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Ashes Ahoy

1st July 2009.

The characters may lack in stature as compared to some of their predecessors, but the script promises to be tight.

Suddenly hearts are thumping. After an eternity of speculation and enough opinions to impress an army of lawyers, the cricketing outfits representing England and Australia are busy putting the finishing touches to their preparations. Before much more time has passed someone will actually bowl a cricket ball, hopefully not straight at second slip. Not long afterwards an opening batsman trying to control his nerves will probably either shoulder arms or else keep it warily out of harm’s way (Matthew Hayden and Marcus Trescothick are no longer around to bruise the new ball).

At the sight of the first of a thousand tense stalemates, spectators, radio listeners, television viewers and those following on the internet will emit a slight gasp, and then, almost with the same intensity as those taking part, wait upon the next ball. Meanwhile, improbably, the official scorers, and the copycats, will enter an unremarkable dot in the books of cricketing accounting. And so, humbly, with expectations high and two sporting nations agog, the epic will begin.

Nor ought that first ball be taken lightly. Although it might on this occasion prove forgettable, the opening offering of an Ashes series offers an immediate insight into the opposing camps and a passable forecast of future events. Apart from anything else, much has already been revealed about the state of the teams, the attitudes of the selectors and the confidence of the players.

The original Ashes urn

The Ashes Urn in 1921 when it was still owned by Lord Darnley (Ivo Bligh).
Photo © Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

By then England, against so many expectations and with such widespread relief, might have named a side with all hands on deck, not least the IPL adventurers, Kevin Pietersen, the rebel who would be king, and Andrew Flintoff, the folk hero. Pietersen played under Shane Warne at Hampshire, and evidently some of the old charmer’s ruses rubbed off on him. Under their new leadership England seem to have found a way to make their most potent players feel important without letting them take over the show.

By then England might have chosen a bold and balanced attack containing a spinner and a quartet of hustling, bustling speedsters able to hit the pitch hard so that the ball rattles the bat handle, or else to swing it late from various angles in a manner that has been known to upset Antipodean batsmen used to hitting through the line. Timid sides worry about long tails. Ambitious outfits prefer proper cricketers and focus on taking wickets.

By then England might have selected an audacious batting order containing players unafraid of their responsibilities, and unlikely to buckle in the face of an Australian, however low his cap sits on his head and how menacingly his jaws chew the gum. Despite Warne’s strictures – it’s usually unwise to ignore the great man’s words but he has not been retired long enough yet to regard himself as infallible – Ravi Bopara seems to be made of the right stuff while Andrew Strauss possesses the force of character required to uplift and reassure. Certainly the home captain conveys conviction, a trait often encountered in the Antipodes, but less often detected in England, with its hedges and discouraging drizzle.

Accordingly it seems unlikely that the hosts walk wounded onto the battlefield. It can happen. Nasser Hussain’s decision to bowl first in Brisbane all those years ago suggested not the daring of the true believer, but the caution of the unconvinced. Inevitably his bowlers responded with a wretched performance. By the end of the opening day, if not before, the game was up. Bowlers can sense a leader’s reluctance just like they can feel his faith. Not that Hussain had been given much of a hand. England were going through one of their periods of trial and tribulation. English cricket has a crisis every 10 years, and it lasts about 10 years.

Steve Harmison’s wayward opening in 2006-07 likewise provided an accurate forecast of forthcoming events – and the series ended with another stinker, a slower full toss delivered by Sajid Mahmood, regarded down under as an impostor. Harmison had been out of sorts beforehand in India. Reporters turning up at the nets in Jaipur with the idea of checking on Glenn McGrath’s progress instead found the opposing terror walking to the crease off a few paces and sending the ball into the corners of the nets. If England’s goose was not already cooked, their prospects were grim after that erratic first delivery. The centre had not held.

Although it is hard and requires decisive action, it is possible to turn things around. England did so in 1981 by the simple means of sacking the incumbent and appointing a shrewd leader. Thereafter they played with a unity and purpose that exposed the fractured nature of a foolishly chosen and ineptly led touring team. England also fought back from a dodgy start in 2005. Not that the home side played poorly at Lord’s, just that McGrath sent down swift break-backers. Obviously the Narrominite’s subsequent injury helped England, but they also helped themselves by refusing to buckle.

From the Australian perspective the first morning is more likely to be indicative than influential. By and large Australian teams contain too many forceful characters to be easily undone. As Ian Chappell observed the other day, sides from that neck of the woods can be beaten but seldom beat themselves. Still the visitors did not arrive in England with the swagger of a side that knows its capabilities. Ricky Ponting’s team has endured a perplexing period. Two outfits represented the nation last northern winter. The first contained all remaining old hands and appeared formidable. India and South Africa promptly defeated them, convincingly in India’s case, after a long and compelling struggle as far as South Africa were concerned.

Recognising the warning signs, fearing decay, the selectors decided to pull the tooth. They empowered a new generation, named a squad including several emerging players respected in their backyard but almost unknown elsewhere, not least a little lad called Phil Hughes and a speedster going by the name of Peter Siddle. Like so many of the country’s finest, both came from the sticks and so were free of the fancy that had been affecting the mood of the team. To widespread surprise, and inspired by Mitchell Johnson’s sustained excellence, these Australians, the erstwhile woodchopper, driver of a plumber’s van, the son of a banana farmer and a part-time brickie, confounded a South African side that had lingered a little too long in the hills of happiness.

Hereabouts Australia seemed to have identified their team for the next five years. Admittedly a couple of weak points had come to light, but that was hardly surprising and not easily corrected. Nor had all points been resolved. Indeed the selectors had been forced to act as the veterans went down like soldiers in a civil war. Then the proven warriors started to return to the action. Not wanting to discard them without confirmation that their best was past, the selectors included them in parties for various one-day tournaments. Doubtless they were hoping for clear evidence one way or the other. Unfortunately it is rarely quite as simple as that, and instead they were more or less obliged to compromise. Whether any of the almost discarded serves with distinction remains to be seen. Already Andrew Symonds has raged once too often. And Shane Watson has suffered yet another setback. Sherlock Holmes might be a better bet.

All the more reason to watch the Aussies closely as the Test begins in Cardiff. By then Ponting and his think-tank will have been forced to make several difficult choices about the depth of the batting, the balance of the attack and the futures of some outstanding servants. In 2005 Australia played to many ageing seamers, and might repeat the error.

England know their mind and their game. Probably the first ball will indeed produce a mere dot in the books where the humanity of cricketers is reduced to cold facts and figures. But the delivery may hint at truths that will emerge as the series unfolds and skill and spirit are examined.

Afterwards, after the last ball and the celebrations, we’ll be able to look back on the first day and the first match and comment upon the misjudgements and valour and plain bad luck that raised some and undid others. The gods kill us for their sport. That is our greatest fear. The scorers will write their dots and extras and runs, and the tally will be taken, and it will all look neat and mathematical, but these are results not causes. The fate of this Ashes series lies in the minds of those taking part, and that process is already underway.

Bring it on. The 2009 Ashes may lack the colossal characters and cricketers of 2005, but it’s going to be close, and the storyline is going to compel. Overall the teams look well matched. Both are competitive, neither is overwhelming. Victory will go to the team that makes the most of its abilities, and the opening passages will help identify that side.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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