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Ashes flashback – 2002/03

By 2002/03, Australia’s dominance of the Ashes had been so sustained and lengthy that it was beginning to feel like it would last as long as America’s hold on the America’s Cup had been. The previous seven Ashes series had been won so convincingly by Australia that on every occasion the Ashes had been won before the final Test was played. Leading into the 2002/03 contest on Australian soil, there was no sign of that trend ending.

Usually in the leadup to an Ashes series in this era of Australian dominance there was an angle being pushed to suggest that it was going to be a better contest this time. But on this occasion commentators were struggling to find such a perspective whereby it could be argued that England were capable of reclaiming the urn. After being thrashed in the 2001 Ashes, England’s form had only been moderate. While losing away to India was expected, it was ominous that they were only able to draw away to New Zealand and at home to India, series that even during the dark times of the 1990s they could be counted upon winning. While they did comfortably defeat Sri Lanka at home, overall it seemed the momentum and self-belief they’d had in their 2000-01 triumphs had largely evaporated.

In contrast, after their easy 2001 Ashes win, Australia had gone from strength to strength. They were probably guilty of complacency when narrowly avoiding defeat in a rain-affected home series against an enterpising, well-captained New Zealand side. But they bounced right back by demolishing the highly-touted South Africa in home and away series, and followed that with an even more comprehensive demolition of Pakistan on neutral territory.

England’s strategies seemed increasingly desperate in the leadup as highlighed by their decision to pick paceman Darren Gough for the tour. Gough had been an excellent performer for England and was one of the few English players in this era who didn’t seem intimidated in contests against Australia. But his 2001 Ashes series suggested he was past his peak and picking a paceman at age 32 – especially in the context of not having played Test cricket for over a year due to knee problems – on the toughest of tours seemed like an exercise in futility. And so it proved as it soon became clear that his body wasn’t ready for the demands of an Ashes tour and he left the squad before the Test series began due to knee problems.

The increasingly gloomy perspective at England’s prospects was best highlighted by Nasser Hussain’s infamous decision to bowl after winning the toss in the opening Test at The Gabba. The decision has been ridiculed and belittled in the years since but the simple truth of the matter is it was driven by a leader who knew his side didn’t have the talent or self-belief to challenge Australia and his defensive mindset merely reflected this.

And of course Steve Waugh’s Australian side were fully aware of their talent and mental superiority over their Ashes opponents; indeed, they were probably close to their peak as a great side. Therefore it was no surprise when they proceeded to demonstrate over the course of a series their superiority with a relentlessly ruthless display that not only saw England defeated, but often humiliated.

If there was one player that symbolised this mindset of brutal domination, it was opener Matthew Hayden. His performance in the opening Test at Brisbane where he scored 197 and 103 was intimidating enough in terms of pure stats, but it was the way he got them that mattered. He rendered redundant the long held concept that the beginning of an innings was about an opening batsman being watchful and respectful of the opening pace attack. Everything about Hayden’s style suggested intimidation and attack – his batting out of his crease, his ability to straight drive and pull pacemen for six, even on occasion advancing down the wicket to them. He was so aggressive and brutal in his style that he made Michael Slater seem like a quaint relic of the 1990s.

Such was Australia’s self-belief and confidence that even great individual performances by their opponents counted for nought in the final outcome. On the opening day of the Adelaide Test, English opener Michael Vaughan’s 177 should’ve been the base by which England set a launching pad for victory. But such was Australia’s mental dominance over their opponents that once Vaughan was dismissed late on Day 1, they took complete control and were able to cruise to an innings victory within 4 days.

The Australian side was a champion side full of great individual players everywhere you looked. Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne would all be candidates for Australia’s all-time best Test XI and they were at, or close to, the peak of their powers during this series. In the face of such talent, England probably did well to avoid a whitewash by winning the final Test fo the series in Sydney. While it could be dismissed as yet another dead rubber English Ashes win, that it was only one of two victories a touring side managed in Australia in Tests from 1999 to 2007 show it’s an achievement that shouldn’t be undersold.

Ironically, the major weak link in Australia’s side was their captain and most revered figure, Steve Waugh. He had been in decline ever since the end of the 2001 Ashes and there had been enormous scrutiny on his international future going into the series. Indeed, because the series itself was such a non-contest, this focussed more attention on his form as it ignited much more passionate debate about his future than the matches themselves did.

This was all highlighted by the final Test at Sydney where Steve Waugh scored a century in the most memorable of circumstances as it captured the nation’s attention (the TV ratings for it were enormous) and became one of the iconic events in Australian cricket for the decade. That Australia lost the match heavily (one of their biggest defeats during Waugh’s reign) seemed little more than a sideshow to the main event of Waugh’s knock.

The century sealed Waugh’s future for another 12 months but with the benefit of hindsight that match would’ve been the perfect way and time for him to depart the international arena – on his own terms and in the most memorable way.

England’s series was full of woe as their side was bedevilled by injury, players out of form and frankly, players that were simply not good enough. The undoubted bright spot was the performance of opening batsman Vaughan. His 633 runs was easily the most scored by any batsman during the series; an impressive feat considering the great bowling attack he was facing and the limited support from his teammates. His strokeplay was dazzling throughout the series, ranging from his classy cover drives, to his efficient cut shots and most impressively of all, his ability to authoritatively pull balls off a good length. After this series it seemed certain he was about to become one of the dominant batsman of the 2000s and when one looks back on his career now – notwithstanding his captaincy achievements – one can’t but help thinkhe should’ve scored many more runs and centuries than he actually did.

Australia won the series 4-1 in what was arguably the easiest of their eight consecutive Ashes victories and the gap between the two sides appeared to be greater than ever. Was there any hope of England turning around things when the next Ashes contest occurred on their home soil in 2005? Only time would tell on that.

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