Disclaimer upfront – I am an Englishman living in Australia, and I support the English in Ashes contests. I endured the 8 consecutive Ashes defeats of 1989-2003 and I had opportunities to switch allegiances. I had emigrated to Perth in 1997 and became an Australian citizen in 2001.
But having caught the cricket bug aged 10 at my school in England, I had watched enthralled at various Ashes contests involving Knotty and Greig, Jon Snow, Boycs, Gower, Botham (boy hood hero – and played for my home county of Somerset)… and the rest. I cheered during Botham’s Ashes, and Gower/Gooch’s in 1985 and Fat Gatt steamroller of 1986/7.
After that, it became quite painful. Even a 7-year sojourn in Singapore during the 1990’s did not help, as our cricket club was over stuffed with Aussies, and good players they were too. Gee, did I cop it! The 1st XI contained 9 Aussies, a token Pom (occasionally me) and a Sri Lankan most weeks. The 2nd XI was the inverse. Every year, the game we all spoke about in reverence was our own end of season Ashes game. And in that, we were right royally trounced, year in year out. Save for two tight low scoring victories in 1993 and 1995, which were more of a freak of nature than anything else. In 1993, I was captain of the English and had ‘England Expects…’ shirts printed for our team, more in anticipation of an heroic failure than anything else – Nelson did die at Trafalgar after all. Meanwhile the real English team limped from one mentally destructive defeat to another. They provided scant competition. In one Ashes campaign, the English team used 33 players.
Wind on 20 years and here I am enjoying a pretty good English team beating a pretty average Aussie one. The press and ex-players (who are often the same people) on both sides have been pumping out the superlatives talking up the English and denigrating the Aussies. I believe the real picture lies somewhere in between. Each test so far has hinged on some key moments, much like championship tennis matches do. England has not won all of them, but has the upper hand overall to be sure. They are the better team, and are ranked higher. However, only 6 months ago, the Aussies were one test win away from taking the #1 test ranking away from the South Africans.
Various ‘conclusions’ have already been drawn on the Aussie side, with T20, the adminstrators, AFL, and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all being blamed. I even heard Jeff ‘Thomo’ Thompson liking my former boss and current national selector John Inverarity to ‘Weekend at Bernies‘ the other day. “He was like the dead guy in Weekend at Bernies even when he was playing!”. A tad unfair mate. Invers won more Sheffield Shields than any captain in history, and even took Warwickshire to the flag (unearthing a good little player in Ian Bell) the last time he coached. Having worked with John for a few years, there is no one more qualified and judicious in taking the Aussie game out of its current plight. But even he can only select from the talent pool that is available. I thought the Agar selection was inspired, as was Rogers. All the bowlers (an Aussie strength) were ready and fit for the first test.
But I don’t actually think the problems are all that bad. There is too much bombast and hyperbole. The English team are not that unbeatable (the Kiwis came damn close three months ago), and the Aussies are not that woeful. The Aussie pace attack is sharp and has great depth. There are 8 bowlers out there in the squad and they are all firing. England were 30-3 in both innings at Lords, and Cook, Trott and Pietersen have been kept pretty quiet. The spinning ranks are a bit bare, but that was always going to be a problem post Warne. As for the batting, I think they have the makings of a side and things are taking shape. Most of the ‘new’ guys average in the 30s already and you feel could take off at any minute. They are probably an hour or two away from striking through and posting some big scores. I’d stick with them for at least a couple of years and give them a long run. Class does not go away. The last time the Aussies were in this state (mid 80s) they stuck with the new crew and the team became world beaters. Picking talent and (more importantly backing it) breathes confidence. Players looking over their shoulders makes them edgy. Bowlers smell fear. Bell was having nightmares in his first few years but look at him now. Warne had him in knots and taunted him with the ‘Sherminator’ tag. Even Flintoff at the other end thought it was hilarious and had to look down. Cook was one innings away from being dropped in mid 2010 (“technical problem, hopeless” screamed the ex players), but one last roll of the dice against Pakistan saw him notch up three figures and he’s averaged over 60 since, piling on the runs.
I like the cut of Hughes, Khawaja and Smith’s collective jibs. There’s something about them. Rogers and Watson should be left to open for a year or two. Clarke has a two or three more good years left in him. Stick with them. Back them. If so, I think we will see their class come out, in this series and the repeat one down under. The Aussies may well succumb 3 or 4 nil in this series, but they may also strike one back. I’m not putting it past them. Yes, I will still be ‘rooting for England’ (if you forgive the pun), but I hope the managers of the Australians show courage under fire, and back their men.