their body language only goes on to show that ‘first’ will always remain an aberration. So when players like Ganguly and Kohli come along, their uncanny do-or-abuse spirit is hailed as a breath of fresh air. It is then that this ‘Australian way’ is celebrated, and acknowledged as an enhancer of performance on pitches; a forbidden viagra of sorts, only utilised to remind the world that glory comes in all nationalities, shapes and sizes. If India were always aggressors, then their 4-year World Cup reign wouldn’t have been appreciated half as much, and the world would have been baying for their blood in the 2015 competition. However, their unbeaten streak won hearts, because despite their modest professionalism, their attitudes always made them classic underdogs. Their obvious ability to look more human than machine on fields made them one of us; losers most days, and rare winners that carried the everyman-aura.

New Zealand’s unique ability to combine on-field aggressiveness and audacious cricket with smiling faces and quintessential spirit-of-sport statements made them the darlings of the World Cup. They didn’t growl and bay for blood on grounds; they were smiling assassins who let their cricket do most of the talking and growling. Their faces made you believe that they’re men of few words and quiet class during intimate family barbecues. 

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that an Aussie who has no concept of such behavior, who may have perhaps never been exposed to such spirit even once when he was growing up either on a farm or in a house, came out to sledge the Kiwis precisely because they are ‘nice guys’, and because ‘they deserve it for being so nice.’

Brad Haddin has the face of what you would call ‘an ass’, much like distinguished colleagues and all-blond boyband Watson, Warner, Clarke and Faulkner. 
He isn’t fortunate to have a pleasant face like Smith’s, or like Brett Lee, or Michael Bevan. He wants to be Shane Warne, and wants to be able to known as a hard, tough cricketer who could back up his silly words with performances. Even Kohli does that every now and then, to shut a nation up about his extracurricular activities. But Haddin looks like the kind of troll who must often be reminded of his failures, of which there have been many, when he walks down the street in foreign countries. He is the guy any tipsy spectator would love to rip into at a bar, simply because he can’t win an argument with words, and would invariably have to resort to fists and cuss-words when the excretion hits the oscillation. 

Whenever he speaks like an ordinary human being off the field too, he must feel the urge to show that he is chewing some obscene brand of gum or tobacco– all business-like, to intimidate without really possessing the skills to intimidate. He isn’t your Richards, Sehwag or AB, and has no right to trash-talk opposition players without being able to give it back in kind. He isn’t even among Australia’s top 5 wicketkeepers ever, and hence feels the need to remind teams that despite his averageman-fringeplayer-status, he is a World Cup Champion. It’s easy to forget he is one. He doesn’t exhibit the grace, maturity or aura of one. When he is dismissed by a bowler, he chews air and walks off quickly, almost retreating to escape the heat. He does this with needless taunts on the field, the way he gave journeyman Grant Elliott a sendoff– a Kiwi batsman, who at 36, has still played two more memorable innings than Haddin has in his entire career. 

This unnecessary urge to sledge may be a defence mechanism of sort for the more average Aussie players; a product of an inferiority complex that had even made coach Darren Lehmann quite the ass in his playing days. This was no form of mental disintegration; this was a shiny spare part of a heavy truck further trampling over the dead body of a respected man just to prove…that he was too respected? Death is death, why– despite the obvious situation of the game– would he want to display loud and ugly competitiveness when the end is nigh? If this was executed perhaps within the first 5 overs, when both teams were on even ground fighting like warriors for that extra inch, maybe the behaviour could have been excusable, or at least understood. But Haddin had to go on, soon to be followed by Faulkner, and show the world why the Aussies just don’t know when to quit. On, and off the field. As players, and as competing humans and athletes. 

But if Haddin didn’t exist, would the world know of Grant Elliott’s grace under pressure? Would they know how cool the Kiwis have been, or how utterly kind the Proteas have been?

Haddin’s baffling shoot-an-enemy-when-he’s-down behaviour could be put down to their need to emulate Steve Waugh and his bunch of snakes, or to an all-round admiration for German (Germans= European Aussies) superstar Michael Schumacher– who had as many admirers as he did haters– and their recipes of win-at-all-costs careers. Ferrari became iconic under Schumacher, instead of the other way around, and he carried around a legacy that proved to be too heavy for him to justify when he came back for another stint. Every loss became a nail into a coffin he had once built for his nicer rivals. His domination at his peak wasn’t boring, but looked on as revolutionary in a sport desperate for their next villain to create a cult hero. 

But if Waugh hadn’t been exposed to Greg Chappell and his tactics as an impressionable young cricketer, would he have passed on this chain of ‘Aussieness’ to the next generation of Ponting and co.? Maybe not, but then would Waugh have been Waugh? This is a double-edged sword, as always, and most Aussie legends come with the tag of greatness at a cost; a cost that is perhaps too steep for most subcontinental audiences and players to consider, and one that is invariably considered as bare necessities rather than luxuries by a nation that typifies excellence.

Even golf, the quieter outdoor sport, has characters like Woods and Garcia. Goody-goody icons are memorable too, but only if they’re the greatest of their times. Sampras existed purely because he machined temperamental opponents into quick painless losses. Agassi flapped around, Safin cursed and turned crowds against himself, while Mika Hakkinen exuded an icy cold-blooded-baddie aura. 

Federer is a rare exception– a gentleman athlete in an era of rough cheeky rowdies dominating most sporting arenas. Why wasn’t his mid-noughties domination boring? His artistry transcended competitiveness, as it still does, and he does not need a ‘bad guy’ to look like the hero. Nadal is more Aussie than Federer is, but his off-field behavior makes for an awkward bulldozer with a heart of gold. Only Hewitt was as Aussie as it got, and it showed, because his losses are as memorable and unfortunate as his dogged victories. The mighty West Indians of the ’70s and ’80s were too cool for school, so cool that they’d school willing rivals into submission– frightening and delighting in equal doses. They were heroes with shades of grey, super-spies that traveled the world with their sins, vices and dazzling skills. They were James Bond.

Anyone who defeats Australia becomes an instant against-all-odds superhero, because Aussies are to cricket what Russians and North Koreans are to Hollywood underdog movies. For us cricket fans to find our Rocky Balbao, we must recognise that his rivals are always bigger, better and more vicious than he is. The Australian cricketers are not what this sport deserves, but what every sport possibly needs. If not for them, we’d still be wondering why Sunil Gavaskar was once arrogant enough to protest against an umpire.

Four more years of hatred is a healthy thing for cricket fans around the world. Love will seem all the more sweeter when it comes. 
If it ever does.

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