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Ashes Review - England
16 Sep 2005
By: David Lewis


For almost a quarter of a century, it has been an article of faith that the 1981 Ashes was the most exciting contest between the oldest cricketing foes. No longer. Actually, that particular series was often ordinary, with two moderate sides producing long passages of unmemorable cricket that were forgotten in the light of the last day and a half at Headingley, the last hour at Edgbaston and the Old Flintoff's blistering assault on Lillee and Alderman at Old Trafford. However, the 2005 series has been something else. Almost every passage of play has been compelling, and much of what was on offer was unmissable: apart from the bits that were unwatchable because the tension was unbearable. And, for all the dropped catches, and for all the less than adhesive batting, these were two very fine sides hell-bent on delivering knock-out punches from first to last - two irresistible forces meeting two immoveable objects, if you like. I am looking for a comparison that does justice to what we have seen over the last eight weeks, but I am struggling to recall a contest that has matched it in terms of intense competition between two high quality opponents. Perhaps the Frazier and Ali trilogy in the early 1970's comes closer than any cricket series that I can remember.

As in 1981, England's success would have been impossible without the contribution of an exceptional all rounder. A friend of mine, who has followed the game since the early 1990's, once commented that he had never seen a world-class English cricketer. That can no longer be said. Whilst I couldn't say that Flintoff's achievements this summer have eclipsed Botham's heroics, nor could I definitively say that our current hero's performances were inferior. Whilst the circumstances of his performances were not as dire as those facing Botham at Leeds and Birmingham, his contributions to every match after Lord's were utterly crucial to the final results. His figures (averaging 40 & 27 with bat and ball respectively) are impressive enough. When you look beyond those, you find vital innings at Edgbaston (twice), Trent Bridge (also twice - his second innings 26 was worth twice as much in that context) and the Oval. With the ball, we are equally spoilt for choice. Who can forget his opening over in the second innings at Edgbaston, ripping the top off the Australian innings after their openers looked set to make a formality of chasing 282? Or how he almost single-handedly carried the English attack on the final day at Old Trafford. Or, best of all, his marathon spell at the Oval, which meant that Australia, coasting at 263 for 1, still failed to pass England's first innings total of 373. In the process, he ensured that his side wouldn't start the final day facing a three-figure deficit and six hours of Warne-inflicted torture. Whilst Flintoff has by no means been a one-man show, there is no denying that without his efforts England would have faced another heavy Ashes defeat.

For most followers of the English cricket team - meaning those who weren't around in 1953 - this summer's success against the world's best has been new territory. My own experience has followed taking an interest in the game shortly after the Ashes win in 1970/71, which, my dad assured me, made us the best side in the world (he omitted to point out that the recently banned South African side was rather better). Of course, it didn't last. Within a handful years, we had lost to India, the West Indies, and eventually even a much-improved Australia. Thereafter, to a greater or lesser degree, the story was the same. Occasional periods of competence were outnumbered by long years of confused selectors getting through far too many mediocre players, with those who genuinely were test class often underachieving. The idea of seriously challenging the best sides of the time was never remotely considered. And that is why this summer has been so extraordinary. Whilst we have always been capable of giving our fellow mid-table countries a good game (not that we always did, of course), our preferred approach to the world's best has been to lie down and politely request a good kicking.

This, lest we forget, is still a very good Australian team. So good that, before this tour, there had been discussions about where it stood in relation to the all-time greatest Australian XI's. Their run of victories had been so overwhelming that some commentators wondered if Ricky Ponting had his country's finest ever attack at his disposal. Admittedly we now know that the answer to that particular question is in the negative, but before we do the usual English thing and belittle the opposition, it's worth remembering how they absolutely demolished every side they had faced in the twelve months before this series. They had, of course, dominated world cricket for a decade before this tour, but given the current wisdom that they are a side seriously in decline, it's worth thinking about what they had achieved in the year before arriving here. As Ponting said, when quizzed about the age of his side at an early press conference, it is unlikely that they had aged enormously in the three months since their most recent demolition job. That, for my money, makes what we have just seen the finest achievement by an English cricket team since I started watching the game almost 35 years ago. Arguably, it is the finest since Frank Tyson had a whole generation of Australians hiding behind their sofas in 1954/5.

Whether that makes us the best in the world is another matter. Ultimately, our two victories were too marginal for any such judgement to be made. And, as well as we played, we were lucky. Whoever left the errant ball that crocked McGrath at Edgbaston should be awarded whichever of the MBE, CBE, OBE or VC that takes their fancy, and Ponting should be on all of our Christmas card lists for inviting us to bat in the same match. Umpiring errors probably even themselves out over the course of a series, but even the most one-eyed England supporter would admit that the dispatching of Martyn and Katich at Trent Bridge were crucial in the context of a three wicket win. Throw in the dropped catches and no-ball dismissals that allowed Trescothick, Strauss, Vaughan and Pietersen to make the scores that allowed England to dominate or save each of the last four tests, and there's no denying that things went for us. And yet, for all of that, much of England's play has been so good that the good fortune was deserved.

After the capitulation at Lord's, I spent the next week pondering the Australian win in the Caribbean ten years previously, when Steve Waugh led the side's defiance against a still very good West Indies attack. Whilst recognising the excellence of McGrath's bowling, was it really asking too much for at least one of our batsmen to dig in and make the buggers work for it? I was longing for a few of our guys to show some backs-to-the-wall defiance, but Team England had other ideas. Instead of Steve Waugh, what we got on Day 1 at Edgbaston was a team of Adam Gilchrists taking turns to treat Australia's McGrathless attack with contempt. Quite where that came from after 21 for 5 and all that is anyone's guess, but the worm had well and truly turned. Three successive and increasingly large first innings totals in excess of 400 allowed England to dominate the middle three tests. Beyond the volume of runs, the positive way they were accumulated spoke volumes of this English side's determination to take the fight to their world-class opponents instead of hanging on and hoping for the best.

Trescothick rode his luck to have by far his most productive Ashes series to date, although you could criticise his failure to even once make three figures despite six times passing 40. However, his positive approach consistently gave his side an early advantage, and his calculated assault at the start of the second innings at Trent Bridge, knowing full well that matters would be different once Warne had the ball, was critical. Strauss recovered well after an understandably indifferent start: he must surely be an even better batsman for the experience, and an even more confident one having taken two hundreds of this particular attack. Vaughan looked better at number three than his average for the series would suggest, especially once he had given up trying to play routine defensive shots through midwicket and losing various stumps in the process. Maybe now he can relax a bit and come somewhere close to the form he managed two and a half years ago. Maybe it's just unrealistic in today's high-pressured environment to expect captains to perform as well as they did before their promotion. And his captaincy has so much to admire. Whilst not faultless - surely Jones should have been employed during the final morning at Edgbaston and sooner than he was during the final afternoon at Old Trafford - he usually managed to use the right bowlers with the right field settings so that the Australian batsmen only occasionally looked in any sort of control. More than that, he must take a huge amount of the credit for the way his players have been able to perform at or beyond the standards expected of them. After so many years when under-achievement has been the norm, that is perhaps his greatest achievement.

Below the top three, Bell had a series to forget, failing to reach double figures in seven innings out of ten. Presumably England will stick with him yet a while. No candidate has made an outstanding claim for his place in this summer's County Championship, and the idea of sending him back to Warwickshire until he is "ready" for test cricket is illogical. Having averaged 90 in his last full domestic season, what is he supposed to do at county level to show that he is more deserving of promotion? If he has a rotten winter then maybe England will look elsewhere, but Fletcher and Graveney haven't built this side without showing patience to talented players who look like they are made of the right stuff. As for Pietersen, so much has been written about him that I'm loath to add to it. Suffice to say that England have a number five quite unlike any other in their history. No doubt he will continue to thrill and infuriate in equal measure, but he is unquestionably a rare talent. Those of us who worried how he would cope arriving at the crease after the loss of three cheap wickets were happily shown up as his best performances nearly all came in that particular situation.

Whether all of this justifies the omission of Thorpe is still arguable. Mike Atherton probably got it right when suggesting that they got it wrong picking Bell ahead of Pietersen for the Bangladesh games: when, like any number of guys would have done, he filled his boots against the minnows and our latest South African subsequently shone in the one-dayers, they were in an impossible situation. In the end, they got away with making Thorpe the fall guy, and Bell will probably be a better cricketer for the experience, but that particular selection didn't help England's cause this summer. The other contentious decision is still about who keeps wicket. Supporters of Geraint Jones will point to his innings and partnership with Flintoff at Trent Bridge, which allowed his side to dominate the game. Others will point out seven missed catches and three missed stumpings, and argue that a series batting average of 25 doesn't come close to compensating. Quite how he will fare facing long spells of spin this winter doesn't bear thinking, and you wonder what Giles will make of that particular prospect once he has recovered from the victory celebrations.

Talking of Ashley Giles, his contribution was more significant than his awful average would suggest. Nearly all of his wickets were proper batsmen, and his figures suffered more than most from Jones' frailties behind the stumps. Elsewhere, Hoggard, just as in 2004, improved as the season progressed and must have massively enjoyed his revenge for the horrors of 2002/03. Simon Jones was the find of the summer, building on the progress made in South Africa to have many of us blinking in disbelief at his ability to swing both the old and the new ball at pace. His removal of Michael Clarke in the second innings at Old Trafford, swinging the old ball into his wicket from somewhere close to cover point, may well have been the ball of the series. Mind you, Clarke did have a tendency for falling to extraordinary deliveries, also being dismissed by Steve Harmison's slow leg-cutter at Edgbaston, and, perhaps most unbelievable of all, at Trent Bridge being trapped leg before by a delivery from the same bowler that pitched in line and would have gone on to hit the stumps.

A bit harsh on the big man? I don't think so. After a fine performance at Lord's, his subsequent nine wickets each cost over 50 runs. That return becomes even less impressive when you take into account the shocking decisions in his favour that did for Martyn at Old Trafford and Katich at Trent Bridge and the fact that three of the other wickets were Kasprowicz or Tait. All of which means that, despite being armed with the new ball, he picked up the grand total of four legitimate dismissals of front line batsmen in four tests. We've been here before. Steve Harmison has now been seriously ineffective in nine tests out of ten against South Africa and Australia, and you have to wonder how long the selectors will be patient. Just as for so much of his county and test career, he is being picked on the basis of potential rather than performance, and maybe that's the problem. In the absence of credible alternatives, he is able to hold down a place without doing very much to justify his selection. Let's hope he can motivate himself to improve. If not, by the time of the next Ashes series, we may yet see England's attack being led by a Tremlett or a Plunkett, with the Ashington Express no-where to be seen. Unthinkable? Maybe, but to many people so was England's triumph before the start of the summer. In the event, a hugely talented but slightly complacent outfit was seen off by, for the most part, less talented but hugely committed players managing to dredge every last ounce of performance from their inner beings. As the euphoria settles, and the hangovers fade, England's selectors will again look to the future. They will be well aware of the lessons from this most unforgettable of summers, and will be determined to do everything necessary to maintain the push for world domination. There will be no room for passengers, and, as younger alternatives mature over the next 12 months, it remains to be seen how badly Steve Harmison really wants to be a part of this side.

Statistics

Marcus Trescothick
431 runs at 43.1

Andrew Strauss
393 runs at 39.3

Michael Vaughan
326 runs at 32.6

Ian Bell
171 runs at 17.1 and 0 wickets for 20 runs

Kevin Pietersen
473 runs at 52.6

Andrew Flintoff
403 runs at 40.3, and 24 wickets at 27.3

Geraint Jones
229 runs at 25.4

Paul Collingwood
17 runs at 8.5 and 0 wickets for 17 runs

Ashley Giles
10 wickets at 57.8, and 155 runs at 19.4

Matthew Hoggard
16 wickets at 29.6, and 45 runs at 6.4

Stephen Harmison
17 wickets at 32.3, and 60 runs at 10.0

Simon Jones
18 wickets at 21.0, and 66 runs at 33.0


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