Do old habits die hard or are new habits just so hard to form? Is there a difference? One thing’s for sure, if you have to break an old habit to move to a desired habit it’s compounded and probably twice as hard.
You only have to observe the Australian cricket team in India at the moment to appreciate that new habits, like playing spin bowling on dusty wickets with dancing feet, are hard to form. This is nothing new, mind you, for even when we had the best spinner in the world – and maybe history – we weren’t the best players of spin in the world. When changing habits, both structural and mindset issues must be addressed and the cricket team is suffering on both counts.
For example, within the game’s infrastructure, our pitches from the WACA to the SCG and everywhere else have become more like relations than just friends. If they were human they would be prohibited from procreating as their gene pools are now so similar. We no longer have an SCG “turner” which propelled the careers of spinners like Bob "Dutchy" Holland, Murray Bennett and even Allan Border – Holland and Bennett famously combining in Clive Lloyd’s final game in 1985 to end the 27-Test unbeaten run of the West Indies in full cry.
From an attitude perspective, Test cricket is being challenged by its abbreviated progeny, Twenty20. As a result it may be unreasonable to expect players to become great Test cricketers, or even reasonably memorable Test cricketers when you are more lucratively rewarded for having a Twenty20 mindset. In the stakes of streetcred, Twenty20 is played with matchsticks, not money, when compared to Test cricket, but in the stakes of your bank credit it is the opposite. And, of course, motivation and form often follow the money so the habits created by our present structures and mindsets direct some of our cricketers to put a Twenty20 value on their Test match innings.
Michael Cheika, the Waratahs rugby coach, similarly has a challenge to change old conservative habits, and in the face of a disappointing and comprehensive 35-6 loss to the Brumbies in Canberra on Saturday night it is reasonable to question if he is making progress. In his time in charge Cheika’s attitude has been akin to the new CEO outing the bad while illuminating the light on the hill. He is the merchant of hope selling to a somewhat jaded, but still willing, following – it’s just that they are not sure just how far that light is away. Hopefully not years.
What needs to drive Cheika from here is to rejuvenate the Waratahs with a Test match solution, not a Twenty20 solution; he cannot cut corners in his pursuit of entertaining, attacking and winning rugby.
It may seem an anomaly but attacking and entertaining rugby requires more structure,not less. The structure becomes the platform from which instinct can thrive. Instinct on its own can be too easily smothered and quickly dissipate to become headless. Structure on its own is predictable and eventually impotent. But instinct born of structure and attitude is irrepressible. But what comes first, the attitudinal shift or the structural?
Cheika is putting attitude ahead of results at this stage, evidenced by his team’s willingness to continue to attack when coming from behind in previous matches. But he is also smart enough to comprehend that, in the hope business, results do buy some time, so wins are not a “nice to have” but a “must have”. The Brumbies prevailed because they are at least 12 months ahead of the Waratahs on the change curve.
They are now becoming increasingly enterprising and their winning ways are bringing the crowds back to Canberra Stadium. But their rebirth has been enterprise through discipline and structure, with the precision of their lineout, scrum, defensive patterns and accuracy at the breakdown, giving them the right to bedazzle.
An example of the difference between the two teams could be drawn from two lineouts which were representative of the trend of this game: one from which the Brumbies clinically drove and Ben Mowen scored, the other from which they expertly defused a possible Waratah return-fire. It is illustrative that the detail in both the Brumbies’ attack and defence in the set play is ahead of the Waratahs, and it is through such a platform of basics that the Brumbies have built their compelling game plan.
Cheika is acutely aware the task he has assumed is a marathon and that for his team to be successful he has to back himself long term, learning from the difficulties and the detail of Saturday night and working hard to recognise and remedy both.