The Aussie squad for the 2006/7 Ashes series was a fun line-up. Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist were the captain and vice-captain respectively, Matt Hayden and Justin Langer had their love-in opening partnership, while Damien Martyn and Michaels Hussey and Clarke were the class of the middle order. All-round talents of Andrew Symonds and Shane Watson were backing up those batsman and the bowlers, consisting of the incredible fire power of Mitchell Johnson, Brett Lee and Shaun Tait, and the reliability of Glenn McGrath and Stuart Clark. Shane Warne was doing his thing too, of course.
When you look at such a line-up, you wonder how it could not get the 5-0 result that it achieved, but it had come off a loss with a similarly strong squad in England a year and a half earlier. Regardless, it’s not the strength of the team that I’m focussing on here, but the capacity for the players to provide something for the fan to look forward to. Whether you like the personalities of the players or the skillsets they brought, there was enough going on in that squad to provide something for everyone.
I love Test cricket, and I try to watch it where I can, but I had to watch it then. I had to because there were players I wanted to watch. Since then the players from that squad dropped off one by one and watching the side became, slowly and softly, just not as fun. The last two to go that I really cared about were Ponting and Johnson. Ponting was your cricketer’s batsman, who I first heard of on the radio when I was swimming in my parents’ pool in the early ‘90s; the young gun had made a century in each innings of a Sheffield Shield game for Tassie, the youngest to do so. I followed him from there.
You could say Johnson was a flawed genius, but I don’t think he put that much thinking into it, more grunt and effort. It was perhaps when he was thinking about it that he got into trouble. Whatever the reason, he was capable of bowling a whole series not knowing where it was going, or bowling a series ending careers. You weren’t quite sure what you were going to get, but if his batting was on, which could be quite destructive and fun in itself, you could strap yourself in for a demon bowling display.
Watching him in the 2013/4 Ashes was fun. My brother and I were lucky enough to get great seats for day one, and sat with rapt attention as Johnson brought the crowd to life in the final session of the day. We were right over his shoulder and the energy he put into attacking those batsmen was extraordinary. It was a brutal spell that made me appreciate how courageous Test batsmen are, even the ones who retire scarred from it.
At his peak, Clarke was an excellent batsman. He could cash in and make a lot of runs, and he did so in a period when Australia weren’t that good which is admirable. All that said, you can only make one first impression, and the impression he made upon me and many observers was not a flash one. He was cocky and singularly driven, seemingly for himself. He appeared flashily in ads in his jocks, and most importantly for me as a cricket follower, he kept going out at crucial times. If he was in at the end of a session or the end of the day, I had no confidence in him staying in, nor did I feel there would be any obvious consequences to him in the media or selection should he get out. It seemed he was being given a golden ride.
Whether it was his fault or not, the era of Aussie cricket with Clarke at the helm was the most unlikeable I can recall. The 2013/4 Ashes series with Johnson doing his thing was enjoyable almost entirely because of Johnson and Ryan Harris being unstoppable. Perhaps Chris Rogers was someone to barrack for, but he was a pretty boring batsman who was, in the end, a feel good story for being a battler that got his day in the sun. The squad is predominantly a who’s who of stinky blokes, flat track bullies and ordinary cricketers. Poor old Shane Watson being the ultimate example of the Clarke era.
Steve Smith was emerging at this time, but for me he’s an ultimate talent with extreme hand eye coordination who is not all that good watch. I’m sure he is for many, but aesthetically or emotionally, he doesn’t do anything for me. It is only this summer, when Peter Handscomb got his chance that my interest levels kicked back in, and in doing so reminded me of what I’d been missing; someone to barrack for!
I’d been watching Handscomb’s results for some time, and was super keen for him to get a chance. When not wicket keeping, his results had been excellent at First Class level, and he bats with class. He’s a composed young man who bats with time acting in his favour, and he’s Victorian. I really wanted him to succeed, and was so pleased he did. When he almost sheepishly raised his bat to acknowledge his maiden Test century it was a beautiful sight. I've had enough of batsmen jumping around whilst going through a well-practiced routine of set celebrations, most notably by another cricketer I won't name but will describe as being a left-handed, fast paced opening batsman Australian whose initials are D.W. and whose name rhymes with Favid Corner. It's David Warner.
The emergence of young Matt Renshaw, who I knew so little about, but who has turned out to be a true opening bat who values his wicket, has a good temperament and a penchant for batting time and making runs sans histrionics, also got me a bit excited. Two young batsmen getting me, once again, to care about my team, and all of a sudden the sport meant so much more. I was watching the sport not just because I appreciate the complexities and skills at play, or to see my team win, but I was watching it because I was liking the team.
In the footy, my AFL team is Richmond, and for some time I haven’t enjoyed watching my team. Unlike with the cricket, this isn’t because of a lack of star power or players to like in the side, but because I don’t like the way they play. Footy is indeed a different beast to cricket, which is so individual. Teams in cricket live and die on the back of individual performance. In footy, there is a manner in which the team plays together, and I don’t like my team’s style.
And no, this wasn’t just something that started in 2016 when we regressed from a win/loss perspective, but something that had been around for a while as the coach, Damien Hardwick, undid his attacking game plan after the 2013 Elimination Final Loss to Carlton, and put it back together in a stilted, slow style that I have struggled to become emotionally involved with in any meaningful way other than anger and frustration.
So despite the presence of exciting, in fact brilliant players like Dustin Martin, Alex Rance, Jack Riewoldt, Trent Cotchin and Brett Deledio, I haven’t enjoyed watching my team play. They play boring footy, and they look miserable doing it. They look like they’re trudging their way through a long day’s work, and not like they’re PLAYING footy. I understand that it is their job, but you compare the manner in which the Tigers go about their business to the way the Dogs do with their fervent, reckless enthusiasm, and it doesn’t look good.
Those individuals mentioned have mostly been impacted by the style, certainly Riewoldt and Cotchin. Rance has been an exception, and it is great to watch him, but I wish we didn’t need him defending so desperately. Of course he’s succeeded; he’s a desperado operating in desperate conditions. And Martin? Perhaps he’s a beast that’s a touch too uncomplicated to properly follow some of the complicated instructions that have come his way. I still feel he could have blown the competition apart in the right circumstances.
When it comes to the Tiges, I’ve followed all manner of crap sides, and I’ve never been less enthused about the idea of the next season than I am now. There was always Richo to look forward to in the past, despite how bad we were, there was always Richo. Besides, we may have been poorly skilled, but at least the intent was right. I hope that Richmond’s well acknowledged “four walls” has allowed the concept of fun back in through the door, or at the very least the idea of scoring, or moving the ball quickly.
Anyway, that’s enough of that.
It’s fascinating that you can continue to watch or follow your side even when you don’t like them. I’ve followed the Test teams when the characters within them weren’t to my liking, and I watched every game the Tiges have played, often multiple times, despite my disgust for the methods used. I wonder how long that could go on until I just got totally sick of it.
I’m glad there are some players emerging at Test level that I can enjoy, it would be nice to see some more, but it’s a good start. And as for the Tigers, I live in hope. It’d be nice to see an overhaul of things and the players playing with more flair and daring, because I and many others will respond in the way fans do, with joy. It would be nice to once again like my team.
Follow Greg Gibson on Twitter: @GregGibbo28