Landing in England on the same weekend as the latest Australian cricket touring party I was immediately struck by two things. One, how cold it was. Even in late June the English summer was little warmer than the Sydney winter I left behind. The second thing was just how palpable was the excitement surrounding this new England outfit. Discussing the forthcoming tour with an old MCC member, with whom I shared the field and the odd few pints nigh on forty years ago, I was struck by two more things. The first was the enthusiasm reserved for the departing Kiwis. NZ having just finished a two-Test and limited-over match tour, my friend bemoaned the fact they were leaving so soon and that there were not more than the two five day matches played against Brendon McCullum’s side. And he really thinks England have a chance to regain the Ashes.
How the cricket world changes. Who would have thought prior to this year’s World Cup that anyone would want to watch NZ play before the Australians? But that is certainly the way today. The Black Caps are exciting to watch, play aggressive but fair cricket and above all play like gentlemen and are a definition of that intangible ‘Spirit of Cricket’. NZ bat fast, bowl fast, field well, and after the match shake everyone’s hand. It is sad to see them go, everyone wanted them to stay longer. Like perfect house guests they joined in, did not embarrass their hosts and behaved impeccably. Will it be possible to say the same of the next bunch, the sledging Australians, about to sign the visitors’ guest book?
Most likely not. Michael Clarke’s side are not a particularly gracious group and seem to have adopted a stand of doing everything and anything to win and hang the consequences of not making any friends along the way. This band of grumpy old men are in fine cricketing form having just trounced the West Indies shortly after England shared the series there. Good cricketers they may be but they have a PR job to do if they are going to be perceived in the same light as NZ. Some may feel that is not the Aussie team’s job to be liked, but simply to win. Of course, winning is important but in this world of strife and fear which accompanies so many people’s lives, should sport not be about something more courteous and endearing? Even in Australia we try and teach youngsters to win and lose with dignity. This fine Australian side is ungracious if losing and even more ungracious when winning. If one needs an example look no further back in history than the World Cup Final and the behaviour of Brad Haddin who at 37 really should know better. Just because an adult is playing a game does not mean that they should act as less of an adult by not giving the respect and common courtesy that one member of society should accord another.
I fear that the Ashes series might not provide the cricketing heights that were seen between England and NZ. It will however be a much more closely contested series than would have been predicted just a few weeks ago. Jason Gillespie has described Clarke, Haddin et al as ‘Dad’s Army’. England meanwhile, a renaissance and renascent team, is more akin to another old show, The Shock of the New. It is a younger outfit who have shown in the recent series against the Windies and NZ that they have it in them to preserve the home Ashes run that has stood since Steve Waugh’s side won in 2001, and thus deny Clarke and Haddin, each on their fourth trip here, success. Australia has the playing pedigree and the experience. England though will not take a backward step.
If home conditions work to England’s advantage then it may provide a massive upset and see the Ashes change hands once again. For this to happen all of England’s fledglings will have to perform at their best including the spinning all-rounder Moeen Ali – it remains to be seen whether he will be ‘the beard that is feared’ as his county side Worcestershire promote him, or if he will be ‘the beard that is trimmed’. The old stalwarts, Captain Cook, Stuart Broad and record wicket-taker Jimmy Anderson will also need to be on top of their games. It as a betting certainty that Australia will from the outset come at England hard and continue to do so as long as their ageing legs will carry them. If England can survive the opening salvo in Cardiff on July 8th relatively unscathed then they will be a handful for the remainder of the series. Another influencing factor will be the success or failure of Steve Smith. Previously I felt Smith’s game to be too loose to succeed in England, but he has certainly proved that point. Now ranked as the number one Test batsmen in the world Smith could and should be a major force in this series. He is due a failure or two though and England’s new coach, erstwhile Australian Trevor Bayliss, should have a better understanding than most of how to pinpoint his weaknesses. England then, will triumph – just – despite the fact that it will take the field without its best player. K.P. is still surplus to requirements and for this, Australia will be relieved.
This is the first Ashes series for many a year without the presence in some form or another of Richie Benaud. What are the chances of the leg spinners Fawad Ahmed (another over 33 years old) and Adil Rashid playing for their respective sides? Let us hope that whoever is the holder of the Ashes come the end of the fifth Test at The Oval on Monday 24th August that it is cricket that is the winner.
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