I was born in 1980. The first Ashes series I can remember was when Allan Border’s boys came over in 1989. I was eight years old, and sport on television for most of the day made my summers. It took until I was 24 before I saw my first Ashes victory, so writing this as England lead an Ashes series 3-0 after four Tests is something I genuinely never thought I would do. Yet the scoreline does not tell the full story of this Series.
Consider the incredible 2010/11 Ashes which preceded this; on the first day of the first Test, England were put into bat, Andrew Strauss was out for a duck, Peter Siddle took a hat-trick and a nation collectively thought: “Here we go again.” England ended that Test on 517-1, making the Australian bowlers toil and suffer in a way they had never expected to, and went on to win the Series 3-1. Astonishingly, all three England victories were by an innings.
Therefore many seasoned observers, like Sir Ian Botham, thought England would sweep this one 5-0, and the next one in Australia. When Australia were 117-9 on the second morning at Trent Bridge, a young man who was playing cricket for Henley at the start of the summer strode to the crease and hit a magnificent 98, the highest score on debut by a Test number eleven. Nobody had even made a fifty on debut at number eleven before. What we didn’t know then, as we sat at Trent Bridge in disbelief as Ashton Agar hit boundary after boundary, was that the tenth wicket partnership between Agar and Philip Hughes would come to encapsulate this Series. When the pressure was off, the Australians played their best cricket.
Nobody gave them a hope at 117-9, and the runs flowed like the River Trent by the ground. Ian Bell, not for the first time, dug England out of a hole with a magnificent century in the second innings; Australia were set 311 to win. Shane Watson and Chris Rogers got off to a lovely start in the 4th innings; at 161-3, the Aussies were looking set fair. Three wickets and three runs later, and England were back on top. At 231-9, nobody gave the Australian team a prayer. Again, with nobody giving the Aussies a chance, Brad Haddin and James Pattinson inched Australia ever closer to an unlikely victory, before Anderson had a caught-behind decision overturned via DRS against Haddin to seal a win for England.
On the subject of DRS, I have a simple solution; remove all the choices from the players. By allowing the umpire to review his own decisions, he can ask the third umpire for assistance for particularly tricky decisions. This would have a two-fold effect; firstly, it would remove the farcical situation (demonstrated perfectly at Durham in Australia’s second innings) whereby a team loses its reviews on the most marginal calls. Haddin and Watson were both absolutely right to review; they were not done for the sake of it, yet because they failed, the reviews were lost. Secondly, it keeps all the decisions firmly with the umpire. This is how it used to be before DRS; surely technology should be used to aid the umpires, not make them lose confidence in their own decisions?
The Second Test at Lord’s saw a similar pressure pattern; the Australians again had the better of the English top order in both innings, but a woeful first innings total of 128 gave them no chance of victory, and England wrapped up the match in four days. The Third Test followed the same pattern – at 2-0 down, the pressure was off Australia, and they played their best cricket and were denied the chance of making it 2-1 only by the Manchester rain. For most of the Fourth Test at Durham, it looked like Australia would finally get that victory; certainly, at 168-2 chasing 299 to win, they were the favourites. Yet Stuart Broad came up with a brilliant spell of fast bowling that not only saw him take six wickets for 20 runs in 45 balls, it also made a mockery of Australian claims that England were too reliant on Jimmy Anderson to be an effective all-round bowling attack (before we even mention Swann).
So how did we arrive here?
Consider the teams for that Fourth Test. The England team had an average age of 29, with 650 Test caps. The Australian team were a few months older on average, yet had just 322 Test caps between them. England are battle-hardened, seasoned pros; they blood the occasional youngster like Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, but they are able to play their way into a settled side. The Australians play as if every Test could be their last, and that shows in the nervousness of some of their performances. This is no better illustrated than the case of the aforementioned Ian Bell; it took him 31 Test innings against Australia to score his first Ashes century; yet the England selectors persisted with him and their patience is being rewarded, and how. Bell has always been a beautiful player to watch, but there were questions over his mental strength. Perhaps more slack should have been afforded to him by critics (such as me) when you consider that when he was learning his trade at Test level, he often came into bat with a certain Shane Warne running in to bowl and sledge to him.
For me, the Australians need to decide which of their players they are going to stick with, and give them at least ten Tests. Do they believe in Nathan Lyon? If so, don’t let him go the way of Michael Beer and countless others – stick with him, and let Agar get some more first-class experience. Aged just 25 and 19 respectively, they both have time on their side as spinners. Australia genuinely believed that having a core of world class players in the same team, as was the case with Hayden, Waugh, Waugh, Ponting, Gilchrist, McGrath, Warne – not to mention many others – was a result of their latent superiority and that it would always be the case; how they are paying for it now. England, in spite of not having the same calibre of players as that Australian vintage, would do well not to fall into the same trap. Complacency breeds failure.
I believe England will win the final Test at the Oval, and I am also a firm believer that, over a year or so, batsmen generally play to their averages. Remarkably, England have not passed 400 in a single innings in this Series. In which case, when England return to Australia in a couple of months time, there is every chance that Cook, Pietersen, Trott and Prior will all score bucketfuls of runs. The hard surfaces in Australia should suit England’s pace attack, which has excellent strength in depth – assuming Bresnan recovers from his stress fracture in time, he, Chris Tremlett and Steven Finn will all be striving for that third seamers spot.
England fans should enjoy this dominance over the Australians; it won’t last, because Australia will be back. I feel the 2013/14 Series will come too soon, but the 2015 Ashes in England should be a belter. I’m looking forward to it already…