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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Australia - cricket's first dynasty?

In America we seem to be obsessed with the concept of sporting dynasties. As soon as a team wins a couple of championships, or does well in the post-season, the whispers and murmurs begin. For a true example of how much we talk about this here, just search for "sports dynasty" on Wikipedia!

All the professional and collegiate level sports in the USA have their dynasties---even collegiate cheerleading, although we challenge anyone to name the school who has won 15 championships between 1985-2006. The more well known dynasties, the ones that even sports fans seem to know, include the NFL's San Francisco '49ers who in the 1980's won four Superbowls in nine years; the Los Angeles who won five NBA titles between 1979-1991; and Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls of the 1990's who won an incredible six NBA titles in eight seasons and have the best single season record ever at 72-10.

The concept of a sports dynasty has not yet extended to cricket, though if it did, the Australian test and one-day cricket team of the 1990's and 2000's would surely qualify. Since 1999, they have not lost a world cup match, a streak that has brought three consecutive world titles. They have also won the Champions Trophy, defeated every single Test playing nation at least twice, won an amazing 68% of test matches (losing only 16%), and have suffered only 4 series defeats out of 40 test match series. Incidentally, South Africa are next best since 1997, winning 47% of test matches, while losing 27%. That is dominance in anybody's book.

So what makes a dynasty, then? Perhaps the simplest explanation is that a dynasty is the result of bringing a number of right individuals to the same place at the right time. Team presidents, coaches, assistant coaches, and players all converge at the same time to produce a number of winning seasons and championship success.

Another way to explain sporting dynasties is that they are a function of the coach. The best example of this is Phil Jackson, who coached the Bulls of the 1990's to their remarkable run of wins, and then went on to coach the Los Angeles Lakers to another three NBA titles from 1999-2004. Admittedly, Jackson coached a player who many consider the greatest player in the history of the NBA (Michael Jordan) and an all-star supporting cast while guiding the Bulls, and went on to coach another (at least) two future Hall of Famers with the Lakers (Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant). However it must be said that it is no small feat to continue winning at any level, and to continue to coach players to their full potential.

So is the Australian dynasty really a function of their coach? Probably not, since in cricket the role of the coach is diminished compared to other sports. While the coach has an important role to play (think Bob Woolmer and SA cricket in the late 1990's, and Alex Ferguson with Manchester United), the specifics of his role are determined by the particularly dynamic that exists within the team at the time of his reign. This is particularly apparent in South African cricket, where we seem to have had a series of coaches who have effectively been relegated to the role of training assistants under the influence of an overly-dominant captain, first with Hansie Cronje, then with Graeme Smith (just ask Ray Jennings).

Nor has the Australian cricket team achieved their success with the same core of players. Only three of the players who lost in the final against Sri Lanka in 1996 played in the World Cup triumph against Sri Lanka on Saturday. Having said that, those three players are among the greatest the game has seen - Glenn Mcgrath, Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting will go down in history as all-time greats, much like Michael Jordan and Shaq will do for basketball, and Babe Ruth and Roger Maris in baseball.

Therefore perhaps the real dynasty behind the success of this sporting program lies in the halls of its training institutions and not on its fields. Perhaps these sporting dynasties have managed to attract the right combination of individuals on a regular basis so that their production of top players and coaches has remained high and constant for the past 10-15 years.

The most startling of all outcomes from the world cup has been the difference between Australia and South Africa's reactions to their performances. One team has gone on record saying that there is no problem, the world cup was a great success and they look forward to implementing lessons learned, further saying that we do not need a drastic change in personnel or structures. The other has begun planning for the next World Cup, announcing a squad of players who have been awarded contracts, including 4 completely new names to the international fold. The great irony is that the team who is planning is Australia, while South Africa, who managed to win only 4 out of 7 games against test-playing nations, is under the impression that things are on course and we are a coin-toss or a lucky break away from being as good as Australia.

Three weeks before the World Cup, Australia announced that Tim Nielsen would be taking over from John Buchanan as the coach of Australia after the tournament. Clearly, Nielsen would be stepping into some large shoes, but he's also had the support and backing of an administration that has learned the rather rare and unique trick of learing from their success. In South Africa, we seem to struggle to learn from our failures. And that is one reason why we will never become a great sporting dynasty, the mentality of South Africans to circle the ox-wagons and put up their defences will prevent us from ever moving forward.

So what makes a great sporting dynasty? Foresight, and the ability to plan, strategize and implement those ideas. And key to this is identifying and then training up the right people to fill the right jobs. As has been discussed on this site, the training of coaches is crucial to a country's sporting success, and so perhaps one final way to explain sports dynasties is by examining those individuals who do the work behind the scenes, the coach, his support staff and the administration.

For a great read about the type of person it takes to build a sports dynasty, check out this article about Red Auerbach, the architect of nine straight NBA titles with the Boston Celtics.


Anonymous said...

For an example of how NOT to do it, see the England cricket team.

After snatching a historic series vicory over Australia in 2005 and closing in on the Aussies in the world rankings to number 2 they imploded losing the return series in 2006-7 5-0 and getting dumped from the World Cup with barely a whimper.