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The Ashes So Far
22 Aug 2005
By: Corey Taylor

'The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.'

If LP Hartley were contracted to write a novel about the Ashes series thus far, the first line from his wistful tale of naivete, The Go-Between, would be an apt description encompassing Ashes series past and present. For this series has been unlike any other between these two countries in living memory and has the potential to be one of the great series between any two countries. Ever. To date, it has been played at break-neck speed, both sides at various times with their hands at the throats of their opponents yet simultaneously watching for the sucker-punch as these two sides, one bursting at the seams with precocious upstarts, the other an aging but still great side collectively and individually, have landed and received body-blows in equal measure. A series which has been as intensely fought as any other is now locked at 1-1, a scoreline which could scarcely bode better for an epic conclusion.

The anticipation had been building for at least 12 months before the start of the series and whilst Australia was busy conquering mountains few teams have been able to reach base-camp on with their series' wins in Sri Lanka and India, England was also beating the living daylights out of everyone else, remaining undefeated in Tests during 2004. The news on the England squad suggested that they had a team with the ability and the ambition to really challenge the Australians for the Ashes. Raw ability has rarely been the problem for English sides previously but the added ingredient of self-belief lifts even average sides remarkably so a young, aggressive and highly-talented side, coupled with self-belief, was always going to be a dangerous proposition for the Australians.

And so it proved as Australia were thoroughly outplayed in the early part of the three-team Natwest one-day series losing to Bangladesh and England by large margins in the early games. The 100-run loss to England in the Twenty20 match was a harbinger of what was to come as Australia lost to Bangladesh by 5 wickets and then England in their next game by 3 wickets. In short, England had come to play whereas the Australians looked like they hadn't even gotten off the plane yet and played like a surly passenger angry at being awoken by a scared flight attendant. Australia did improve and played the final against England in what was surely another forecast of the battle to follow. Australia scored only 196 against a tight English attack then reduced them to 5/33 in reply and the pressure was on England to prove themselves either shadow boxers or genuine contenders. Geraint Jones and Paul Collingwood dragged England to an intense tied result and in the process showed the Australians that they were indeed the real deal and if they didn't watch themselves, they could end up on the canvass.

Next came the three-match NatWest Challenge between the same two teams and most of us (including, I'm sure, the players) were wondering when the real cricket was going to begin as we'd all been sufficiently worked up by the previous match. It gave both teams the opportunity to further inflict psychological damage on their opponents but beyond that, it appeared that there was little point in the series at all. The result was a 2-1 win to Australia in a convincing (other than the first match) display as they lost by 9-wickets, won by 7-wickets and then by 8-wickets. England had begun to show signs of batting frailties in these matches and it was hypothesised that the current England were really the 'same old England'. This, luckily for all of us, was not the case.

It was a relief when The first Test arrived as it engendered the feeling that the one-day tournaments had merely been an appetiser, something to chew on whilst both sides showed glimpses of form. Now we were onto the main event and the Australians went into the match with question marks over the form of Matthew Hayden, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz. After some deliberations, it was decided that the recent excellent one-day form of Brett Lee could no longer be ignored and he replaced Kasprowicz in the side. The Australian batting line-up was unchanged from the tour to New Zealand and with recent good form by Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn and Michael Clarke, the batting looked likely to succeed, despite Hayden's worrying run of outs.

England, however, had endured a torrid time in determining the best combination for their middle-order. The controversial inclusion of Kevin Pietersen over Test great Graeme Thorpe raised eyebrows and voices in equal measure around the world. England seemed to want to bury the ghosts of Ashes series' past and in Pietersen, they had a gifted, hard-hitting, mentally tough but unproven player which ruffled the feathers of those who believed that a series so important should contain in the team a proven player against Australia. The selectors remained firm and the bowling picked itself; in Stephen Harmison, they had a West Indian style fast-bowler looking to tickle the ribs of the Australian top-order, a lively swing bowler in Matthew Hoggard and a nippy, reverse-swing merchant in Simon Jones, ably backed up by tireless campaigner Ashley Giles.

And so the scene was set with Australia winning the toss and electing to bat on pitch at a venue which has traditionally been a successful one for Australian touring teams. The barrage of hype about this series had finally come down to this, the start of the first Test, Australia batting and looking to dominate early to set the tone, England wanting to get an early advantage. Tension positively caked the ground as the world watched the beginning of the 2005 Ashes series.

The second ball of the day shocked most watchers, not least of all Justin Langer, as he was forced to cope with a bone-jarring short-ball that crashed into his elbow at around 140km/h and resulted in an egg-shaped lump adorning it. Play was held-up for several minutes as he composed himself and prepared to face-up again, jaw set in determination, the crowd baying for more. Less mentally tough players might have been ruffled by that ball but Justin Langer whipped the next ball away for runs and all the hype, all of the reputations, all of the previous matches were washed away leaving only this battle. It was game-on and the first blows had already been struck. Harmison bowled several awkward deliveries in that first over and it was clear he was the sharpened-edge of England's attack.

The tension didn't abate from that point as England made light work of the Australian innings to bowl them out for 190 (Langer 40, Harmison 5/43), a scenario scarcely believable considering Australia's success at the ground in previous matches at Lords and recent Test form. It was widely believed, however, that Australia had been undone by a slightly up-and-down pitch and breathless anticipation greeted England as they began their innings with the psychological points in their favour and with a small total to chase, a big lead was taken for granted.

This didn't take into account Australia's most successful bowler of all time at Lords in conditions tailor-made for his bowling, Glenn McGrath. On a flat Lords pitch, Glenn McGrath could generally be relied upon to take plenty of wickets so on this up-and-down pitch, he was unplayable as he systematically dissected the techniques of England's top-order in a peerless display of accurate seam bowling. They were the deer and he was the truck with headlights on full as England were reduced to 5/21 and into a calamitous state. McGrath claimed the first five wickets, three of them clean-bowled by balls which moved back down the Lords slope and again it was looking like the 'same old England'. A fightback by debutant Kevin Pietersen, enduring as torrid and introduction to Test cricket as one could wish to avoid (and probably loving every second of it), ensured that England were spared total embarrassment and England finished the day at 7/92 in one of the most manic days of cricket anyone could remember. So rarely do over-hyped series' live up to expectations but this day was a statement of intent by both sides; Australia were not going to let the upstart English dictate terms but simultaneously, England were spoiling for a decent fight after knocking around pretenders in previous series.

The English innings was wrapped up the next day with a slight tail-wag for 155 (Pietersen 57 McGrath 5/53) and so began the Australia second innings with a lead of 35. It was after this point that England let the game slip as the Australin middle-order was again troubled by Harmison but showed far better application against the other bowlers. Ponting and Martyn blunted the initial new-ball assault and then Michael Clarke played the kind of innings one can play if self-belief isn't an issue one is unaffected by the state of the match. His innings of 91 was littered with crisply-struck boundaries all-round the ground and it was a source of much disappointment when he was frustrated by excellent line bowling by Hoggard to be bowled playing a wild swipe as he was looking to dominate. It mattered little as the Australians were well-and-truly in front by that stage and the historically familiar dropping of heads by the English players was a sure sign that after Australia scored 384 (Clarke 91, Harmison 3/54) they were not likely to get close to the 420 required for victory.

Trescothick and Strauss started the run-chase in earnest and at 0/80, the match was far from over for England. However, some excellent fast bowling from Brett Lee in tandem with Shane Warne started the rot and England collapsed under enormous pressure exerted by Glenn McGrath again and despite another brilliant innings by Pietersen, looking more seasoned Test veteran than hopeful debutant, England were all-out for 180, Pietersen scoring 64 and top-scoring again. Glenn McGrath took 4/29 to end with 9/82 for the match and was made the player-of-the-match, Australia winning by 229 runs.

An amazing Test match was now over and both sides looked forward to the next Test, Australia enjoying a distinct mental edge over England. Their gun players fired in unison at Lords and England looked so downcast after their performance on day three that people were making predictions of 5-0 to Australia and other such ridiculousness. That said, it was difficult to see England getting over such a loss quickly and Australia were looking to inflict more psychological damage on England in the second Test at Edgbaston, traditionally a successful ground for the home team.

A sudden change occurred in the dynamics of the Test when in the hour before the start of the match, Glen McGrath, in a pre-match warm-up, damaged ligaments in his ankle as he rolled it on an errant cricket ball. All bets were now off as England realised that Australia's star bowler of the Lords Test was out of action, possibly for the series and an unexpected opportunity had materalised. Australia were in disarray as they replaced Glenn McGrath with Michael Kasprowicz and the nerves may have gotten to Ricky Ponting at the toss as he correctly called the side of the coin and inexplicably sent England into bat on a pitch which appeared extremely flat in conditions slightly conducive to pace bowling but only in the morning session.

England set about making Australia pay for their captain's lapse as they scored runs at will to all parts of the ground at a break-neck speed. They treated all Australian bowlers with contempt and only the introduction of Michael Kasprowicz, who took two quick wickets, stemmed the tide. Despite his efforts, the much-awaited partnership of Flintoff and Pietersen slammed 4's and 6's at will as the Australian bowling attack wilted under the pressure exerted on them. They still managed to bowl England out before the day was over but by then the damaged had been done; England scored 407 in 79.2 overs (a run-rate of over 5-per-over) and the counter-attack was complete. Marcus Trescothick top-scored with 90 and England had reacted to McGrath's injury by pumelling the Australian attack to all parts of the Edgbaston. Momentum had inexorably shifted towards England.

Australia had the worst possible start to the day as Hayden went out to his first ball but Justin Langer hung tough in the face of excellent English bowling while Ricky Ponting spanked the ball to the fence several times as Australia looked to dominate. Ponting was looking in supreme touch as his strike-rate barely dipped below a-run-a-ball during his innings. His soft dismissal to Giles, who had pilloried in the press all-week after an insipid display at Lords, changed the course of the match and Australia faced good bowling but more importantly for England, got themselves out on a few occasions. Most of the Australian batsmen got starts but none went on with them on a pitch which appeared to be ideal for batting. The Australians seemed to suffer from an overbearing desire to impose themselves on the match and pound every ball to the fence in the manner that they had endured the day before but without the same application and certainly against far better bowling. Australia totalled 308 (Langer 82, Flintoff 3/52) and looked vulnerable with a deficit of 101 runs on a pitch still playing very well but taking some spin.

Australia were staring down the barrel and needed something special. Enter Shane Warne. In fading light and with only a few overs to go in the day, Warne bowled a delivery which spun out of the rough to Andrew Strauss and ripped past his nervously outstretched pad, cannoning into his leg-stump and sending a nervous ripple through the English camp. Although 100 runs behind, the momentum swung ever-so-slightly towards Australia. It carried on into the next day as Brett Lee bowled a menacing spell in which he threatened to run through the English batting line-up, capped off by a lethal delivery to Michael Vaughan which removed his off-stump. After a slight interruption with some handy runs from Bell and Pietersen, England were reduced to a panic-stricken 6/75 and were in danger of setting Australia a very gettable 4th-innings total, a far-cry from the uninhibited, glorious domination of day 1. Australia were poised to put paid to England's ambitions in their own inimitable style; Warne was bowling well and England didn't have much batting left.

Andrew Flintoff then turned the match and possibly the series on its head with an innings breathtaking in its courage and stunning in its execution. Initially content to get runs wherever he could in batting with the tail, after realising he was fast running out of partners, he began to take their aerial route with match-turning regularity. All of the Australian bowlers took punishment and looked to be clueless against the remarkable assault by Flintoff with older listeners reminded by the innings of another explosive allrounder from another time who put Australian bowlers to the sword. Although Warne ended the fun by cleaning up the tail and then bowling Flintoff to end the innings, the Australians looked drawn and strung-out as they trudged towards the dressing-room. Flintoff's innings had revitalised England and from being in dire trouble, with the influence of one player, England appeared to wrest the momentum from the hands of the Australians, as if Flintoff was the heroic child fighting back against the neighbourhood bully. England finished with 182 (Flintoff 73, Warne 6/46) and the scene was set for an epic finish.

Australia started well against bowling which lacked penetration and were cruising until Flintoff was introduced into the attack with almost immediate effect. In what will surely be remembed as one of the most sensational overs in Ashes history, Flintoff first bowled Justin Langer from around-the-wicket then beat Ponting's strokes for the next few deliveries. He was regularly bowling faster than 145km/h and with the last ball of the over, after a series of in-cutters, Ponting failed to cope with a lightning-quick away-swinger and edged the ball through to Jones. The over was complete and Flintoff had hit Australia hard against the odds to leave them in shock and the momentum with England. The other Australian batsmen got starts but again failed to convert them into meaningful scores and indeed partnerships as wickets fell at regular intervals. In the last over of the day, Harmison bowled Michael Clarke with the ultimate sucker-punch, a wonderfully pitched slower-ball after a succession of quick throat-balls. With Australia at 8/175 and 107 runs away from a win, a quick wrap-up of the match was anticipated.

Again, momentum swung back to Australia. Shane Warne, having bowled Australia towards a winning position, set out to defy conventional wisdom by actually attempting to win the match and with as staunch an ally as one could hope for in Brett Lee, they set about whittling the target down until Warne was out hit-wicket for 42. Still Australia refused to believe that they were out of the match and with some luck, grit and sensible batting, Lee and last-man Kasprowicz set about further pushing Australia closer. As the target drew closer, hard-hands and tense minds resulted in misfields and as Lee and Kasprowicz pushed the runs required below 10, everyone was asking 'Could the impossible be possible?'. England seemed stunned that they were still out in the middle and not sipping victory champagne but they had to face the very real possibility that they would be cut-off at the pass by Australia's tail-end batsmen. Vaughan's last throw of the dice was Steve Hamison and he landed the knock-out blow, having Kasprowicz out caught behind fending at a short-ball. Delirious scenes followed as England celebrated their get-out-of-jail win but despite all of this, Andrew Flintoff, the chief antagonist in England's win, was aware enough to console a despondent Brett Lee. Australia's score of 279 (Lee 43*, Flintoff 4/79) wasn't enough by the second-slimmest of margins, 2 runs and one of the most exciting Tests in Ashes history was completed.

The third Test was to start within a few days so Australia had little time to recover from the devastating loss but with the series well-and-truly alive at 1-1, England had the form and momentum going into the match at Old Trafford. Andrew Flintoff was feted rightly as a hero and Australia were looking a little haggard in the wake of the second Test yet their chances received a boost as on the morning of the match, Glenn McGrath completed a miraculous return from injury to be fit enough to play. Brett Lee had also suffered an injury scare and it was to Australia's eternal relief that both fast bowlers were fit to play although the distinctly worrying form of Jason Gillespie posed questions about his place in the side should he fail to take wickets in this game.

England won the toss and batted and the innings followed a now all-too-familiar tone with England getting off to a great start, a few wickets in the middle order and then a later-innings revival by Flintoff and others. Except two things were different; Australia dropped several catches along the way (Vaughan was dropped twice before 50) and Vaughan played as he had played in his initial Ashes tour in Australia tour; stylish batting littered with gloriously-timed boundaries and one mighty six off the fading-fast Gillespie as he feasted upon the mistakes of the Australian team and made them pay dearly. with good support from a struggling but full-of-fight Ian Bell, Vaughan led his side to a score of 444 (Vaughan 166, Warne 4/99) in quick time and again, England had the ascendancy and were not about to let it ago again.

Australia once again started well but, once again, many of the Australian batsmen got starts then got out, the pressure upon them exerted by England taking its toll. The only batsman who could do little to prevent his dismissal was Damien Martyn as he was beaten by a perfectly-pitched spinning delivery which drifted outside leg-stump and then spun quickly away to touch the off-bail. The others were undone by the enormous pressure and at 5/133, the follow-on point seemed far off into the distance.

Again, Shane Warne, with plenty of help from the tail, played magnificently as he tried to firstly get Australia past the follow-on point and then get as many runs as possible. He was headed for a richly deserved maiden Test hundred but tried one big shot too many and was caught at long-on 10 short. Australians and English alike were as disappointed as the man himself and he slinked off the ground to a standing ovation. He'd saved Australia again from embarrassment but there was still much to do to remain in the running for the match. Australias 302 (Warne 90, Jones 6/53) owed a great deal to Warne's inning but Simon Jones bowled magnificently with the reverse swinging old-ball to be the pick of the bowlers.

With England 142 in front, they had outplayed Australia comprehensively to this point and set about making the distinction even wider by hitting the ball to all parts, disdainfully wrecking the figures of all Australian bowlers. England's poor body language from the first Test was palpable in Australia's efforts in the field. Strauss, playing his first really great knock of the series, and Bell cashed in, Strauss exorcising many demons with his quick-fire hundred and Bell played well for his second 50 of the match. England had extended their control of this match and upon declaring their innings at 280 (Strauss 106, McGrath 5/115), Australia needed to break a world-record to win the match although the likelihood of that occurring was almost nil.

Australia's body language was poor and the lack of confidence displayed did not bode well for Australia's run-chase. Although surviving the first few overs of the innings, Langer went early the next day and the rot was setting in. This did not account for the challenge given by Ricky Ponting as he threw down the gauntlet, showing England that Australia, and their captain in particular, still had plenty of fight in them and wickets would still have to won the hard way. Although the middle-order didn't fire, Australia's lower order looked comfortable against the English bowlers and with Warne and Ponting playing well together, the possibility of a stunning upset win was contemplated but with Warne's dismissal, the decision was made to play for the draw. Brett Lee, again showed his good form with the bat as he defied England's intimidation with Ponting but with four overs to go, Ponting was caught down the leg-side and an epic Ashes innings was completed. Ponting's innings was a picture of restraint and elegance, talent and grit where he finally married the exquisite technique and flair of his youth with the determination one gains from experience to play an innings which may well have saved the Ashes, even if at the point of his dismissal, he believed he may have cost Australia the match.

Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath survived the last four overs to gain Australia an incredibly lucky draw, denying England a win in a game they had dominated and all but wrapped-up from day 1. Australia traditionally has always played in a style which has resulted in wins or losses and so coming through in a draw is a not altogether familiar mode of operation for them. In achieving that most cricket-like of results, both sides ensured that the series is now locked at 1-1 and an Ashes for the ages beckons. The two top sides are back where they started at the commencement of hostilities with England enjoying a slight edge at present but Australia with some confidence regained after drawing a game they should have lost heavily.

Australia's series has been characterised thus far by its batsmens' inability to convert good starts into big scores. All of the batsmen have had periods of comfortable play but have been undone by good bowling and excellent fielding in the series so far. Ricky Ponting's score somewhat mask's the failings of the middle-order and during the next Test, the under-achievers in the series so far will have to perform or Australia will lose the Ashes. They must find a way to cope with the superb use of reverse-swing by the English bowlers and must respect the abilities of their opponents more if they are to score big.

The Australian bowling has been patchy overall with Warne the stand-out performer over three Tests. Glenn McGrath is still bowling well but Jason Gillespie may very well have played his last Test match for Australia. Brett Lee has varied from abysmal to lethal and happily for the Australian selectors and his large fanbase, Brett Lee has bowled more 'lethal' than 'abysmal' deliveries in the midst of some great spells. Kasprowicz appears likely to fill the 3rd pace bowler's spot in the next Test and with a possible improvement in fielding standards, Australia should hit back hard in the next Test.

England Ashes series is moving along as well as they could have hoped for and with all of the top-order batsmen now having gotten runs in any given match, their side is a strong one. One would imagine that they won't be changing their gameplan too radically because they will know it's only a matter of time and application which wins you Tests.

The bowling has generally been outstanding with the Andrew Flintoff the star so far and Steve Harmison also bowling well in patches. Simon Jones her bowled with pace, fire and wicket-taking accuracy and Ashley Giles has had the happy knack of picking up wickets when most needed, even without taking a large bag of them. He is he perfect spoil to the aggressive and young bowling attack and the overall attack has instilled in England a sense of pride and achievement. They honestly believe they can win the Ashes and if they play well and Australia continues playing below their default standards, they probably will win. Australia for its part must sort out its technical problems against reverse-swing bowling and play a little more conservatively because the rate of conversions from starts to good scores is cause for concern.

So there you have it, an overview of the Ashes so far. Prediction - England will win the Ashes by winning one of the last two Tests and drawing the other.

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