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Is one defeat all it takes?

December 22, 2003

For a few days now I have been thinking of Lance Klusener and his suicidal run for glory at Edgbaston. That stunning mix-up with Allan Donald cost the Proteas a berth in the World Cup 1999 final.

It will, perhaps, never be known which invisible hand nudged Klusener, who had played his heart out through the tournament to single-handedly haul the South Africans to the semi-final, to exile common sense and make that dash, or which voice commanded Donald to not see that his partner was charging down.

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Just one run was needed for a win, and one would have assumed that with three balls to go and one wicket in hand, the pair would have been a little judicious.

But no. South Africa had to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory; the match had to end in a tie; and the Aussies had to win the Cup.

What to do? Such is life.

But Klusener, who orchestrated that Thursday calamity, was made of stern stuff. His most profound observation about that event -- So what? No one died -- has become part of cricket folklore.

What that reply shows about the man is what I have thought of often, and is what I have been thinking of for the past few days.

Was he a heartless man? Possibly. Was he an arrogant man? Possibly. Was he a self-centred man who didn't give a fig? Possibly.

A more charitable view, which many subscribe to, is that he really didn't realise what the fuss was about. For him, it was just a game that ended badly. There was no cause for the whole nation to go into mourning.

Australians right now need to think about that match and reflect on Klusener's philosophy a bit. It may help the sporting nation get over its current grief at losing the Adelaide Test.

If the level of the Tasman Sea has risen over the last week, you can be sure the tears of Australians -- imagine, an Australian crying! -- have had a lot to do with it.

John Buchanan wrote a letter by hand to his players even before the Test was officially lost. One of the paragraphs in it read: "Boys, I love each and every one of you, but I am so disappointed with the soulless, un-baggy green, immature performance today."

There was more from Father Buchanan.

"I love each and every one of you, but like my own family, you thrill, you frustrate, you anger. I question, what progress have we made as a team, as individuals."

It must be mentioned that times have changed, for sure, because normally a coach would have been chased all the way to the nearest ditch for saying something as polite as that.

But that is not the point here.

The point is that the Aussie players are being pilloried by not just the coach, but by all and sundry. Why this sense of collective outrage? For losing just one Test?!

Overnight, the shine has gone off the quality that the Australians were universally hailed for -- aggression. Suddenly, as far as experts are concerned, they have become reckless and arrogant.

Really? And what is it that separates humility from arrogance? Genius from commonplace? Astute from reckless? And how does one cross that thin line?

I have an answer: if a batsman slashes and the ball which, upon being hit, increases in velocity, takes a trajectory and goes tantalisingly over the third man to fall over the rope, it is sheer genius. But if, on the other hand, the ball, god forbid, travels a few inches less and the third man manages to come under it, then the batsman is reckless.

Australia batted the way they know. They did not, as experts put it, try to grind out the opposition; they did not respect the situation; and they certainly did not have Plan B.

But do they need Plan B?

Their strategy, in a nutshell, is simple and devastatingly effective: bat fast, bowl out the opposition quickly, and then apply the pincers.

And if you really squeeze all the literature on cricket, this is the essence that you will really get. There is nothing else that you need.

But like all plans, this, too, has a drawback. If a team bats fast first up, it leaves a lot of time in the Test to force a result.

Had Australia made around 250-275 on the first day, instead of that humongous score of 400, the match would have ended in a draw for all you know.

Because India came close to their total of 556, it was anybody's game.

The probability of a team matching a first innings score of 550+ is minuscule. But however slim that chance may be, there will be times that such scores are matched. Which is what India did.

The Australians, to be fair, ran into inspiration, pure and simple. Forget Plan B, they would have lost the Test even if they had Plan Z.

Also, for everyone who says Australia should have been circumspect, here is this: Did India win this Test by being circumspect? No, India won because two batsmen decided to take the Test by the scruff of the neck; India won because Dravid and Laxman were momentarily touched by divinity; India also won because one team has to fail.

The Australians play elemental cricket, and that is why their success rate is so high. But they cannot win every time, and this is something Australians have to contend with.

Australians also have to contend with the fact that their team has touched such heights that it has now nowhere to go but down. Surely not in the immediate future, but what in the next three or four years? What happens after McGrath, Warne and others quit?

It is a cycle that never fails to repeat. Look back 20 years, when the West Indians were taking everyone to the cleaners. Back then it would have been unimaginable that their team would ever be in such a state of decay. But that is what happened.

This is where India has the chance to step in. The Adelaide Test has been memorable for them, but then the history of Indian cricket is made up only of such ephemeral moments: the 1983 Cup; the Hero Cup; the NatWest Trophy final; the Eden Gardens Test against Australia; and now the Adelaide win... but such showers hardly make for a good monsoon.

Between every such moment are all those spent crying over what could have been, sneaking back home under cover of darkness, throwing stones at our cricketers' houses.

India must stop chasing these butterflies now and seize the initiative. It is the only team that is in any position to mount a successful challenge.

Ponting has very rightly reminded the Indians not to gloat over what happened in Adelaide; that India have no right to aspire to greatness right now.

But he must also remember that India were the first to show that the Aussies were beatable and, who knows, in three years, Ponting may have to eat his words.

If that happens, just remember what Klusener said: "No one died."

PS: Has anyone, of late, seen Steve Waugh, that old lion, playing his famous mind games? It is Ponting, the Test skipper-in-waiting, who is doing all the talking and trying to assert himself. At least the Aussies should do Waugh the charity of not retiring him before he has retired.

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