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Looking within for a challenge

Australia's cricket team has had nobody to provoke it to greatness, writes Rohit Brijnath

— FILE PHOTO: AFP

FACILITATOR PAR EXCELLENCE: John Buchanan's biggest success is the fostering of an environment for self-improvement, which the players bought into and embraced.

In the mornings, when he awoke, Larry Bird, the lanky hero of the Boston Celtics in the 1980s, reflexively reached for the newspaper and searched for mention of his rival, LA Lakers star Magic Johnson. As Bird put it: "The first thing I would do was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn't care about anything else." In some ways, Bird measured himself by Johnson, and Johnson by Bird, driven to outdo each other, practicing that extra 30 minutes so that they wouldn't have to be second best, becoming better because of each other.

In another sweaty arena, Ali saw Joe Frazier not just as his adversary but his inspiration, and in Manila, after both men had almost gone to the other side of sanity in the humidity, Ali said: "He brought out the best in me. I couldn't have done what I did without him."

All through sport we see this — the exceptional athlete, the unplayable team, and then the contender who pushed them to discover their limits, who needled them, challenged them, lifted them. Would Sampras be up there without Agassi, would his game be as sharp, his desire as pure? No chance. Agassi was the high bar Sampras had to constantly leap.

Said Sampras on the day he was done, the 2002 US Open final: "Andre brings out the best in me. He has that extra gear that is very tough to play against."

A unique team

Everywhere teams are obsessed and stimulated by their sporting enemy. But Australia's cricket team has had nobody to provoke it to greatness. It makes them a unique and interesting team.

India perked up for a while against Australia and then quickly fell back exhausted. England collected itself for one Ashes, then found the effort too much. South Africa merely talked itself to a standstill. Rarely have the Australian cricketers felt the benefit of a rival. That they have nevertheless stayed in excellence's embrace is a singular achievement.

Martina Navratilova once said of Chris Evert: "Playing against Chris is like battling part of your own nature. You know she will never give up and so you can't either." Ponting's pack has had no one to measure itself against, no one has lacerated their ego and incited them to work harder. It makes their pursuit of greatness pure, for they have wanted to become better as opposed to having to become better.

Teams steal ideas from each other, runners note tactics from competitors, swimmers watch each other's musculature, Barcelona eyes Real Madrid when it buys players, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett compelled each other to go faster, Nadal's lefty forehand has necessitated an improvement in Federer's backhand. Australia has been disadvantaged by not being able to learn from its rivals. Still it has surged.

Barring the odd recent glitch, Australia has not faced sustained opposition in the one-day arena. Yet the victory margins at this World Cup confirm this team has in fact progressed. To have done so, in the absence of competition, suggests Australia's challenges and inspiration has arrived from within.

Since no one set the bar for them, as Chelsea did last year for Manchester United, they had to set it for themselves. As admiring Western Australia sports psychologist Sandy Gordon says: "The Australian team culture is about being pleased but never satisfied." He sees John Buchanan, cricket's lean thinker, as fostering a "self-improvement" environment, which the players bought into and embraced.

It is much harder for a team to constantly look to itself for inspiration.

To remain motivated perhaps the Australians have been more creative in their training, constantly inventing methods to stay focused. With no one setting standards, the only way Australia could decide whether it was going forward was to be demandingly honest with itself. It's not easy when your finest opponent is in the mirror.

It's a shame the world's teams, with Australia as an inspiring model before them, have failed to advance. It's a bigger shame that the inertia of the world's teams have ensured we'll never know how much better these Australians could be.

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