Five years ago, when England shocked Australia at home and also the entire cricket watching world, excitement returned to Ashes cricket. It is a bit of a paradox yes, for Ashes cricket is the oldest contest alive and there has to be a reasonable thrill associated for it to survive for so long. Yet the truth is, Australia’s dominant streak that began in the late eighties, continued through the nineties up until much of this past decade meant that an English captain held ‘the urn’ for a first time only after two decades
The associated problem with that being their return trip in the Aussie summer of 2006-07 and boy, did they turn up the heat? A five-nil blanking was what the likes of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne wanted and that is what they got. For all the highs and talks since their big victory just over twelve months ago, it was a huge anticlimax for England. That alone puts their last Ashes win in 2009 and the journey this time around in perspective.
English cricket revolves around the Ashes and nothing else. It has been so since time immemorial and only gained momentum with success in this contest becoming a rarity. While that in itself remains a surprise given they have the most resources available to them in terms of players and coaches in their domestic set-up, perhaps it also allows for the anticipation to build up, especially when their recent are taken into account. That last factor alone has made 25th November 2010 a date to watch out for.
You have to go all the way back to 1986-87 when the English last won an Ashes series in Australia. In fact there is quite a resemblance with that year to this time – England were also winners in the previous contest in 1985 and went away in a bid to retain the trophy and succeeded. Having won in 2009, this time too they will be looking forward to something similar.
You could point out that last time in 2006-07, they went away with similar hopes and look how that ended. But this is where the difference emanates and resemblance with ’86-87 becomes even starker. It was an Australian team undergoing immense changes, almost setting themselves up for their two-decade long domination. Allan Border took a hugely divided unit to England in ’85 and lost, and then had to surrender to the prowess of Mike Gatting’ team next year.
Meanwhile England bore a settled look and flourished with only minor hiccups here and there. If we look around, is the present scenario any different? Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower lead a squad that has gone from strength to strength in the past year while Ricky Ponting’s problems have been compounded. Australia have won close to nothing in the last six months in either formats of the game.
The way Strauss and company have begun their trip is quite a surprise to many. Two wins and a comfortable draw in three tour games is the stuff their dreams were made of in the last two decades. Their fans are almost anticipating something to go wrong for it has been such a smooth build-up. But what people are missing out is that this squad has it in them to bring out a great win and if not, atleast return with the urn on account of a drawn series. Barring the 6-1 Natwest ODI series losses after the highs of Ashes win last year, they are unbeaten since in all competitions. It includes contests against South Africa and Pakistan, as also a momentous ICC T20 World Cup win earlier in the year.
Look at them now; Strauss seems more confident in his job than his first stint, the batting is solid and scoring runs except of course Kevin Pietersen, but how long can you keep him quiet? The bowling is a tempting mix of pace and spin, and most significantly, there seems to be no negative threads pulling away at this group.
As much as it is easy to say England look confidently competitive going into this clash, you can never, ever count out the Australians. Sure they have confidence problems, their batsmen are not scoring many runs even in domestic competitions and their bowling attack seems to have been patched up in a hurry. But what is the wager on all of this not turning around in two days? Ever since their loss in India in 2008, they have been on a downturn which has been spiralling out of control. No one knows when it will stop but it has to, for this is Australia and world cricket needs them to be strong going into the next decade.
Let us just start with their squad, one which will see some chopping and changing throughout the summer for they are a home team herein. But they will begin on the wrong foot if they go in with a four-man pace attack in the Brisbane Test. Being who they are, attitude-wise, this will be a strong temptation supported by the fact that they are yet to find a sure shot replacement for Warne, or even MacGill for that matter. They have Xavier Doherty lining up for his Test debut, though what is the chance that he will last out the summer given how they have treated Nathan Hauritz or others before him?
It might just come down to that, playing the right bowling combination that is. England have Graeme Swann who has everything going for him to be the trump card, for everyone knows the Aussies do not particularly like good quality off-spin.
Nearly all other factors can balance out; batting line-ups weigh equally on paper when you put Ponting, Michael Hussey, Simon Katich and Michael Clarke against Strauss, Pietersen, Ian Bell, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott. The all-rounders in Shane Watson and Mitchell Johnson will exchange blows with Paul Collingwood and Stuart Broad. And, the fast bowlers in Steve Finn, James Anderson and Tim Bresnan can have equal number of good and bad days as do Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus and Doug Bollinger.
We began with England’s run-in and it’s optimal if we close with the Australian version. One wouldn’t mention the streak of victories they etched up, rather go back to that same date – 1986-87. For long now, Ponting’s role has been equated to that of Border, that of building the next generation of Australian cricket. The major difference here is that the latter was never short of time. When they won the World Cup in 1987, he still had a good seven years of cricket left in him and he helped give flight to their cricket, first with his leadership and then his fully matured batting craft. On the contrary, Ponting seems to be a cricketer on the wane. There was an air of confidence after losing his second consecutive Ashes in England last year and he was brash about visiting again three years hence. Slowly over the last twelve months, it has changed to ‘wait and see what happens after the Ashes and the World Cup’.
All said and done, pretty much all of it adds to the excitement of this contest. Will England make good on their promise? Or will they break rank when Australia comes hard at them, for they surely will atleast once? Can the hosts manage to recover from all the setbacks, more importantly forget them and realise that they are wonderfully talented cricketers, just short of confidence? Will Ponting still be captain in February as they set off for defending their World Cup crown?
We will know the answers through the next six weeks!
© Cricket World 2010