Authors: Gideon Haigh
But this week's exercise in Sydney was a frankly odd contrivance â as odd, in fact, as projecting Ricky Ponting's face on Big Ben, an idea of the same marketing department. It revealed little that an observer could not have gleaned from afar. As an exercise in selection, it invited charges of both premature adamance and insufficient conviction. As a marketing ploy, it smelled of desperation, of the attitude that any publicity is good publicity. It looked, jarring as it sounds in the context of Australian cricket, phoney and unserious.
R.C. Robertson-Glasgow, universally known as 'Crusoe', who sixty years ago was
's eyewitness for an Ashes series in Australia, once asked a girl he fancied to accompany him to the cricket. 'No, thank you,' she replied. 'Cricket is all just waiting.'
Unkind but not unfair. The girl would certainly have felt vindicated by the preamble to the Ashes of 2010â11, which, proceeding at a very twentieth-century pace, has just moved its location to a fourth Australian state. The tour hasn't been quite as leisured as Crusoe's journey, which commenced when England left Tilbury aboard the
on 14 September 1950 and took seventy-eight days wending its way to the First Test at Brisbane. Yet by contemporary standards, which view anything beyond 140 characters as needless rattling on, this is a slow-dawning pleasure indeed: the standard tour today involves no preparatory game at all, and as a result often seems to finish almost before it has started.
Graeme Swann, who toils as long on his turn of phrase as his turn of off-break, put it nonetheless neatly at the weekend: 'When we first got over here I daren't think of the first Test match, because I was like a kid on the first of December, with an Advent calendar. I couldn't wait for the twenty-fifth to come along. It's really building now, less than a week to go, and I go back to my room at night and I smile like a lunatic and bounce off the walls. It's going to be amazing come Thursday â I just can't wait.'
Happy the cricketer who can cope with delayed gratification in times that are a stranger to it. Others haven't handled it nearly so well. Cricket Australia, ever-so-slightly desperate about maintaining the attention of an easily distracted public, has staged a succession of mainly pointless pseudo-events and pranks. So ceaseless has been the bombardment of promotional media releases that it has almost been necessary to don a helmet before checking one's email.
Channel Nine were doing their bit on Sunday night, using the innings break in the underwhelming All-Stars game at the Gabba to talk up the Ashes, albeit in much the same tone as they adopt when promoting
It is also hard to tell from Nine whether they regard the week's key event as the Ashes or Shane Warne's new talk show, which commences the night before.
England, by contrast, have been an impressive unit, doing everything so far asked and more. By this stage on previous English visits, two or three cricketers have usually flown home injured, half a dozen Aussie bolters have smashed them all over the park, and the red-tops have their talons in up to the cuticle. This time, Strauss's men could but for weather have had three victories. Local journalists, apt to write English teams off on the basis of their deportment in the customs hall, have had none of the succulent stories that have sustained them in past years: defeats sustained against Australia A, Steve Harmison's Lilac Hill wides in 2002, Marcus Trescothick's boomerang journey four years ago.
England have also stayed away from the big cities, Sydney and Melbourne, with their more numerous distractions and disturbances. The world has changed since Mike Brearley likened cricketers on tour to a Victorian family, challenged always to provide their own entertainment. But especially early on a trip, having to fall back on one another's devices is no bad thing for a team's members.
The only aspect lacking from England's preparation has been a game on the Gabba itself prior to the First Test, which used to be de rigueur, but which the hosts haven't actually offered for a generation. Thus bowling coach David Saker's exploratory reconnaissance last week with Swann, Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn. The lack should be felt less by the batsmen, of whom only Jonathan Trott has not previously batted in Brisbane.
In the meantime, it has been Australia that have not looked the part, unaccustomed to English guests making themselves so comfortable. Issues have accumulated, lately round Nathan Hauritz. Injuries have lingered, like Ryan Harris's, and cropped up, like Tim Paine's. One suspects that Ricky Ponting will be as happy as Swann come Thursday. No more seventeen-man squads, fluctuations of form, favour and fortune, or content-free press conferences.
When the series begins, this leisure of the present will quickly become a thing of the past. Touring Australia can be a hurried, hugger-mugger experience, thanks to an innovation that actually began on that tour of Crusoe's sixty years ago of flying between cities rather than taking the train (back then it was not compulsory: Warwickshire's Eric Hollies, averse to flying, was excused it). This is a correspondingly intensive series: twenty-five Test days in forty-four, interrupted only by a three-day game against Victoria, with lots of opportunity to repeat ad nauseam clichÃ©s about 'momentum', as though Newton's Second Law formed part of the Marylebone code.
Recovery time, physical and psychological, will be at a premium. In the last two Ashes series in England, the hosts had the good fortune of ten-day breaks following both its defeats: Lord's at 2005 and Headingley in 2009. They recuperated well, and bounced back convincingly. Wound licking will need to be a good deal slicker this southern summer. As the hosts this time, Australia will enjoy the traditional advantage of being able to choose from players in the pink of domestic form, although England have counteracted it somewhat by the expensive but prudent expedient of keeping their 'shadow' squad in Australia until a week before Christmas.
Come Thursday, then, all the waiting will be over â for we spectators, anyway. For the players, waiting will continue, of a rather more nervous kind â waiting to go in, waiting to bowl, waiting for snicks, waiting for the opportunity to parade their skills. Cricket is increasingly agitated by waiting, preferring its pleasures more instantaneous, explosive and lucrative, so it can better appeal to those like the object of Crusoe's interest. But we've already seen, and I suspect will continue to see, how much can happen in cricket when all one seems to be doing is waiting.
The Gabba, Brisbane
25â29 November 2010
The Gabba has always seemed a suitable location for an Australian ambush, and not only because its address on Brisbane's Vulture Street summons up visions of Dead Man's Gulch or the OK Corral. Visiting cricket teams usually roll in about half ready, out of season, out of synch, and are soon out of time to come back. Hit by Australia's full force, they have managed to draw only four of the last twenty Tests here; the rest they have lost. In the last decade, Australian batsmen have accumulated eighteen hundreds and averaged almost 50 at the Gabba; their bowlers have conceded only three hundreds while gathering their wickets at an average of 21.
It says much about the respective recent fortunes of Australia and England that this history hasn't simply killed speculations about tomorrow's First Test stone dead. Not in years, in fact, have predictions before an Ashes series ranged so widely â while remaining, let it be said, mainly partisan.
The usual Australian gauntlets have been thrown down: Glenn McGrath has uttered his reflex prediction of 5â0, making Merv Hughes look like a big girl's blouse for countenancing a single draw. But other Australians are more circumspect, with 2â1 a popular margin, and Ian Chappell deeming his countrymen only 'slight favourites'.
Just for a change, too, English critics are joining in the fun, with Ian Botham gathering supporters for the idea of a comprehensive visitors' victory. Others claim to have discerned cloying insecurities behind Australian triumphalism, and had a flutter before English odds came in sharply after their ten-wicket victory over Australia A at Bellerive Oval, with the result that almost two-thirds of the money wagered on the Brisbane Test is on England, and less than a third of the money on the series has been wagered on Australia.
So why is the expectation suddenly of two-way traffic on Vulture Street, when for so long it has been a dead end? For one, Ricky Ponting's Australians have acquired a losing habit. Their three consecutive Test defeats have not been stuffings, but they have had their stuffingesque moments: being bowled out for 88 in 33 overs at Headingley, allowing the last two Indian wickets to add 92 at Mohali, and squandering their last seven for 97 at Bangalore.
Their decline has been precipitous. When Australia last met England, they were still rated the world's number one Test nation; not much more than a year later, they have declined to fifth. Last year, it was common to talk about the Australians having lost their 'aura'. This year they seem to have lost something less fanciful, more fundamental, equivalent in cricket terms to their credit rating or their eligibility for life insurance.
For another thing, England look this summer to have actually come to play rather than merely to participate. Before the series of 1998â99, Alec Stewart startled onlookers by saying that England's objective was to be 'competitive': the Ashes barely smouldered and were extinguished before Christmas. On this tour, it has been possible to use about an England preparation adjectives like 'meticulous' and 'effective', rather than preparing for the standard allusions to Captain Mainwaring's Home Guard and Fred Karno's army.
Standing in their way is what might be called Fortress Australia: that sense of unassailability, real and imagined, about Australian teams in their own backyard. On pitches with more bounce and in conditions with less swing, English batsmen used to playing with low hands and bowlers accustomed to healthy sideways movement have habitually struggled â far more so than Australians going to England.
The strut of Australians under their own skies shows up statistically. In the cases of Ponting (an average of 60 at home versus 48.7 away) and especially Michael Hussey (62.65 versus 39.75) and Michael Clarke (58.56 versus 42.52), one is almost considering different players. Mitchell Johnson is a similar homebody, paying 25.59 per wicket here compared to 31.1 overseas, and his humours are of particular importance. Although no cricketer looks quite so forlorn in failure, Johnson on his occasional day can take on the world. If he brings to the Gabba the all-round excellence he exhibited at the MCG last week, Australia will be that much more formidable.
Among the visitors, by contrast, only Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood can claim to have developed happy memories of Australia, and these lasted all of three days. It was England's capitulation four years ago on the last day at Adelaide after this pair had added 310 on the first and second that confirmed the suspicion nothing would go right for Andrew Flintoff's outmatched combination.
Australia also have a talent for winning first-up, taking four of the last five opening Ashes Tests, and being just a ball away from a clean sweep. England's habits are opposite. They went four years between winning the first Test of a series in 2005 (against Bangladesh) and doing it again (also against Bangladesh). A slow start in Brisbane has cruelled many a hope: not for fifty-six years has the victor at the Gabba not gone on to claim the Ashes.
All the same, strange things have been happening lately: Australia hadn't lost at Lord's since 1934 when they succumbed last year. Yesterday's weather was delightful, but showers are predicted for the next few days, and the resumption of more familiar conditions, ideal for the propagation of orchids, and thus also for the swing of Jimmy Anderson. Twenty Australian wickets may be easier to take here than later this summer, Johnson's footmarks also providing fourth- and fifth-day opportunities for Graeme Swann.
It has also been an odd few days in Brisbane waiting for this series to move out of the subjunctive mood, with players 'targeting' one another left and right, and Shane Warne's Twitter account seemingly set to go in number three for Australia; Warne's dutifully reported call for the captains to show some 'cojones' suggests he might have played one hand of Texas Hold 'Em too many.
Australia's preparations have been clouded by the dicky back of Michael Clarke, probably not as bad as thought, and the allegedly dicey Gabba pitch, probably the same, despite its preparation being impaired by rain. England, meanwhile, have gone about their business under relatively little pressure, apparently spending as long on their sprinkler dance as their slip catching. Australia's advantages remain considerable, but this will be no ambuscade.
A Test hat-trick almost defies logic. At the top level, good batsmen on good pitches almost should not permit three wickets to fall in three balls. But it's that 'almost' that matters. In squeezing the daylights from England's lower-middle order at the Gabba today, Peter Siddle made obtainable the very nearly unthinkable; as part of six for 54 from sixteen sizzling overs, it left logic looking a little the worse for wear.
The Test had been slumbering when Siddle entered his twelfth over. Alastair Cook and Ian Bell had added a calm-browed 72 in twenty-five overs. Siddle's earlier dismissals of Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood had been to that stage relatively isolated highlights for Australia.
Cook, whose judgement had hitherto been unerring, felt for a ball slanted away, which settled in Watson's muscle-bound midriff. Blood up, Siddle arrowed the next ball into Matt Prior, attacking the stumps that England's keeper is sometimes casual about defending, and scattering them.