No gang of gunfighters ever took over a town as hard-eyed and authoritatively as Steve Waugh's Marauders did Old Trafford this week.
If the field was an eerily floodlit Main Street, littered with English dead, the committee room where Waugh later coolly analysed the effect of the night's work had the demeanour of an an extremely solemn wake. The usually indefatigable Dickie Bird, whose optimistic view of the world often suggests it could only be threatened by an elephant gun, caught the mood well enough when he held up his arms and asked: "For heavens sake, what are we going to do?" So much for the prospect of the most evenly fought Ashes series in a decade and a half. One cricket-orientated bookmaker guessed at the starting odds : Australia 2-1 on, England 5-1.
After the latest thrashing of England in the triangular NatWest Series, the odds looked like a gift lacking only wrapping paper and pretty ribbons. For some time Australia have been recognised as the world's best cricket team. But no analysis of the achievements of the reigning world champions, no browsing of the form lines that will be carried into the opening Test at Edgbaston next month, can begin to match the impact of their physical presence.
Waugh embodies their style and their aura. The Australian captain is about as equivocal as Ned Kelly on the rampage, but shows no disposition to crow. He simply celebrates the latest compelling evidence of his team's rage to win.
He refused to trash England's feeble batsmanship and he was almost uncomprehending when someone asked if, in view of their searing progress towards next Saturday's Lord's final of the one-day series, he might have a little difficulty in motivating his players. "If anyone needs motivating at this level, in this team," said Waugh finally, "I reckon they'd be better off playing marbles." Waugh's vowels were as hard as granite, and so was the look in his eyes.
Most striking of all was Waugh's lack of coyness about the psychological impact of Thursday night's performance, especially that of the beautifully balanced assault of the pace men Jason Gillespie and Glenn McGrath. Of course, he said, you could not forget that England were without such pillars as Mike Atherton, Graham Thorpe and the captain, Nasser Hussain. Nor could you so easily relate performance in one-day and Test cricket. But maybe there was some long-term value to be drawn from the extent of Australian mastery.
"I think you could say," said Waugh, "we won a few battles tonight. The way Gillespie bowled Vaughan was maybe particularly significant."
Gillespie, with the pace phenomenon Brett Lee breathing fire at his shoulder, bowled Vaughan, such a resolute force in the second Test against Pakistan, first ball. It was not so much a dismissal as an evisceration. It was Vaughan's second successive duck. He walked back to the pavilion in a daze. Two weeks ago he was being hailed as the cornerstone of English batting. Now he looked more of a candidate for therapy. He was scarcely alone.
Gillespie and McGrath bowled with a passion and a proficiency which seemed to dwarf the demands of the occasion, but then it was really a question of grasping what the issue really was. It was not the prize of another one-day tournament bauble. It was the destruction of another team's psyche, and long before the result had been settled in the surreal night that objective had been dramatically achieved. At one point Waugh had three slips, two gullies and a short leg. If he had had a howitzer, no doubt he would have employed that too.
Seeing such raw aggression in a one-day game was rather like encountering Billy the Kid at a tea-dance. But it wasn't the violent intent of the Aussies that lingered so strongly in the mind. It was the sense of supremely accomplished professional sportsmen who have come to realise that ruling the world has to be a performance all of a piece. It is something you cannot put down and then pick up when the time is deemed right.
What Australia did so tellingly on Thursday night was decide that it was time to turns the screws on England, to back them into a corner filled with doubts. If Vaughan was the most recognisable victim, identifying others was not so difficult. Andrew Caddick and Darren Gough bowled well, but their relative success came in stark isolation. They were supported by a demoralised Dominic Cork. After McGrath and Gillespie, Waugh sent in an exuberant Shane Warne. The accumulation of Australian accomplishment was at this point stunning.
So, too, was the quality of their leadership. Waugh turned the game with his beautifully crafted 64. When the heart-stirring Ricky Ponting left after a few sumptuous shots, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist having also gone cheaply, Waugh carried his burden with an easy, feathery touch. At 36, he knows that his innings is drawing to a close, but not before he has defined his legacy. It is one which stretches beyond the boundary markers, and at Old Trafford this week we saw it in all its unbridled force. When he arrived here a few weeks ago, he expained his philosophy with an emphasis that was indeed reflected at every point in the latest defeat of England.
"'No regrets' and 'never satisfied' are the two things I've always believed and tried to instil into the team," he said. "I believe in giving players' responsibility; if they need motivating, they just don't belong in the team. I'm not interested in a side that relies on a couple of stars to win. What happens if they fail or they are injured? My job is to get all 11 to take responsibility and get everyone playing to the best of their ability and playing together. I want guys who I could rely on in the trenches, who know what's expected and don't need shouting at."
In another dressing-room such words might carry more than a hint of the platitude, but on Waugh's lips, at this time, they are more an explanation than so much wishful thinking. Waugh raised some cynical eyebrows when he had his men stop off in Gallipoli and consider for a little while the sacrifices of another Australian generation. He certainly broke the hard-drinking, hard-swearing mould when he involved himself in a Calcutta charity for young, abandoned girls afflicted with leprosy, a decision he reached while reading an appeal notice pushed under his hotel door. At the time he was agonising over a defeat which he considered highly avoidable. "I guess such things give you a little perspective," he says.
But then they scarcely lessen the requirement to win. After admonishing his brother, Mark, and Warne for their "foolishness" in passing on information to an Indian bookmaker, he swore that he could just not imagine an Australian throwing a game. He said he would cut the face of such a pariah out of any team photograph.
You could see him doing it, coldly, deliberately. Such an edge pervaded everything Australia did in the damp Manchester night. Waugh's men played with an unshakeable rhythm. Their talented invaded every corner of the old ground. But their will was the thing. It simply crushed the life out of England. Dickie Bird wondered, despairingly, about what could be done. In the silence that followed you could have heard a dingo bark in Rochdale.Reuse content