Thoughts on the Ashes

It’s all been written elsewhere I’m sure, but here are some bits and pieces that came to mind…

I’ve watched more of this cricket series than almost any other since falling for the sport as a teenager. Trying to think back, perhaps I watched most of of the home series against the West Indies in ’95 or India in ’96, but that was when cricket was on the BBC, school holidays were long and lazy, and stumps was before bedtime. The 2009 Ashes were fitfully absorbed in the pub, over the radio and at Lords. This series was watched (and when not watched, listened to) through the night on suspect pixellated feeds, leading to zombie-like days which passed incredibly rapidly into the next night’s play.

Brisbane was heroic and unexpected; a Cardiff for 2010. The all-too-familiar collapse (courtesy of the Siddle hat-trick) happened, followed by the accumulation of a daunting 481 by Australia – the first indications, too, of Hussey’s position as impenetrable redoubt. But then something strange happened. I was at a wedding and we all went off to bed around 2am; when we woke, Alastair Cook was already a hero, and the draw was virtually safe. The clutch of three top-order hundreds was the also the first little novelty of this most record-breaking of series, alongside the new experience (for England) of breaking 500-1. The second innings batting was wonderful, but the direction of the narrative was as yet unclear. No definitive result, yet England had the momentum.

Next was Adelaide. Pietersen’s double hundred with another ton from Cook and a beautiful unbeaten knock from Bell put this one beyond the largely toothless Australian attack. Again Hussey was dogged and difficult to remove, but to no avail. An innings victory! And where Brisbane had shown the testicular fortitude of England’s top order batting, two bowling performances – Anderson in the first innings, Swann in the second – raised eyebrows in South Australia. Here we had confirmation that this was a team that could excel with the bat, with the ball, and in the field – it truly has been a long while since England fans have seen that.

Perth should not simply be forgotten, but placed in its rather freakish context. At the time it might have seemed that Adelaide was the exception, and where England had fluked a draw in Brisbane, the recalled Mitchell Johnson had swung that magical intangible – momentum – back towards Australia. Because while Ryan Harris notched a six-fer in the second innings, the game was gone by then, lost instead to Mitch and his 6-38. Here it is, in all it’s slingy, inelegant and unrepeatable glory. Unrepeatable being the operative word, because although he had won the game, Johnson was all Australia had in the tank, and England could count on his mercurial nature being just that. Further positives were there, though: Tremlett’s fifer heralding a tremendous contribution to the second half of the series; the knowledge that the exhausted Finn could be rested for a colleague of equal ability; and another neat fifty for Bell.

So, to Melbourne, where the destination of the Ashes was decided, and decided early – the first innings totals of 98 for Australia and 513 for England told it all. For that gulf to open up twice in a series allowed us to comprehend that England were far and away the better side. Tremlett hammered them and Anderson bamboozled them – a glorious session where the Ashes were retained. Then Trott delivered a calm and clinical 168 complemented by solid contributions from Strauss, Cook and Prior. Yet another innings of five hundred for England, and thanks to Bresnan’s no-nonsense bowling, another innings victory.

It wasn’t just about retaining the Ashes though, and I really feel this is where the difference between the England of Vaughan and Flintoff vintage is different to the current incarnation. The imperative here was to go to Australia and to win. Not to humiliate, though that would be a side effect given the brutality of the Australian press reaction to the national team’s struggles, but to win. This, on top of the series in South Africa, was a step back towards the peak of the international game.

Sydney, then, was no dead rubber. Ponting’s churlish meltdown at the MCG had lent a curious sense of finality to that game, and the Australian selectors decided to look to the future with Smith and Khawaja. Though Jimmy Anderson had another good game with the ball, this match was won by another towering first innings from the England batsmen. Cook, justly man-of-the-series, racked up 189 and made it seem routine; Bell and Prior then put on 107 and made a century each. The monumental nature of the batting achievement here can scarcely be overstated – England had reached 500 on four occasions and averaged over fifty per wicket lost. Against Australia, in Australia. Magic. When those sort of numbers are being accumulated, three innings victories in a series is just a pleasant by-product.

Looking forward, I would hope to see both Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara given a shot at number six, with Bell moving up to five. While I was never a huge fan of Paul Collingwood‘s ugly bat, his bowling has always been a good fifth option (not to mention his outstanding fielding), and I feel Bopara could best fill that gap. A lineup of Cook, Strauss, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Bopara, Prior, Broad/Bresnan, Swann, Anderson and Tremlett/Finn would have the rare quality of batting incredibly deep (and with some panache) while accommodating in a genuinely world-class bowling attack. I fear my favourite bowler of recent years -the subtle and deceptive Mr Onions – might find his way back barred even if he recovers from his injury (though I am not one of those who thinks Broad will have the same difficulty).

I can’t let a little ‘I told you so’ pass, I’m afraid. Though I didn’t pick Pietersen to come back strongly from his recent travails nor Anderson to star with the ball, I did predict Cook and Bell would shine with the bat, and I didn’t fancy the otherwise-legendary Swanny to have an outstanding tour. Of course, I’d be happier with those predictions (made at the end of a long and bibulous stag do on the first day of the series) had I put some money on them.

Finally, here’s the obligatory link to the Sprinkler… who’d have thought Mushy would out-dance the skipper!?

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Published in: on January 12, 2011 at 12:21 am  Leave a Comment  

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