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Julian Edelman – the perfect big game player

He always popped up at important moments.

Nudging away from a defender, dropping a deadly side-step into space. His worn, well-worked hands seemed to just attract the ball at the most vital of times, like magnets willing the quarterback to trust in him.

Not too many players in NFL history can retire with a blazing legacy of being a play-offs specialist. In Julian Edelman’s case, he most certainly can – everything he did was blockbuster, underlined by grit and rugged determination.

When seeing the New England punt returner/ wide receiver play, it doesn’t surprise how unorthodox his origin story was as an NFL superstar. From humble beginnings in Redwood City, California, Edelman shone as a severely undersized quarterback in high school and college. In his final year at Kent State University, he begged for his coaches to give him opportunities in different positions when NFL scouts attended games. Most college footballers envy the quarterback; in Edelman’s case, he was aware enough to veer away from the coveted position in order to give his future the best chance at flourishing in the elusive NFL system.

Of course, this down-to-earth take on America’s game resonated deeply with the great Bill Belichick. The Patriots coach, despite being in the throes of multiple Super Bowl wins, caught wind of the name Edelman during 2009. A story of the college quarterback refusing to give up when trailing 48-3 in a game appealed directly to the master coach’s philosophy. Keeping his cards close to his chest, the Patriots selected a soon to be five foot ten Edelman with pick 232 in the 2009 draft. The Californian kid hadn’t even been invited to the Combine, but now he had a chance to forge an NFL career.

A young Julian Edelman as quarterback of Kent State University in 2008 (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Despite his willing nature to adapt and try new positions, it was never smooth sailing for Edelman. Much like his soon-to-be fellow heroes in Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, nothing was handed to Edelman on a platter at his time in New England. His first assignment was becoming a punt returner – a unique skill with a high amount of difficulty attached to it. Reading the trajectory of a high-reaching kick, and adjusting for various spins and weather conditions, makes catching the leather a tough task. When the first part is complete, reading the opposition’s defensive coverage and picking gaps in an unrewarding position is just as difficult.

Years later Belichick would name Edelman as the only player he has seen who adapted immediately to punt returning despite having no college or junior experience in the position. But it wasn’t ever that simple – New England crowds booed Edelman in 2009 during practice matches when he continually fumbled catches and botched returns. In the next three years, he would feature intermittently as the team’s leading punt returner, eventually building the trust of his roster to carry out the duties regularly.

But players can’t rely on one minor spot if they want to become a valuable asset to an NFL franchise. Ever aware of this, Edelman began an arduous process of becoming a talented wide receiver. Also gaining minutes as a defensive back, Edelman slowly made a name for himself when he began registering punt return touchdowns that broke New England records for length. It took until 2012 for the now bearded and muscular runner to break out as a star.

Having played in New England’s 2011 Super Bowl XLVI upset loss to the New York Giants as a punt returner, Edelman took it upon himself to become the Patriots’ main receiver. Since settling in Boston in 2009, Edelman had sat behind the famous Wes Welker in the pecking order – Welker’s record and familiarity with Brady meant they created an intimate thrower-catcher partnership.

But in 2012 new opportunities gave Edelman the perfect chance to explode. With a firm base of hard work behind him and his trademark tough mentality, he slowly took the matter into his own hands. Unfortunately, an optimistic start was ruined by numerous injuries – another hallmark of his arduous career. At season’s end he was offered a one-year lifeline contract. 2013 became do-or-die.

Of course, with his back against the wall, Edelman produced his best work. 2013 was a breakout season, with the pacey running receiver starring as a primary option in the Patriots’ offense. New England would go on to reach the AFC Championship game and lose a chance at another Super Bowl to Denver, but Edelman’s whirlwind season was a shining light for the Patriots. All of a sudden, they had uncovered another gem from the seventh round of the NFL draft.

Edelman became a mainstay of New England’s offence in 2013, developing great chemistry with Tom Brady (Photo by Fansided)

Now on a four-year deal, the next few years became Edelman’s golden period. A first Super Bowl win in 2014 was sealed in dramatic fashion, as Edelman’s first touchdown of the 2014 play-off series came with just over two minutes left on the clock in Super Bowl XLIX. The reception and touchdown proved to be the game’s final score, as he put the Patriots in front. With Malcolm Butler famously intercepting Seattle’s last drive, New England held on for a memorable win and Edelman clinched his first ring.

The good times kept coming – constant success resulted in another trip to Super Bowl LI in 2016. Having already surpassed Wes Welker with 70 post-season touchdown receptions to register the most in New England history early in the play-offs, Edelman entered the Super Bowl in ripe form. When faced with a 28-3 deficit, he was one of the most vocal, telling teammates it would be “a helluva story” when they came back. Staying true to his word, he led the offensive side back into the game.

In the tense final stages, Edelman snared the greatest catch in Super Bowl history, jamming himself between three Atlanta players after Brady’s throw was tipped. Bobbling around, Edelman managed to secure the catch just millimetres from the turf. New England went on to score, and ultimately win the greatest Super Bowl in NFL history in an overtime special.

If Edelman’s renaissance as a fiery receiver needed any more success, he got it in 2018. He was suspended without the chance to appeal an illicit substance ban in the opening four matches, but was soon reinstated to lead New England’s receiving bunch. Now at the peak of his powers, Edelman held a remarkably perfect passer rating for the intermittent times he got to fling the ball on trick plays. Upon reaching another Super Bowl, Edelman seemed to be the only offensive player thriving in the dour, defensive game.

His 10 passes for 141 yards eclipsed anyone on the field – he just consistently popped up to thwart the LA Rams – and it gave him the Super Bowl MVP title. Having endured many injuries to his knees, shoulders, ankles, ribs and head, Edelman entered NFL Hall of Fame calculations with a third Lombardi trophy and an MVP award from the biggest game of the year.

‘The Catch’: in the middle of a magnificent career, this Super Bowl moment stands alone (Photo by The Seahawk)

It’s a shame that Edelman’s career was cut short by injury. Instead of flocking with Brady and Gronkowski to Tampa Bay, Edelman ardently tried to convince them to stay, underlining his loyalty to the franchise that believed in a short and skinny quarterback who struggled to catch punts. He was the perfect competitor and teammate, extracting every last bit of effort from a well-worn body, and with an ounce of big-game swagger that created some of the NFL’s greatest ever play-off moments.

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Are Stefanos and Naomi the new faces of tennis?

The Australian Open falls at the start of the ATP calendar, giving fresh players new opportunities to start the year off successfully.

In years gone by, the likes of Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have pounced on the chance, snatching Aussie crowns with glee as they settled their spot up the top of the world rankings. But the disrupted 2021 version of the Grand Slam has shown some cracks in the throne of tennis’ biggest names. With only a handful of matches left, emerging talent has the potential to throw the tennis world into chaos.

Naomi Osaka has been a whirlwind ever since she burst onto the scene. Winning a US Open against the hometown favourite in Serena Williams made sure she received plenty of attention rapidly. Following it up with the 2019 Australian Open confirmed the Japanese star was to be Williams’ biggest threat in her twilight years. In search of a drought-breaking title, Williams has been constantly thwarted by Osaka in clutch moments over the last couple of years.

Yesterday was no exception. Williams went into their semi-final clash as a heavy favourite. Her improved agility and overall athleticism had made Serena fly to a new level throughout the past tournament, pummelling opponents with powerful ease. With world number one Ash Barty being eliminated in her quarter final match, the path looked open for Serena to finally claim a 24th Grand Slam title.

But Osaka stood in her way, barrelling the gate shut to the promised land. In a foul swoop in front of a half-full Rod Laver Arena, the Japanese wunderkind recovered after a slow start to eliminate Williams in straight sets. It was a particularly painful blow; Serena, now finding form that rivalled her prime, still couldn’t move the boulder of Osaka. The semi-final may turn out to become a defining result; could Serena Williams have finally met her match?

Naomi Osaka spanks a backhand against Serena (Photo by David Gray / AFP)

The real confirmation will come tomorrow night. Osaka is a wonderful player. Her game is flawless, and she has so many powerful weapons that can help her win matches in a variety of ways. Her athleticism is booming, and her shot making is blistering. If she can put all of it together to beat the wily American Jennifer Brady and claim a second Australian Open then she may finally be the main woman in the tennis circuit. Australia may just witness the changing of the guard; a process that many have waited for over a decade to occur.

But the women’s draw isn’t the only intriguing prospect. For the majority of the tournament, the male side of the bracket has followed a well-worn route. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were pitted against each other from the opening round, and looked raring to meet in another tense instalment of an Australian Open final. Both had advanced to the quarter finals, gritting their teeth through injury concerns to rise above the pack.

Djokovic held up his side of the bargain, blowing away controversies and a mid-section strain to barrel his way into the final in straight sets. His semi-final win came a night after Nadal’s tournament took a nosedive.

Stefanos Tsitsipas made himself known to the world when he upset Roger Federer in Australia a year ago. Despite going on to fall in straight sets to Rafa, he started a chain of action that would see him enter 2021 in the top five of the world rankings.

But his real arrival may have come when he faced Rafa once again. Having been subjected to a Nadal masterclass for the best part of three sets, the usually fiery Greek managed to steady himself and win the third set. Then the fourth. Before disbelieving eyes could process it, Tsitsipas had won his way through in five sets, completing a remarkable comeback with newfound maturity. If the long-haired Tsitsipas can control his emotions and produce such explosive tennis often, then he may be turning the final corner before Grand Slam success.

Stefanos Tsitsipas celebrates his remarkable win over Rafa (Getty Images)

Despite Tsitsipas announcing himself as a genuine contender, he has work to do to ensure he doesn’t go the way of Dominic Thiem. The Austrian did similar things in 2020, winning his way through to the Aussie Open final before falling to Djokovic. Stefanos first must upset Daniel Medvedev, a reliable and nifty Russian, if he is to book a date with Novak.

But if he can get through to face Novak, then Tsitsipas has a golden chance to change tennis history. Djokovic is the king of the Aussie Open; a monumental effort would be required to upset his status quo. But the chance is still there, and with it is an opportunity to change the guard of world tennis and insert younger faces into the limelight.

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Tampa Bay – a town and team enduring through all crises

Tampa Bay, for so long, has relied upon itself and its surrounds to thrive.

A region on the west coast of Florida including multiple bay areas, Tampa Bay has often refused the help from other American towns. When native Americans first settled into the bay area, they became one of the few cultures who didn’t need to farm – the massive waterway teeming with aquatic wildlife created an easily sustained community.

Tampa Bay has never been a popular American town. For nearly 200 years it was uninhabited as the Spanish colonised the region and then abandoned the region. When reinstated by Americans in the 1800s, the waterways and its animal life were soon destroyed. Poor sewerage and water maintenance nearly ruined the town.

But years of intense change to the water treatment of the massive bay and its inlets cleared the damage and allowed the marine life to thrive. Since the turn of the century, Tampa Bay has returned to its prominent best. Now, their premier football team in the Buccaneers have resumed their role as America’s best football side after a wonderful Super Bowl victory.

Inserted into the NFL as a fresh expansion team alongside Seattle in 1976, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers struggled for success in their opening seasons. Following 26 consecutive losses in their first two seasons, Tampa Bay reverted their laughing-stock status with a play-offs run in 1979. Many in the town thought it was a sign of the area improving, both socially and environmentally. But it was a false dawn; the Buccaneers slipped back to their losing ways, and recorded losing seasons from 1983 to 1996.

Tampa Bay’s harbour in fine form (Photo by Sean Pavone/ Getty Images)

As Tampa Bay’s many neighbourhoods worked to fix their greatest resource provider, their football team did everything possible to produce wins. It took until the turn of the century for Tampa Bay to realise a defining fact; unlike their approach to cleaning up their waterways, their Buccaneers required intervention from other American states to overcome their losing record. But before the extra help could arrive, a landmark change had to occur at the top of the Tampa Bay tree.

Introducing the Glazers

The Buccaneers were always a poor side on the field. The entire NFL had waved off one of its expansion teams as a waste; just another team to make up the numbers in the NFC South. The only success that came to a Buccaneer was when they fled to other teams, as experienced by championship quarterbacks Bo Jackson, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer.

But the early 1990s also revealed that Tampa Bay had off-field problems. When longstanding owner Hugh Culverhouse passed away in 1994, secrets came out surrounding the Buccaneers and their brush with bankruptcy. To save the Bucs, they had to find a suitable new owner.

Early Buccaneers try to work defensively (The Grueling Truth)

Dicing with extinction, Tampa Bay fielded offers from around the country. The owners of the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles both put in offers, but they were finally outbid by local real estate personality Malcolm Glazer. His $192 million bid became the largest for a professional sports franchise at that stage in history. Eyebrows were raised. People sneered at the Glazer family. Why would they pay so much for a lowly NFL franchise seemingly on its last legs?

Instating his three sons to the financial side of the franchise, Glazer went to work on growing the Buccaneers. His first plan was to acquire the funding from local governments to build a brand new stadium. It was a success. As the century ticked over, Raymond James Stadium began its construction phase. 20 years into the 2000s it would host the first ever non-neutral Super Bowl. It’s crazy how quickly change can happen when the stars align. It would take only a handful of seasons for the management turnover to impact on-field performance.

2002/03 and the Gruden Bowl

When the Glazers assumed control in 1994, they had other projects to work on. Two years into their tenement, they appointed Tony Dungy as head coach.

The move would have its impacts – after a slow start, the Buccaneers returned to the play-offs fold. On the back of a tough defence that employed famous zone tactics and crushed sides into submission, Tampa Bay were expected to challenge for a title. But 2000 and 2001 both ended in wildcard weekend losses to Philadelphia. By then, Glazer and his team had had enough of the frustrating near-misses.

What came next was startling. Dungy was sacked. Many replacement candidates were sized up. While plenty offered to lead the side, Glazer had his target in mind. It took a media tango and a variety of cover-ups, but Tampa Bay eventually landed Oakland coach Jon Gruden for the 2002/03 season.

Already a controversy, the media hype surrounding the coaching poach was intensified when the Bucs, clearly an improved side offensively, strode into a Super Bowl. Of course, they were set to face the Raiders – Gruden’s old team.

The late Malcolm Glazer cheers his Bucs onto success (Photo by Dave Martin/ AP)

The 2003 Super Bowl was quickly labelled the Gruden Bowl – plenty of people in both camps held bitter feelings. Having found form in a fairy tale play-off run, Tampa Bay had a formidable foe to overcome. The Bucs had the number one ranked defence, while Oakland were the undisputed best offensive unit in the NFL. The trend continued – the best defensive unit shut down the offensive juggernaut on Super Bowl Sunday, and Tampa Bay strode away with their first title in a landslide 48-21 victory. In under a decade, the Glazers had built a brand-spanking new stadium that could hold a Lombardi Trophy.

A horrid drought fixed by some inter-state aid

If the 2003 victory was meant to be the start of a Tampa Bay era of dominance, then the NFL gods sadly didn’t read the script. Jon Gruden was a hero; his side now a force across the country. But continual injuries and inconsistencies meant they never won another play-off game.

By 2008 the Gruden run was over, and new players and staff swapped on heavy rotation. Many young draft picks were brought in, only to flop or flock to another, more popular side. Tampa Bay, as quickly as they had risen to NFL prominence, were now collapsing back into the wayside of lowly NFL franchises.

Jon Gruden years later with his Lombardi Trophy (Photo by Dirk Shadd/ Tampa Bay Times)

The 2019 season changed nothing. By now, Jameis Winston was the quarterback of a side that held plenty of potential. Winston had recorded over 30 touchdowns and receptions in a season, an indication of the Bucs’ inconsistencies. With Malcolm Glazer having recently passed away and the sons holding ownership, they threw their eggs into a trustworthy basket. In a move that belied the Tampa Bay way, they looked out of Florida for a tonic.

Tom Brady, arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history, had just thrown an interception in a horror loss to the Tennessee Titans as his Patriots fell out of the play-offs early. Clearly beleaguered and out of touch with his New England system, Tampa Bay bounced.

It was the biggest news story in the NFL off-season – Brady, after 20 years of winning involvements with the Patriots, moved down to Florida and coaxed former flame Rob Gronkowski out of retirement to join him. New England would acquire the inconsistent Cam Newton from Carolina to replace Brady. But by the end of the season, all eyes would be on Brady and his Bucs.

Turning the ship around

Brady’s time at the helm of the Buccaneers started off shaky. It took half a season for him to gel with a bunch of young offensive weapons. Following a tight loss to the dominant Kansas City Chiefs, who had just come off a sterling Super Bowl win the previous season, Tampa Bay trailed off into the back. At 7-5, they couldn’t afford many more losses if they were to fulfil their potential and reach the play-offs.

Tom Brady in his new colours (Photo by Brett Duke/ AP)

They didn’t lose another game. Gronkowski got himself fit and joined the newly recruited Antonio Brown in shoring up Tampa’s offensive stocks. The defence clicked. Brady found his feet and began to influence games. The Bucs reached the wildcard weekend.

From there, the rest is history. They held off Washington 31-23 at home to progress. Having to travel for the remainder of their games, coach Bruce Arians guided his talented roster through superbly. If they were to reach the prize of a home Super Bowl, Brady would have to be at his best to beat two of the league’s best quarterbacks.

His first mission was against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. In a topsy-turvy game, Brady and his offence fired well to edge past the Saints 30-20. With barely any crowds allowed into the games, playing away soon became easier than it ever had before. Lambeau Fields still boasted an angry support base, but they were left silent as the Bucs’ defence ripped soon-to-be MVP Aaron Rodgers to shreds. In three quick weeks, Tampa Bay had gone from making up the numbers to reaching a Super Bowl in front of a home crowd.

But the job wasn’t done. If the Bucs were to cap off a crazy season with a title, they had to beat their most recent vanquishers in Pat Mahomes and the Chiefs. Kansas City had been the clear best side all year, with the strongest record and a dynamic offence. In a Super Bowl for the ages, Mahomes would have to beat his older opponent in Brady if he was to continue a wonderful legacy.

It wasn’t to be. Brady and Arians were both veterans with enough tact to plan for Mahomes. Instead of neutralising his many receiving options, Tampa Bay’s defensive unit worked on relentlessly pressuring Mahomes before he could cause damage with his throws. It was the best idea they could’ve implemented.

In a high-pressure situation, Mahomes never got a chance to settle. His receivers never got free. The Chiefs would only put up 9 points in a humiliating 31-9 trouncing. Brady would weather the storm well enough to guide his team home, and pick up a seventh ring. A fifth Super Bowl MVP solidified his decision to move to Tampa Bay.

Brady with a seventh Lombardi Trophy, and a meaningful one for his new home (Photo by AP /Lynne Sladky).

As the Glazer family received another Lombardi Trophy, Tampa Bay’s football team had reached its water treatment moment. It took a guiding hand from the sport’s greatest ever player, but, much like its bay, the Bucs had survived to come good. Now, a remarkable sporting story could guide Tampa Bay towards a rosy future.

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Collingwood’s darkest day sums up a horror off-season

Cameras clicked away; a frenzy of shutters uncorked following minutes of nervous chatter. As the photos were taken and the noise filtered through the room, Eddie McGuire shuffled his way to a long rectangular table. Settled on the table in front of a brown-panelled wall that refused any suggestion of a black and white sponsorship banner, McGuire’s forehead glistened with a sheen of sweat. In many decades of handling pressure and controversy, this was one of McGuire’s toughest challenges yet.

“This is a proud and historic day for the Collingwood Football Club,” he boldly declared.

As he drew breath and launched into a lengthy spiel about how great his club was for being found to be systematically racist, hearts around Australia sunk. Just as Collingwood seemed to have sharply dropped to a quiet trough, the mine continued to collapse. Instead of calming the storm of the ‘Do Better’ report, Eddie McGuire had reached into the clouds and brought down a whole new cyclone.

It was a press conference that summed up a horror off-season, as well as the backwards attitude that Australian sport still struggles to shrug off.

At the forefront of this issue is the Collingwood Football Club. It started on just another day at Victoria Park in 1993. Back then, it was the hostile heartland of working-class Collingwood, and the nightmare of every travelling VFL/ AFL player. But when Nicky Winmar lifted his St Kilda up to the heavens to defy the baying crowd, Collingwood’s home supporters went from being quietly discriminatory to officially racist to Indigenous Australians.  In response to the controversy, Collingwood President Allan McAlister told Winmar and his Indigenous teammate Gilbert McAdam that they would be treated with respect “as long as they conducted themselves like white people on and off the field”. It was the first instance of Collingwood blatantly refusing to take ownership for their own issues. It set them on a path that culminated in yesterday’s naïve stance that they were ahead of the trend for being forced into administering a report that found them guilty of discrimination.

The trend continued just four years before McGuire took office. In the inaugural Anzac Day clash between Collingwood and Essendon, Bombers star Michael Long accused Pies’ ruckman Damien Monkhorst of a racial slur during the game. It should have marred a spectacular drawn game. Instead, it fizzled into an AFL-organised mediation session that left Long bitterly disappointed.

As McGuire took over the presidency of Collingwood, all controversies were placed on the backburner as the Pies renewed themselves both on and off the field. Like all sports, on-field success has the ability to mask any off-field misdemeanours. It would take until 2013 for racism to overtly display itself in a black and white jumper.

McGuire sweating his way through yesterday’s press conference (ABC)

In this case, it came in the form of a 13-year-old girl in the bowels of the MCG’s Great Southern Stand, taunting Adam Goodes in the final moments of a one-sided defeat to the Swans. In the same year, McGuire racially vilified Goodes on radio. Press conferences ended in apologies and pledges to improve. All fragments of wrongdoing were swept under the lumpy black and white rug.

But February 1, 2021 will remain one of the darker days in Australian football and its ongoing battle with racism; racism that has been deeply woven into the sport’s fabric due to the historical timeframe it evolved in. Collingwood’s theme song clearly states “all barrackers should” be shouting, and the VFL/ AFL has grown in popularity off the back of its passionate supporters actively involving themselves in the game. It took until 2013’s incidents for the league to begin realising how out of touch their approach was. Even then, Goodes received no formal apology for his years of crippling treatment until documentaries exposed the injustice just last year. Yesterday was a massive slap to the face of the Australian community; a reminder that lessons are yet to sink in. When one of the AFL’s biggest clubs grin and joke their way through serious allegations of racism, it’s gut-wrenching to realise there’s a long way to go before equality can be considered in Australia’s game.

Yesterday’s press conference also doubles up as a crescendo to a Collingwood off-season marred with off-field issues. The handling of Adam Treloar, Tom Phillips and Jaidyn Stephenson’s departures created a whirlwind in itself; rumours surrounding harsh criticisms thrown down phone lines and sexist excuses used to explain their rash trading failed to cover up the root of Collingwood’s recruiting woes – money.

Money. The same reason why Collingwood told Adam Treloar they traded him due to the uncertain circumstances surrounding his wife Kim Ravaillion’s Suncorp Super Netball League contract post-pregnancy. An excuse offered to cover up their poor salary cap management; an excuse to save their own skin instead of treating a loyal player with the dignity he and his family deserved. It’s the same reason why McGuire sweated his way through a 45-minute press conference where he used the word ‘proud’ more than he did the word ‘sorry’. It’s also the same reason why no sponsors’ banners adorned the blank wooden wall behind him as he spoke, and it was why McGuire overlooked apologising to the millions of people he hurt with his remarks and instead dropped his sponsors into fumbling excuses for his club’s “systemic racism”. It’s why Collingwood lauded themselves as “brave” for trying to cover up the Do Better report’s findings, instead of accepting the blame and reforming their own crisis. This response immediately shows they refuse to take the findings of the report seriously; just hours after the public heard of the suggestions needed to solve their culture problems, the club already put a strike through multiple.

The problem is, Eddie McGuire forged a legacy as Collingwood’s saviour in the early 2000s due to his financial success governing over the Pies. As he reigned, the Pies went from struggling to fund themselves to joining Richmond and West Coast in the upper echelon of clubs in terms of off-field profits. But 20 years later, his money-first mentality has created a club culture that prefers vilifying others instead of admitting their own salary cap breaches. It’s the same club that fronts up to a press conference and labels a day where they were found to be systematically racist as “proud and historic”. It’s a culture that constantly looks to improve by going forward because they refuse to turn back and acknowledge their lack of progression. It’s a culture that has stagnated in a backwards time to a place where they refuse to accept they are a racist club, despite being forced into commissioning a thorough investigation that proved their intrinsic racism.

The Collingwood Football Club is far from a perfect institution. Too much has happened in its winding past to just shrug off and not address. The black and white legacy may never be a haven for historical justice, but by looking back and addressing all wrongdoings, that is when they can then switch their eyes back to the future and improve every single day. Until they do that, any remarks on pride mean nothing.

2021 is the biggest year in the history of the Collingwood Football Club. Following two major controversies to end 2020 and welcome in the new year, an AFL powerhouse must grapple with their own identity. The moral fibre of Collingwood’s inner walls now come into question. For the first time in their long history, Collingwood’s off-field performances now mean more than their on-field efforts.  

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Border-Gavaskar Trophy series review – A special effort disrupts Australia’s cricketing peace

Australian cricket is a proud institution. Ever since Billy Murdoch led his 1882 side from English shores with Ashes urn in hand, a sense of loyalty and passion has fallen upon the national team. Soon fermented by Bradman and turned into the golden generation of the early 2000s, Australian cricket steadily became a source of comfort for its followers. A shoo-in for a series win on home soil. A constant display of success every summertime.

But all good things never last. Having undergone a rollercoaster ride of results over the past decade, Australia finally seemed to have settled the dust surrounding them when Smith and Warner returned to square the 2019 Ashes series on foreign soil. When they then headed home with their freshly minted mate Marnus to smack Pakistan and New Zealand, normal hierarchy resumed. Warner was flaying triple tons while Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood were cleaning up foreign bats with ease. Whatever happened, Australia would come out on top in the cricket. Previously outraged supporters sunk back onto their recliners and returned to their freshly opened stubbies.

It’s what makes this latest instalment of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy all the more remarkable. A year off due to COVID-19 only helped Australia’s reputation. During the layoff period, an Amazon Prime documentary into their post-Cape Town recession and eventual redemption in England gained praise towards their success and attitude. Justin Langer became a figurehead for fighting tough only 15 years after doing so at the top of the order. Tim Paine was the nicest guy in the world; a level-headed warrior who gave Australia the leg-up required to fight for the number one test ranking. By the end of this four-test series, both would face their fair share of controversies and criticism.

Tim Paine and Justin Langer went into the series full of hope, and came out shocked (Getty Images)

Following a gritty one-day series where India fought back to nullify Smith’s genius, Virat Kohli led his side out onto the Adelaide Oval looking for a crucial first-up win. With Kohli’s presence soon to be taken away after the first test, many thought India’s only chance of digging into the series came in the city of churches. When Mitchell Starc seemingly returned to form with a wicket in the opening over of the series (as poor Prithvi Shaw lost his stumps and confidence), those stubby drinkers at home were toasting another cruisy summer.

But in a pattern that would repeat itself over and over throughout the four tests, India slammed their heels into the perfectly manicured Adelaide turf and fought to remain on a level standing. The 17 days of test cricket played became a massive tug-of-war. By the final day, India had barely enough combatants to continue pulling at the rope. But the important part was that they were there at all, as their will to continue touring was severely tested throughout the summer.

Adelaide – swings and round-abouts

What to say about this instalment of the Adelaide day-night test? Much was made over the pink ball and the gigantic swing Starc and co would extract from the drop-in Adelaide Oval pitch. To defy them, the pink Kookaburra did its wildest work in the early rays of afternoon sunlight.

Multiple partnerships from India’s three big dogs threatened to give them a competitive first innings total, but some unwavering line and length, as well as a few fortunate fielding opportunities, gifted Australia crucial wickets to disperse the runs. Starc cleaned up the tail (a luxury soon to be taken away from satisfied Aussies) and Cummins claimed three scalps to roll India for 244 – seemingly not enough.

Two years after their last confrontation, Kohli and Paine met again in Adelaide (Wisden)

But Australia never came out and scored freely against India. David Warner was out with a groin injury, while Joe Burns’ horrid form had left him deserted of tokens to buy a run. With makeshift opener Matty Wade also struggling, not even Smith could save the day. Labuschagne did his best to flay edges and drives around fielders, but the piece-de-resistance came from captain Paine.

His 73 not out was important on a night where Australia crumbled under Bumrah and Ashwin pressure once again. It had been two summers, but nothing had changed for the home side. Disgruntled spectators grumbled and sneered, as only Paine helped to guide the Aussies to 191. At the conclusion of the innings, his intervention was necessary. By the end of the next day, it was match winning. In 24 hours, the home skipper would be accepting player of the match awards for his gutsy knock.

It started with Cummins crashing through Shaw’s uncertain defence on the second night. It ended with Mohammad Shami copping a brutal Hazlewood short ball and subsequently retiring hurt with an injury that would bring curtains down on his series. In between, there was a scintillating afternoon session of new ball bowling from Cummins and Hazlewood. The pair linked arms and made the ball sing from each end, inducing nicks with flicks of the wrist and sending daggers into Indian hearts every time they landed it in the fourth stump channel. It was eerily reminiscent of Headingley 2019 – nothing could be done to stop Australia’s rampant efforts. Batters just had to enter and wait for the edge to come. Cummins snared four wickets, while Hazlewood decimated a star-studded Indian line up with figures of 5-8. Fans un-arched their spine and grinned smugly, sipping their stubbies and ridiculing an Indian side that fell all out for 36, and promptly lost by 10 wickets.

Josh Hazlewood tore through a top-class batting line up once again, this time snaring 5-8 (Photo by Dave Hunt/ AAP)

In that afternoon, Joe Burns found form, slashing his way to an unbeaten 51. It was a rare Mount Everest amongst molehills; Burns struggled to reach double figures in many innings prior, and would continue to struggle after this rare flurry. With Kohli now out of the picture (sent home to nurse his first-born child with his tail between his legs), India were sitting ducks. Australia had found their intent on a manic third day, and the aberrations of their first innings batting display were put on the back burner. Onto Melbourne we go with righteous smiles adorning our faces, and knowing chuckles thrown into every cricket discussion leading up to Boxing Day.

Melbourne – a right old shock

Boxing Day is Australia’s day. It’s not a national public holiday about the country and its identity, but it’s synonymous with the pastime of cricket. It’s what places such rich pressure onto its eleven best test players; to not perform on Australian cricket’s day of days is to blaspheme in front of the cricketing bible and its millions of disciples.

Unfortunately, Australia did just that. In a morning that had religious Aussie fans crossing and cursing, Burns and Smith both made ducks (confirming a horrifying run of bad form for the former skipper) while Wade threw away a positive start. Labuschagne once again chanced his luck and worked hard for 48, only to flick Mohammed Siraj’s maiden wicket to backward square for fellow debutant Shubman Gill to accept. Travis Head characteristically strode to 38 and then undid his hard work. This time there was no Tim Paine divine intervention – some late Nathan Lyon hitting took the score to a well below-par 195.

Marnus Labuschagne wasn’t the only Aussie left shaking their head during a shock MCG loss (Getty Images)

India’s many selection changes post-Adelaide quickly came to fruition. There was no drop-off; the spark of multiple debutants restored India to their high intensity efforts they displayed in the opening few days at Adelaide. Debutant Gill frustrated Australia late on day one, and continued to do so until Cummins brought his whirlwind 45 screeching to a halt. The world’s best pace bowler then went on to capture Pujara early, but was left smoothing his picturesque hair back in frustration when stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane returned to his MCG playground.

Five years after negating Mitchell’s Johnson and Starc alongside his fallen comrade Kohli, Rahane flashed and dashed his way to a marvellous ton that set up the game for India. Australia’s search for a quick run of wickets was soon decimated by Rahane’s exquisite cover driving and brave pull shots. With Ravindra Jadeja returning to the side and aiding Rahane with a dogged 57 (which included eventually running his new skipper out on the third morning), India could snatch a defining first innings lead of 131 runs.

Such is the unrequired optimism of Aussie fans, most believed this could be overcome with a dash of sweat and elbow grease. An afternoon of seeing off Bumrah and smacking the others would easily erase the damage. In no time, Australia’s wagon would be pristine and in the lead again.

Stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane soaks up the MCG’s applause once again after a stellar ton (Photo by William West /AFP via Getty Images)

But the wheels of this decaying car soon came rolling off. Burns and Smith failed again (this time Smith found a way to get bowled around his legs by Bumrah), Wade threw away a solid 40, while Labuschagne tried to take on the game and then lost his wicket to a defensive prod at Ashwin. Australia were all in their heads, and India gleefully placed the ball forward and allowed them to destroy themselves. The home side, usually so good at finding the right aggressive tempo in home conditions, were all at sea when it came to discovering their batting balance.

Australia, instead of returning to their famous mantra of fighting fire with fire, tried to douse the Indian flame with cold water. It didn’t work – it only delayed the inevitable blaze that thousands of Indian fans eventually cultivated in the Southern Stand on the final morning. The freshly blooded Cameron Green fought hard to gain a miniscule lead, but it was quickly erased by Gill and Rahane in a scene oh-so-similar to Adelaide’s triumphant run home in Adelaide. This time, it was a complete 180. As Australia trudged off the MCG with a plate of humble pie, minds slowly stirred to the fact that this series was only just starting to simmer.

Sydney – another lost opportunity, or a great escape (depending on the perspective)

Just days after being on top of the cricketing world and standing over India while they regathered, the shoe was on the other foot. Australia were in free-fall, trying to right themselves in time for the delayed SCG test. To do so, they brought in some fresh talent.

After years of concussion and mental health battles, Will Pucovski finally received his baggy green and took no time in alleviating fears about top order woes. Despite Warner’s return bringing a smattering of quickly made runs, Pucovski stole the opening day with a punchy 61. As his innings went on, his confidence grew. There was an element of class and control. His straight drives drew sharp gasps from the Sydney crowd, who sucked in breaths and chunks of their face masks simultaneously. Despite not reaching the vaunted triple figure mark, he made himself an instant crowd favourite by halting India’s momentum.

Enter Will Pucovski – a game changer in Sydney (Photo by Rick Rycroft/ AP)

The word ‘intent’ had been bandied about constantly in the aftermath of Australia’s MCG demise – Labuschagne and Smith were the chief executors of a Sydney show full of renewed aggression. The former struck 91, while the latter found his hands and form in one afternoon as he raced to a vital 131. Instead of discovering methods of removal, Smith had swiftly formulated a free-flowing plan. It worked; fans chuckled. Of course it was going to be fine – Smith and Labuschagne were just toying with the nation to make the series rewardingly exciting. Now, Australia would put their foot down and canter on, with heads held high for maximum praise.

But India refused to relent. Jadeja ran through the middle and low order to cut Australia’s innings to 338 – at least 50 shorter than what most expected when the three musketeers in Pucovski, Labuschagne and Smith were wreaking havoc. Gill and Pujara then proceeded to notch up frustrating half-centuries that ensured India passed 200. Crucially, it also took time out of the game. No matter how disciplined Australia’s bowling cartel were, they constantly struggled to take quick wickets. Pat Cummins’ 4-29 was brilliant, but it was still a slow burning effort.

As the game’s candle continued to burn its way down, Australia had a prime time to attack without overhanging punishment. Only Smith’s 81 and Green’s landmark 84 displayed constant stroke making. The Aussies took too long to declare, and let the rain run down the clock. In the meantime, their beloved fans disrupted the game and its spirit with accusations of crowd abuse coming into the fray. It was quickly getting ugly for the Aussies. Three tests in, and the stubby-drinkers were losing their patience.

Eventually skippers Rahane and Paine agreed to fist bump and call the SCG test a draw (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Despite needing over 400 to win, India came out throwing punches. Sharma and Gill opened strongly, and refuted any idea of a quick run through the top order by Australia’s bowlers. India, no matter how far behind, were not going to be demoralised. Quite the opposite – halfway through the final day, Pant and Pujara threatened to seal the impossible. The former’s 97 was a blistering knock; a firm boulder that stood in the way of Australia’s crescendo of a wave, preventing it from breaking and engulfing India’s tail. Both eventually surrendered, but an injured Vihari and Ashwin valiantly clung on to Pant’s beacon for the draw. With fingers sliding off, India still held onto the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, forcing Australia to win it at the Gabba.

Brisbane – a landmark chase, an unforgettable moment in cricket history

Even the pessimistic weren’t nervous. Despite letting a strong win go begging in Sydney (where Paine’s final day frustrated sledging landed him in hot water), India’s increasing injury toll made the decider as close to a dead rubber as could be. With Ashwin, Vihari, Jadeja and Bumrah all forced out of the Brisbane test, gleeful Aussie fans eyed the first day. Licking their lips for one final five-day feast of Australian glory, drawn out until January to tease the travelling party. The equation was simple, as it always is at the Gabba; bat first and grind unsuspecting visitors into the dust.

With Australia only swapping Marcus Harris for the injured Pucovski, the slight change was soon exploited. Harris and Warner both fell early; very early, in fact, for a Gabba test. Instead of dominating the first day, the home side felt an unexpected tide flying at them. Now, they had to cling on.

After a series of strong performances, Labuschagne finished with a vital ton at the Gabba (Exavibes)

But standing over the wave and settling down the surge was Smith and Labuschagne. The latter finally reached the century landmark this summer; a deserved reward for persistent effort. Flowing off his busy energy, the middle order all made solid contributions to a respectable 369. Once again, the rampant score of 500 plus remained elusive, India’s new brigade of fast bowlers still rigidly sticking to the discipline that their fallen teammates had deployed so brilliantly all series.

India’s reply ebbed and flowed. The openers continued to negate Starc’s wayward first spells and work through the dangerous pair of Cummins and Hazlewood. Once they picked their way past that web of hazard, Lyon and Starc offered only runs. With Australia’s bowling attack struggling to keep their flame flickering, India had opportunity to take full toll. But this series was not one of consistent batting dominance. At 6-186, the tourists were finally letting the weight of the world give way. It took two new players to strengthen Team India’s shoulders.

Just as the batting was seen to be relenting under four tests of pressure, Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur produced a game changer. Without expectation, Aussie fans’ jaws hit the floor as the unlikely combo slashed and fought their way through a Brisbane afternoon. Both brought up maiden test half-centuries, and frustrated Australia to the point of delirium. When Cummins (surprise, surprise) finally rattled Thakur’s timber, the damage had been done. Instead of the third afternoon paving a one-way road for Australia to reach victory, the highway had been expanded. To beat this cobbled-together side, the hosts had to match India’s grit.

In the unlikeliest of afternoons, Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur changed the game (Photo by Patrick Hamilton/ AFP/ Getty Images)

It couldn’t be done. Australia did their best to eke out 294 (Siraj with a wonderful five-wicket haul that was richly deserved after an emotional few months abroad) and set India over 320 to win. They then attacked viciously with the ball for a day and a half, spurting out strong spells in between Brisbane downpours. Pat Cummins was at his reliable best, toiling one last time in a series he would later be given the player of the series crown for. With Cummins on fire, the odds were with the hosts to continue their Gabba dominance.

But India had refused to play by the odds all series. Since their Adelaide disaster, they had played consistently stronger cricket than their counterparts. They had heart. If that innings of 36 had a stroke of Headingley to it, then India completed the call-back with a final day chase for the ages. Without any frontline personnel, India used every ounce of their wilting energy on a day five miracle. Gill’s 91 started the day off well, signalling to all far and wide that India weren’t losing this match. Pujara copped bouncers, brutal balls and a myriad of hits to grind out another valuable half-century. Then, Rishabh Pant came to play.

The keeper-bat could have been satisfied with his Sydney rear-guard action. But that hadn’t resulted in victory; now, he had to go one step further.

He may have finished with two less runs then his SCG 91, but this unbeaten knock engulfed him in folklore status. A final swat off Hazlewood flew down to the Gabba boundary, and finally sealed shut the giant door of this Border-Gavaskar series. With one despairing heave, Australia had the door shut in their face, sent back to the cricket purgatory they were to face from their own fans and media. On the other hand, India cemented themselves as a side full of talent and heart. For two sides that finished so lopsided, it’s remarkable to consider that the pendulum had swung so far the other way. When there’s belief, there’s always an avenue to elevation.

Rishabh Pant went one further than his SCG efforts, and made a hero of himself (ABC)

It was an exhausting series. For only four tests, it produced classic moments, millions of memories and a newspaper full of great headlines. But the front-page news? India; an incredible unit. A side channelling Billy Murdoch’s spirit nearly 150 years later. A team strong enough to withstand all heat and disrupt Australia’s self-superiority complex on the test cricket stage. The stubbies were in danger that night at the Gabba for both of the sides and supporters involved in such an epic encounter.

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The Gabba Test – a scene for history to be changed for the better

It was meant to be raining, the game already decided. Instead, the Gabba lay spread open to the dwindling Brisbane sun. The fortress was slowly uncurling its iron-fisted grip over opposition teams as Team India batted aggressively towards a record-breaking total.

Test cricket is a game of noise. Of the delicate chatter of the spread-out crowd. Of the hum; a collective wall of sound constituting of crushing plastic alcohol cups, blowing horns and other instruments, and the varied conversations about the game being played out in the middle. Of the claps that cheer in a striding bowler. Then, the distinctive crunch of their delivery action, and the way they slide on the crease. If you’re lucky, you get the crack of wood on willow, or the delicate flick of an edge.

Australian crowds, and specifically those who fill the Gabba, have a certain noise. Usually the first test of an Australian summer, the Brisbane-ites create a louder and more excited bubble of noise. As the days peter out and their beloved Aussies tend to sail to a comfortable first-up win, the sound subsides into relaxed pleasure. Expectant delight.

As the fifth day continued to push until the last rays of sun crashed onto the horizon, the Gabba noise shifted completely. There was no laid-back barrage of victorious chanting. Tension spread over the field, and focused on the epicentre of a deteriorating pitch.

It was on this strip of earth that, four days previously, David Warner and Marcus Harris ran out to. There was no idea of a rain break, just fresh optimism that Australia would clinch the Border-Gavaskar trophy, and with it the number one test ranking, with an easy win at their fortress. They hadn’t lost at the Gabba since Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of England. It wasn’t expected to change.

The end result shouldn’t come as such a shock for home punters. India did their best to foreshadow their punchy and fighting intentions when they swiftly removed both openers within the first hour of play. The collective test wickets between their bowling attack didn’t surpass twenty; an extreme of their trend that included random bowlers replacing injured stars and weaving webs around Australia’s vaunted batsmen. It was in direct opposition to Australia’s bowlers, who, after sweeping through a Kohli-led India in the first test, got the all clear for the entire series despite their later wilting.

Even when making runs, the home side lacked the air of superiority that normally had them standing straighter in Brisbane. In Sydney it seemed like the travelling party refused to step foot near the Gabba; now, they were embracing the juicy wicket with open arms. Mohammed Siraj let his hair down (in both ways) as the leader of the attack, graduating from new kid on the block to kingpin in a remarkably short amount of time. Their rigid lines and incessant pressure meant Australia never looked comfortable, not even when playing on their beloved Gabba deck.

In the deciding test, Paine won the toss and batted (AP)

It was only Marnus Labuschagne who truly rode his luck. His 108 was necessary, but also not close to fluent. Characteristic of his series, Labuschagne adapted his game and tried to actively fight India’s straight-bowling plans. It meant streaky chances were offered and put down. It also ended in another test ton in front of his home crowd. You roll with the punches.

It’s a similar method taken by Rishabh Pant. In Sydney he entered a game-saving, bat-for-a-draw scenario lying in peril, and took the long handle for a whirlwind knock. What it did was inspire a player who thinks differently, who always considers victory. When the situation was replicated in Brisbane, he took the same approach with a slither more patience. This time, he wouldn’t give away his wicket.

But don’t get me too far ahead of this rollercoaster. Labuschagne’s first innings knock seemingly lay the foundations for an Aussie lead. When they also turned around to steadily remove India’s makeshift top five, the sense of superiority reigned supreme over the smaller Brisbane crowd. It took longer than expected, but all was good. Australia were going to win.

That is, until Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur commenced batting together. Without Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in those spots, many expected Australia’s bowlers to make easier work of India’s lower orders. If they had paid enough attention to the previous tests, this notion would’ve been scolded. The pair spent an overcast afternoon negating Cummins and co. They also scored at a reasonable pace, and soon both had posted maiden half-centuries.

It was on this evening that the game changed again. Another twist added, an L-bend added into the intricate piping of a test match. Hazlewood may have eventually finished proceedings with a five-wicket haul, but India had drawn to within 33 runs of Australia’s total. They had also taken time out of the game. When tantrum-like storms dumped rain over the Gabba during Australia’s second innings, the partnership appeared to have left the series at a stalemate.

The Gabba opened up and altered the mood of the contest (Courier Mail)

But Brisbane, unaware that its rampant record was still under siege, dismissed its clouds and defied all meteorologists. The home team received enough time to bat on, yet didn’t take the opportunity. Only Smith excelled, posting 55 off only 74 balls. When he fell, so did the intent. Strike rates collapsed, and the all-important run rate returned to the below-par trough it had resided in all series long. Except this time, it was Siraj and his clan of fresh eyed bowlers who were restricting some of the world’s best bats.

Following a period of intense hardship and multi-faceted turmoil (a horrific cocktail of potential crowd abuse and family loss was dumped upon him whilst away), Siraj finally received his crowning moment. A maiden five-wicket haul to savour. One of persistence, passion and brilliance. The emotion was lost on no one; only the Indian selectors weren’t completely rapt by his effort, instead choosing to scratch their heads and begin a pro’s and con’s list on Siraj, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav before they hosted England in February.

But the Gabba test wasn’t solely about celebrating Siraj. Nathan Lyon was in the midst of his 100th test, but was gaining no sympathy. With the match poised for his taking, on a day five pitch that was wearing and crumbling, many presumed Australia still had a chance of atoning for their snail-paced day four efforts and taking the series. India had one final surprise up their sleeve.

Mohammed Siraj barrels his way to a maiden five wicket haul (Photo by Tertius Pickard/ AP)

The first whack of shock came from Shubman Gill. Alongside Siraj, the 21-year-old was also the major positive from the hospital ward full of injuries India had throughout the series. His innocent approach to whacking cuts and back foot drives off the world’s biggest snarling bowlers had only caused the frowns to deepen for the home side. On the final day of a whirlwind series, Gill twirled his cleanskin bat on the way to one last frustration. His 91 set the tone for the day, and summed up the oozing class that dribbled off his bat every time he classily stroked a boundary.

Gill may have been brilliant, but the real star was Rishabh Pant. Now is the time he enters the narrative, trudging to the crease early in the afternoon. With Pujara channelling his inner wall to withstand nearly ten painful strikes on the arm, ribs and head, Pant benefited from his offering. When one suffers, the other flourishes. It created an awkwardly beautiful partnership – one of contrasts, yet ultimately effective.

Pujara held out long enough to meet the second new ball, where he finally vacated the series courtesy of a feisty Cummins spell. It was this late afternoon where Cummins entered the fray as Australia’s soul fighter in this heavyweight battle. As time passed, runs were amassed and wickets fell, it was Cummins who stood in the way of India meeting the doors of illustrious history. It would take some lusty hitting to break past the spirited Aussie.

Needing around five an over in the final act, it was Pant who controlled the game. Lyon would consistently beat his edge or cause a ball to jut out of the rough, but the young keeper-batsman refused to relinquish his wicket. To say it was Gilchrist or Dhoni like was unfair – this was the sort of innings that makes a name come to life and form its own meaning. It was full of bravery; when Lyon passed his advancing bat, only to spin past Paine too, Pant responded by shimmying down next delivery and slamming all demons of a spinning deck into the emptying Gabba stands.

When Cummins continued to hit wonderful areas with the new ball, Pant didn’t shy away from a hoick to mid-wicket, or a hook shot towards awaiting fielders. It was his brazenness in the heart of Australian cricket that inspired such a win. When Sundar joined in with some wild swings that found boundaries, India received the luck they so richly deserved in the finest of hours. The cricket gods shone upon them, and Pant bunted the winning runs to cause a new sound to erupt over the Gabba.

Pant receives his just reward for another incredible final day knock (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/ Getty Images)

Gone was the hearty cheers of drunk middle-aged Aussie men. Balding, beer gut flopping out of t-shirts while they chided at the opposition for even daring to take on their team at the Gabba. Instead, the passion of India’s supporters rose the decibel levels. It wasn’t a ring of expectation, but a concentrated shriek of anxiety, fear, hurt and silent hope being released after a long few months.

Australia may have been left reeling, but Team India had gone through hell and back to produce their finest moment in test history. And by their reactions, it was all worthwhile to experience that evening at the Gabba, where they came, saw and conquered. The record had been broken, and it felt right; a mammoth effort had done it. Now, India could leave with a section of Australia’s soul, and put it on display in front of their proud nation.

Well done India – you deserve this one.

From, an Australian cricket fan in awe.

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Australia v India Third Test Review – A stunning third act marred by upsetting controversies

Considering a Sydney New Years’ test looked as likely as snowfall in an Australian summer just a week ago, what unfolded over the past five days typified drama. From stunning debuts to questionable controversies, there were numerous talking points to discuss before all eyes turn to the Gabba on Friday.

Good Will Pucovski, and the golden hands of Smudge

For years it seems the Australian (and particularly Victorian) cricketing public have been praying for Pucovski to overcome his ongoing concussion and mental health problems and make his debut for his country. After plenty of tantalising moments, the wonderful moment finally happened for the young Vic, who then got to face the first ball of the test match alongside the returning David Warner.

It was a tough position for a debutant to be thrown into – his teammates had struggled to score quickly and heavily at the MCG, and the buck was thrown to Pucovski to get the score ticking over. With Warner out early, Pucovski’s maiden test half-century couldn’t have been more valuable. Instead of perishing alongside Warner and throwing the pressure onto Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, Pucovski rode his luck and took on India’s challenging bowlers. He continued to pull and cut effectively, while his driving game was crisp. He may not have reached the milestone that his older teammates did, but Pucovski’s innings was so vital – instead of coming in early, Smith got to wander to the crease in the final session of the first day with the score already in triple figures.

From there, Smith could execute his game plan of aggressive intent to perfection. He started with a bang, refusing to let Jasprit Bumrah or Ravichandran Ashwin get on top of him. He took the attack to them, driving often and using his feet to loft Ashwin down the ground. Labuschagne was also important in this period; his efforts in the early stages of day two gave Smith the impetus to work his way in and renew his aggression. Labuschagne fell cruelly short of triple figures in both innings, leaving Smith to awkwardly shuffle and flick his way to a century desperately needed by the Australian side. Needing to respond, it was these three figures who stood up for the home team and pushed for a slightly better batting effort.

Steve Smith returned to form in the grandest of ways (Photo by Mark Kolbe/ Cricket Australia/ Getty Images)

Pat Cummins loves hard work

Despite looking promising, Australia’s innings collapsed in the back end to just surpass 300. With over 100 more runs to bowl to then they had experienced all series, Australia’s bowlers persevered through some tricky times to restrict India well.

Mitchell Starc looks out of touch. With the new ball he offers wickets and chances, but without this potential he is inconsistent and able to be hit out of the attack. In both innings of the Sydney test this occurred – within two to three overs he was taken off for the dour Cummins. Fortunately, the number one bowler in test cricket was on song. In the first innings he was untouchable – wheeling away on a 20-cent piece for just over 20 overs to rack up figures of 4/29.

Cummins did so with two helpers. First of all was Josh Hazlewood, who worked with his fellow paceman to account for the lack of form shown by Starc and Nathan Lyon (who didn’t snare a wicket in this test until the final day). Secondly was the Indian batsmen, who were spooked by hostile fast bowling and surrendered three wickets courtesy of run-outs. This wasn’t entirely India’s fault – Australia’s fielding hit a golden patch on the third afternoon as Hazlewood, Labuschagne and Cummins all produced outstanding fielding efforts to snare vital wickets (particularly Hazlewood). From a challenging position of 4-194, India were all out for 244 in a swift fall that left them trailing.

Injuries and controversy ruin good cricket

Falling into the middle stages of the test match, the focus soon turned to areas outside of the bat vs ball contest. On two separate days there were complaints from the Indian players of racist abuse filtering out from the barely filled SCG stands. One occurred on the latter stages of the third Jane McGrath day, while the next incident occurred the next afternoon. While there has been no conclusive proof that the people reprimanded did indeed racially taunt Mohammad Siraj and his teammates, it doesn’t make it any less tolerable.

Ugly, horrible scenes for India as they faced crowd abuse – they deserve better (Photo by Mark Kolbe/ Getty Images)

Particularly for Siraj, who is travelling Australia without having seen his family since his father’s untimely death late last year, it’s horrific and gut-churning to see him so upset from behaviour outside of the playing field. Whether it was racist or not, it’s not fair. The Indian team have made an incredible effort to come to Australian shores despite what is occurring globally and with their own quarantine restrictions, so they deserve nothing but praise for attending and producing such an enthralling series. It’s an ugly look for Australian cricket, and makes us feel uncomfortable and embarrassed – feelings which pale in comparison to how Siraj and his teammates must be feeling.

India weren’t helped by more injuries to compound this adversity. Both Ravindra Jadeja and Rishabh Pant were peppered by fast bowling that struck them on the thumb (Jadeja) or forearm (Pant). With Hanuma Vihari (hamstring) also picking up an injury on the final day, India are on their last legs as they fly up to Brisbane.

A defiant stand – perhaps India’s toughest?

It takes guts to bat for long hours of time against hostile bowling to secure a draw. With the odds stacked utterly against them, India wouldn’t have been blamed for capitulating on a day five SCG deck after what they had endured the previous afternoons. But in a riveting display of character, the likes of Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Vihari, Pant and Ashwin all held on for an incredible draw.

Tim Paine and the Aussies let themselves down on the final day with poor behaviour and sloppy skills – all in the face of some brilliant batting (Photo by Ryan Pierse/ Getty Images)

The best innings belonged to Pant, who returned to the field clearly hampered by an injury to strike the ball beautifully. Every time drinks were ran out onto the field Pant couldn’t hold a bottle, but when Lyon and co bowled his aggressive counter-attack threw the game into disarray. With Pant and Pujara at the crease, India suddenly had a faint glimmer of a record-shattering win. But Pant’s whirlwind of an innings came to a close on 97, cutting short what would have been a mesmerising ton.

When Pujara’s sturdy defence got damaged by Hazlewood, India once again found themselves staring at a 2-1 deficit heading into Australia’s Gabba fortress. Backed by some sloppy keeping and leadership by Paine, Ashwin and Vihari batted out the last evening to secure a momentous draw.

Team India celebrate a famous final day effort to secure a draw (Photo by Rick Rycroft/ AP)

It may be soon forgotten by cricket lovers due to the end result, but it is yet another example on this tour of how gritty and wonderful this Indian side is. They have had everything possible thrown against them, yet head into the final test with a chance of winning yet another series down under. If they manage to do so, it’ll undoubtedly be their greatest ever series win in Indian cricket history, and this SCG test may become a key pillar to their success.

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Boxing Day Test Review: Inept Aussies lose a battle of intent

The Australian cricket psyche is an interesting one, developed through years of success and periods of grim defeat. Our early nation’s triumph in English shores to begin the Ashes rivalry kickstarted a time where Bradman, Morris and co all instilled the now-entrenched Australian cricketing superiority. But it wouldn’t have been so grand if we hadn’t of faced disorganised trips to the motherland for years that ended in losses. Likewise, with our recent golden era of the late 1990s to the mid 2000s; if we hadn’t of fallen behind the dominant West Indies and Ian Botham-led England in the 80s then perhaps our aggressive entitlement wouldn’t have grown to be so domineering. Instead, we now treat all summers of Australian test cricket as a time to bully visiting countries into submission and kick them out feeling rather satisfied with ourselves. Dave Warner’s chalked up 300? Of course – Pakistan are a rabble.

Long live the days of Hayden, Langer and such aggressive comfort for Australian fans (Cricket Australia)

But the narrative of test cricket history has changed once again for Australia. It may not feel like it, but this Boxing Day loss to India (our second consecutive MCG test loss to the dominant nation) is a landmark. 2018’s capitulation was tarnished by a lack of Smith and Warner. Yet this match holds no excuses, and comes in such remarkable fashion for a galvanised Indian side.

Instead of Australia crying foul circumstances, it was the travelling party who had the most reason to whinge. With Kohli returning to India after leading his side to a damaging third day loss in Adelaide, most of us smug Australian fans sat back and prepared for a Boxing Day drubbing. What we learnt instead was that incessant diligence and a sense of risk-taking always beats tentative self-righteousness.

Both teams approaches couldn’t have been more different. India enhanced on their bowling plans from Adelaide and ignored the time-honoured code of attacking off-stump (or just outside it) to a waiting cordon of slips and cover fielders. Jasprit Bumrah may not be the highest ranked test bowler in the world, but he is certainly the most dynamic. Visiting his happy hunting ground for the second time (in the 2018 Boxing Day test he took nine wickets for the match), he picked up where he left off by incessantly attacking middle stump. Without Shami, debutant Siraj followed suit and reaped similar rewards to his awkward spearhead.

India’s middle stump approach didn’t bear immediate results – it was never planned to. It takes time; attacking fields with leg slips and bat pad being common tightened the flow of runs. Only Matthew Wade found a way to break through on Boxing Day morning, flying to 30 courtesy of some loose Umesh Yadav bowling that trickled outside the off-stump line. But after his reckless dismissal all fellow batters refused to take the game on.

Wade was the only Australian to show intent with his flowing 30 on the first morning (Getty Images)

Flashpoints of moments from Australia’s opening innings set the tone. If Labuschagne and Smith had decided to use their feet to Ashwin early and loft anything trickling onto the pads over mid-wicket or square leg, then the wily offie wouldn’t have had such a golden opportunity to wheel away on the same spot for an entire test match. If Head had continued to show such intent at the crease by running singles and pushing through gaps, then he may have encouraged Green and Paine to come out of their shells earlier. But wickets only led to Australia following another time-honoured ritual of knuckling down and preventing another quick scalp. Instead, they should’ve been establishing a presence at the crease and building a score, not just defending time.

Trickling to 195, all eyes turned to whether it was an Australia problem or an issue plaguing both sides. With more reason for caution (after just being rolled for 36), India came out and did the exact opposite. In essence, after Agarwal’s dismissal in the opening over they made the perfect move, and it came from a debutant. Shubman Gill has a tremendous first-class record, and decided to play his natural game. He rode his luck through an early drop on the first evening and another on the second morning, but by then he was already in double figures and scoring freely. Gill may have thrown away a perfect start on 45, but he batted for just over half the amount of balls that Labuschagne did and made only three fewer runs; a lesson in intent.

Gill changed the game. His knock was only brief, but it encouraged his more experienced middle order to trust in their scoring shots. Rahane followed suit with a sublime captain’s knock (and a match that made everyone question whether he could be as good a leader as Kohli) full of driving on the up and flamboyant back foot shots. Supported by a flowing Pant cameo and a mature Jadeja half-century, Rahane took the game to Australia much like he did in the 2014 Boxing Day test and reaped the rewards with a momentous century. The next day Sunil Gavaskar labelled it as having the potential to be one of India’s most important knocks in their fabled test match history. He wasn’t wrong – Rahane’s counterattack was fundamental to India’s mindset that could see them take this series.

Rahane and Gill were blistering and brilliant in the second test (Getty Images)

Yet Australia fought back with five wickets in the opening session of the third day. From there, Australia’s unwarranted optimism flickered back to life like a rusty basement lightbulb. But there was no electric surge to sustain the light; Wade lost all momentum from his previous innings and no batter decided to push back against India’s oppressive bowling. It was perfect for debutant Siraj, who could steam in all day without fear of being dispatched. No matter what he did, he would bowl plenty of overs in Yadav’s absence and he wouldn’t be carted for bulk runs. Yes, his bowling was brilliant, but it was aided by Australia’s negative approach to batting.

It’s no surprise then when they crumbled to 6-99 on the third evening. There was no change; Langer was comfortably outplayed tactically, and he didn’t even consider shaking it up. Neither did his bats, who may as well have carried shovels instead of bats out onto the hallowed MCG turf to commence digging their own holes. Cam Green and Cummins fought hard, but both gave away chances of scoring vital half-centuries (or more) by refusing to score regularly.

India could then lick their lips and prepare for tough catching opportunities without the fear of a ball being smacked at them. They always remained in the game, and could endure long periods without a wicket while still staying ahead in the contest. It’s no wonder Ashwin, Bumrah, Siraj and Jadeja ended the second innings with such fantastic figures – they could build pressure without having to revert to a different plan. Up the other end of the wicket, Australia’s bats refused to conceive a back-up way of tackling a solid bowling and fielding idea.

Smith is one of many Aussies needing to change his game ahead of the third test (News Corp Australia)

With only a minimal target to chase, India capped off a superb four days by banishing some demons. Two early wickets would have caused nerves to jangle for the more pessimistic Indian supporter, while rousing the blindly confident Australians, but it only allowed Rahane and Gill to end the test match in the way they started it – brutal aggression.

Australia can go away and change personnel, but their issues don’t lie in particular players. Sure, Warner and perhaps Pucovski may change the way the next test is played, but it won’t suddenly bring Smith, Labuschagne, Wade, Head, Green and Paine out of their shells. Australia’s issues don’t lie in simple adjustments; it lies in a deeper sense of intent and attacking that has slowly dissipated since the Darren Lehmann stepped down as coach. Langer and Paine have done remarkable things leading Australia, but their mindset must change (for example, where has the old yet effective tactic of hitting the opposition spinner out of the attack gone?).

The home side now have the script reversed since Adelaide. India managed to bounce back and put the pressure on the other side in a perfectly executed counterattack. But they are a special side, and it’ll take another two tests to see whether Australia are strong enough to match them, or whether we are a rung below such a durable Indian outfit. To do so, they must access their inner-Australian sense of aggression and confidence.

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My Australian XI for the first test

Injuries have massively disrupted Australia’s preparations for the opening test against India in Adelaide, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have options. With the health of Will Pucvoski leaving him in doubt to make his test debut, here is the XI I think should be picked for the first test.

  1. Will Pucovski (or Marcus Harris if Pucovski is injured)

Up until last week it was a no brainer. Pucovski is so highly touted that he has been in the mix for a baggy green for numerous summers. But after peeling off consecutive double tons in the opening rounds of the Sheffield Shield, the noise surrounding the young Victorian rose to a crescendo. His stroke play all around the ground is impeccable, while his patience and temperament give him the mental skills required to score against a strong Indian attack. The only question mark hangs over his health – if this recent concussion rules him out, then Marcus Harris has to step in to replace him.

Behind Pucovski, his Victorian opening partner has been equally impressive so far in 2020/21. He has the game to step in and replace David Warner, while his small experience at test level may weigh in his favour. Due to numerous injuries plaguing openers, only Shaun Marsh could be considered another opening option, unless Australia want to turn Matt Wade into a makeshift opener (which could go disastrously wrong).

Barring concussion fears, Pucovski deserves to receive his baggy green (ICC)

2. Joe Burns

Burns can consider himself incredibly fortunate. If Warner was fit, Burns should have been forced out by Pucovski’s hot start to the summer. Just a couple of years ago Matt Renshaw, a younger and more enticing long-term option, was dropped from the test side due to a lean Sheffield Shield run to start the season. If Renshaw was treated that way, selectors would’ve had to have followed suit for the older Burns. But, Warner’s groin injury means Burns should get the first chance to solidify his spot before Warner comes back in.

3. Marnus Labuschagne

A no-brainer here. Despite an up-and-down start to the summer, Labuschagne is the emerging golden child of Australian test cricket. His breakthrough summer last year was incredible; now, he has the intense challenge of replicating such a feat against the best all-round bowling attack in world cricket. If Marnus can handle Bumrah and Sharma as well as negating Ashwin and Jadeja, he can confirm he really is a class above most other test batsmen.

4. Steve Smith

Smith’s hot ODI form is hopefully a sign of things to come in this test series. Despite struggling against Neil Wagner last summer, Smith has come out firing in 2020/21. His two centuries in the one-day series showed his ability to shift tempos when required, while also proving how well he handles India’s bowling line-up. If Smith has ‘found his hands’ for good this summer, watch out India.

5. Travis Head

Last summer gave Head the impetus to jump above Matt Wade in the middle-order power rankings. After some solid half-centuries early in the series, Head reached his potential in the Boxing Day test with a superb century. He has already been handed some leadership opportunities which could perhaps be a signal of things to come for the mature South Australian. With the competition for batting spots heating up, Head must fire early to keep his place ahead of Wade.

6. Cameron Green

Up until last week Green was probably going to be unfortunate to miss due to Wade’s track record. But his excelling past 18 months in the Sheffield Shield, coupled with his unbeaten ton against India last week for Australia A, means he should be given a chance at test level.

He’s made plenty of Shield runs – is Cam Green’s time now? (Image by Jono Searle/ AAP)

There are many arguments suggesting Green is too young and may not be ready, but consider other stars of the test arena. Ben Stokes was thrown into the fire against Australia in 2013/14 and managed to survive. If Green is really going to be one of our great all-rounders, giving him his chance when he deserves it is the best we can do for him. Think of Australian batting greats like Ricky Ponting – he was given a chance early, and produced one of the great test careers. Green’s bowling may be restricted due to his numerous back injuries, but he offers more for Australia than Wade in both this series and the future summers.

7. Tim Paine (Captain and wicketkeeper)

Paine’s role in this side is understated yet vitally important. Paine may not be the best keeper-batsman in the world, but he is very solid with the gloves and a handy bat. His leadership is where he shines – after resurrecting us from the dark ball tampering days, he should be given license to continue playing as test skipper until he decides to hang up the gloves. It’s a big summer for Paine; my eye is on his batting, where I believe he can contribute more often with lower-order runs.

8. James Pattinson

It’s a toss-up between Starc and Pattinson, but Patto has my vote. His return to test level last summer in the place of the injured Hazlewood was superb. He has the X-factor ability to take hauls of wickets and claim prized scalps. Pattinson looks to be confident and fit, while Starc’s recent limited overs form suggests a lack of confidence. Starc offers plenty as a left-armer, but Pattinson’s swing and pace gives him the nod ahead of Starc in Adelaide.

Is Pattinson ahead of Starc in Australia’s pace bowling rankings? (Image by Michael Dodge/ AAP)

9. Pat Cummins

An easy selection. Cummins is a star, and can hopefully continue to thwart the Indians. He should now be well-rested and ready to remove Kohli and Pujara on a regular basis. With Starc out, he should also be given new ball duties to prove he is the world’s most versatile pace bowler.

10. Nathan Lyon

Lyon has a massive summer ahead. But every Australian series is important for our greatest off-spinner, who often shoulders the spin bowling lone completely on his own. Lyon looks primed and ready to tie down India all summer long. Hopefully he starts off well in Adelaide and continues to trouble India throughout the rest of the series.

11. Josh Hazlewood

Cummins may be the most skilled pace bowler in the world, but in my eyes Hazlewood is the best. His new ball bowling is tight and breathtaking; with Cummins he could create a formidable opening duo that gains early wickets all summer long. Now looking fit after his hamstring concerns last year, Hazlewood’s skillset means Starc, despite a great summer last year, has to sit out the opening test.

There it is. Starc or Wade can be 12th man, as both are unlucky to miss. There are some harsh calls, but these tight selections show a nation that is gaining more depth in test level cricketers – a superb sign for this series and the future. Let me know what you think on my side.

AFL 2020 Grand Final Review: Dusty’s masterpiece leads a stirring premiership

It was the type of moment that causes a smirk, a catch of the breath and a little noise rising deep from the throat. The best players have small quirks about their game that give you unforeseen knowledge. In this play, Dustin Martin made us all feel like he was going to intercept the Geelong handball as he stalked them along the boundary line. When he duly did so, then twisted his robust core to shake off Patrick Dangerfield and curl through an impossible goal, the little ‘oh’ escaped. It was beautiful, a crowning moment from a glorious team’s glistening jewel.

It took a lot of fight to get to this point.

Grand Finals have a certain look to them. The opening bowl of the MCG, clouds parting for nice afternoons. The atmosphere from Yarra Park BBQ’s spilling into the overflowing crowds taking to the vast stands. But there was no familiarity to this Grand Final day. Breakfasts soon extended to brunches. Day-drinkers suddenly had to ration their doses. TVs showed us northern tropics, whacking trees together and sending rain down in weighted sheets. It was the Grand Final done in Queensland style.

But the Grand Final spirit is hard to break. There’s still that deep feeling of excitement when teams walk up the race like steely warriors. The flutters of the national anthem’s final crescendo. The hearty roar of the crowd when the umpire first holds the Sherrin aloft, offering it to the gods in this sacred two and a half hours.

There have been plenty of wonderful starts, from the brutality of ’89 to the fast-paced openers of recent times. The opening ten minutes of Grand Finals are all absorbing. People forget everything around them, only snapped out of this haze when a goal is scored. The tension at the Gabba extends when Dangerfield flies to spoil and accidentally knocks out Vlastuin with a stray elbow. While he struggles to move, Gary Ablett Jnr lies metres away, his shoulder searing with pain. In the ensuing eight minutes, concerns flitter between Vlastuin’s distressed situation and the shattered Ablett fairy tale. When play resumes, Geelong miss early chances to settle and allow the Tigers to slam on two in a minute. It’s all so 2020.

In some ways the opening term feels like a rugged public school coming up against a ponce private institution. The Tigers are the state school, full of rough haircuts and cheek. They act on a whim, and give tantalising grins every time they frustrate their opposition. But Guthrie’s booming set shot settles the Cats, and he and Duncan ensure the private school Cats cleanly re-take the lead heading into the first break.

Cam Guthrie settled the Cats in the first term (Image by Dave Hunt/ AAP)

Now comfortable that ground invaders and injuries won’t occur at every bend, both teams take it up a notch. The rain has gone, the turf is draining and the pressure lifts. Richmond revel in making life hard for their opponents, and their suffocation style stifles Geelong. But the Cats are prepared to match them in intensity. All of a sudden, Richmond’s pressure is flipped, like Atlas has finally used his legs to upheave the mammoth weight and flip it back onto the titans themselves. Suddenly the Tigers cop a fierce dose of their own medicine, mixed in with elder statesmen who have the class and temperament to make them hurt. The steady Cats players (think Miers, Guthrie, Duncan) all launch a procession of punches on Richmond, while Selwood and the one-armed Ablett wait for opportune moments to strike them at pressure points.

Dangerfield settles into Grand Final football, using his forward craft to demand a wide one-on-one contest with Cotchin that has the Richmond skipper clinging on like a fearful child. His set shot is Anthony Rocca-esque from the 2002 decider, only the goal umpire is more forgiving. Ablett gets into the thick of it and fires out an extraordinary handball to Selwood. The old timers combine to give Hawkins an easy mark and goal. With Lynch and Riewoldt well held by Taylor and Henderson, Richmond look disconnected.

It is in these times where the Tigers’ greatest assets show themselves. Hidden amongst a bevy of pressure players for so long, Martin decides enough is enough. In the shadows of half time he switches from a strong contributor to the lead man. It is all very Michael Jordan. He wills himself forward and seems to not notice Jake Kolodjashnij’s defensive efforts. Crumbing to perfection, he holds off the burly Cat with his left arm while collecting and throwing the footy onto his boot with his right paw. As he goes to kick it, a deep recession of the brain knows what the end result is. Defying all laws of physics, Dusty slides it through. It’s not much, but it’s a crucial major.

All of this sets up a rapid opening to the second half. Like a deteriorating car receiving a cheap shot of petrol, the Tigers are revamped enough to unleash total ferocity in the premiership quarter. It is unlike anything seen this season. If Fox Footy covered this, the pressure metre they infamously gauge would have pinged off the screen. Every Tiger made a concerted effort to get to the footy first and strangle Geelong’s composure.

Riewoldt, after a quiet finals series, picks up the slack from Lynch and turns from stale to dangerous. Castagna’s efforts give him a shot at goal which slides through. The match quickly turns from an impressive Geelong performance to an eerily reminiscent replay of last year’s preliminary final. With the tide now pulled out against them, Geelong have to toil hard to create a counter-attacking chance down the wing. Ablett’s masterful touch pulls the strings, ending with a skidding Miers shot that eases troubled Geelong minds.

Deep sighs are released. The distribution of bums on seats retracts from the edge. Nerves are temporarily soothed. But Richmond are hell-bent on continuing their destruction. Geelong give off an air of calm, like they have the situation under control. It’s all a façade. Bolton crashes into packs and plucks an incredible mark that ends in a Lambert goal. Guthrie tries to match him on the wing, but his teammates don’t have the same sense of theatre to convert it. It’s crunch time, and one player wills himself to the footy.

Brisbane cleared up to make the night Grand Final an entertaining affair (SEN)

With Dangerfield falling out of the game after a solid second quarter, Dusty picks the right time to assert himself. He was instrumental in keeping his side in it, now he focuses on the second half of the job. With bodies flying everywhere he refuses to lose his footing, his strong core steadying so he can pluck a loose ball and dribble it through from the arc. The roar breaks through dense Brisbane crowds, veins popping out of Dusty’s forehead. He is an unstoppable force – not since Levi Greenwood’s efforts in the 2018 prelim has Dusty been harnessed in a big game.

All of this action sets up a nervy three-quarter time break. Supporters from either side are coated in stress, unable to avert their minds. Neutral fans only endure a sliver of this tension, instead licking their lips for what is to come.

The final quarter encapsulates Richmond’s greatness. Their effort and tenacity sends them to a premiership that confirms their historical significance. Bolton sparkles, setting up Lynch with a beautiful long ball. Riewoldt slots an impossible set shot. Short and Baker don’t stop running, nipping at the heels of Geelong’s faltering small forwards and pouncing on anything loose. Houli soldiers on through a torn calf, likewise Ablett with his lop-sided shoulder. A gust of breeze sends jolts through his arm, yet he continually pops up and goes again. It’s a true mark of his brilliance. It may not be the way Geelong fans wish to see Ablett depart, but in a unique way it confirms his champion status.

Ablett’s cruel ending acts as a changing of the guard. In the same quarter, Dusty assumes the league’s envy. He bullies past Cats to snatch the Sherrin, twisting past one despairing defender and dribbling through another long-range effort. He’s everywhere, adding his strength and sparkling touch where it’s required. Overseeing the project, pulling strings where required. He has played many fine games, but this is his most impressive to date.

Was this Dusty’s finest ever game? (Footyology)

Menegola tries to rally his troops with one final act of courage, knocking out poor Simpson in the process. After another lengthy break, he slams home a goal full of hope. It just isn’t to be. AFL has a cruel way of ruining fairy tales. It’s what makes the success stories so beautiful.

The Tigers deserve every bit of this third flag. It’s certainly their best, full of scandal, difficulties and sheer brilliance. It’s a tribute to a system that has been picked apart at length, but is still just as unstoppable as it was in the final moments of 2017.

Dusty deservedly breaks record books with a third Norm Smith Medal. In his previous two efforts he was the head honcho among many worthy amigos. This Gabba effort was different – he wasn’t pulling the sled with others providing a helping hand. In the first half, he was the sole force keeping Richmond within striking distance. When the game was on the line, he lifted yet again.

In a year full of uncertainty, Richmond reminded us all that not everything was torn apart. They can be relied on, and are still the same force that frustrates the rest of the competition while delighting their bursting fan base.

It’s Tiger time again (Image by Jono Searle/ AFL Photos/ Getty Images)

RICHMOND     2.1     3.2     7.4     12.9     (81)
GEELONG        2.2     5.5     6.8     7.8     (50)

 Martin 4, Prestia, Riewoldt 2, Castagna, Lambert, Lynch, McIntosh
Geelong: Menegola 2, Dangerfield, Duncan, Guthrie, Hawkins, Miers

 Martin, Short, Edwards, Prestia, Cotchin, Bolton
Geelong: Duncan, Stewart, Selwood, Menegola, Dahlhaus

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