England were adamant this catch behind of Yashasvi Jaiswal had carried - but the third umpire disagreed!
Whether watching from the press box at Edgbaston or their sitting in their loungerooms at home, Pat Cummins was sending the cricket world into meltdown.
From the first ball of the first men’s 2023 Ashes Test match, Australia deployed a glaringly defensive field. Bowlers targeted the stumps, while sweepers prowled along the off and legside ropes.
England, led by an organised Joe Root, feasted on a smorgasbord of singles. By days end, the total of 8 for 393 declared from just 78 overs appeared to indicate first blood being drawn by England.
It was a policy of containment and caution, not attack. And didn’t the old-boys hate it. Ricky Ponting and Darren Berry were somewhat retrained when they described such tactics as ‘sending the wrong message’.
Instead, it was left up to Alastair Cook to blurt out what they were itching to say: ‘It feels a bit un-Australian. They normally fight fire with fire.’
It is not the first time Cummins and coach Andrew McDonald have been accused of betraying the national identity, or ego. Since Justin Langer was moved on from the position of coach 18 months ago, the Golden Generation and their cronies have snarled and sniped at the current cricket regime.
During the 2022 Twenty20 World Cup Michael Clarke critiqued the Australia’s defensive gameplan, describing it as not just un-Australian, but ‘very un-Australian.’ Matthew Hayden was gentler during the third Test of the latest Border-Gavaskar series, when he described Peter Handscomb’s patient innings as ‘almost un-Australian’.
One would not be surprised if Steve Waugh, who is so Australian he unironically enjoys the music of John Williamson, might call for Cummins and McDonald to be placed on trial for high treason!
So, what exactly is this ‘Australian way’ of cricket that seems to be so inviolable? The explanation is as banal as most national archetypes: Australians always play aggressive, hard, uncompromising cricket.
They bowl at the stumps as much as their opponents’ heads, set wicket taking fields from the first ball until the last, score off anything loose, enforce the follow-on, ban the use of nightwatchmen, and if all else fails, mentally disintegrate their opponents into the ground.
Its direct lineage can be traced to Ian Chappell’s reign is captain in the 1970s. A man who ‘regarded a spade as a fucken shovel’ according to Gideon Haigh.
In fairness, this nationalistic defined cricketing model worked remarkably well when the opposition was meek, very well. But when the going got tough, when it faced a side that was neither outmatched nor intimated by it, things swiftly fell apart.
This is exactly what happened in 2001, when Waugh’s rampant machine were brought undone by the batting of VVS Laxman. So adept was Laxman at whipping the ball through leg that Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie resorted to pitching it at a fifth and even sixth stump line.
Rather than retreat, Waugh sent his bowlers repeatedly into the fray without any field coverage. What he got was a massacre. ‘Australia appeared to lack a Plan B,’ wrote Malcom Knox, ‘Waugh’s credo had only one plan of attack, which was just that: attack. When attack failed, he would keep attacking.’ Australia would lose the series 2-1.
Swallowing their pride, Australia returned three years under captain Adam Gilchrist with an unfamiliar plan. Gilchrist decided packed slip cordons and spiking run rates would be shelved. Knowing the Indian top order survived on boundaries through the on-side, they would set up a ring of fielders between mid-on and fine leg.
‘If Virender Sehwag and his cohorts wanted to score runs, they would have to hit them and run them. No more easy boundaries,’ recalled local advisor Darshak Mehta. The result was a famous 2-1 victory, the first and last Australian victory on Indian soil in half a century.
The sense of vindication Cummins must have felt when he clipped the winnings runs late last week must have been palpable, though he is clearly too humble a leader to spit it back in his critics faces. He fully well knows the first Test could have fallen to the old enemy without his unlikely batting intervention.
But with another win under his name there is no reason to feel his flexible approach should not continue, despite what the grumbles from the press box about ‘how things were done back in my day’.
Indeed, perhaps playing the “Australian way” may sometimes be playing the wrong way? Maybe an “un-Australian” way might deliver us the Ashes?