Late March 2013. Australia has just been resoundingly beaten four-nil by the weakest test side fielded by India in twenty years. Shane Watson has flown home because he hasn’t done his homework. His test career appears over. Michael Clarke strongly defends the decision to drop him and others, despite the minor infractions they are guilty of. The national team is in disarray.
We know how this story ends. Within months, Mickey Arthur was sacked, and Australia turned a corner so sharp they looked like Valentino Rossi.
As an aside – bloody hell – Mickey Arthur’s now head coach at Christ Church Grammar – he could be teaching my boy Tom cricket next year for all I know.
Improbably, Darren Lehmann was appointed as coach – a warm, genial man known to all as ‘Boof’, who’s own Wikipedia page says, in the first paragraph mark you, is ‘known for his disregard for physical fitness and modern dietary regimes’. But from the day he arrived, Australia started playing better.
This brief trip down Misery Lane is not meant to illustrate anything, save for how quickly fortunes can change, and how the right touch and a breath of fresh air can be transformative. The last two years have seen an astonishing turnaround in Australia’s fortunes. It does the team and their management great credit, and is heartening for all fans of good cricket.
It’s not like Lehmann has done anything particularly revolutionary. He didn’t sack half the side, nor has he transformed the style in which they are playing. Yet Australia are now the world’s second best test side, with the world’s best batsman. All this in two years.
We’re not yet given the luxury of hindsight, but England’s World Cup performance must, surely, represent their own nadir. England played such joyless cricket it was a wonder they won any games at all, and departed a laughing-stock. Their coach Peter Moores declared that their exit at the group stages was something that could be fixed by having a ‘look at the data’. Jaws dropped. Like Arthur, he was quickly shown the door.
And since then, something strange has happened. England have started playing good cricket. They’ve played out one of the most enjoyable ODI series in years, scoring 408 on one occasion and regularly cracking the 350-mark that is par these days. And they’ve done it playing fearless, carefree cricket that has suddenly looked like fun again. Like Australia, they’ve made few noticeable changes – but look entirely transformed.
So, what to think, coming into this Ashes series. On my recent visit to England, I couldn’t find one Englishman who thought we’d win. Not one. But that was a month ago.
Have a look in your dictionary. A test is – ‘an event or situation that reveals the strength or quality of something or someone by putting them under strain’. More than any other series in recent history, this summer’s cricket is going to reveal strengths or lack thereof in more cricketers than I can ever remember. Because there are so many players who we’re not sure about.
From an English perspective, surely we should be optimistic. Australia have a batting order prone to collapse, half the players are one twinge from a tearful retirement, and their players are all about forty. Take a look.
David Warner is hit and miss. Chris Rogers is 37, and retiring internationally at the end of this series. Adam Voges has been selected to shore up the dodgy top order. He’s 35 for god’s sake. Brad Haddin’s 37! The side’s Captain is a man who’s star has waned so much that most people think Steve Smith’s in charge already. He’s one back flare-up from immediate retirement. Ryan Harris is held together by sticky tape, and likely to break clean into two pieces, like Bruce Reid. Shane Watson is at best a bits and pieces player.
I’m not myopic, however. The team has some titans. Steve Smith has averaged 131 in his last 12 test innings, scoring five centuries in his last six matches. His recent summer here was the most astonishing performance with the bat in Australia since Bradman (and Kohli’s was even better). With the ball, Australia has a veritable treasure chest of tall quicks, and a man who’s action was ‘born to bowl in England’ – Mitchell Starc, who took his World Cup wickets at 10.18. Personally, I think he is the most worrying of all the tourists, and threatens to do a Terry Alderman on us.
Although England have been smashed twice in Australia on recent visits, they haven’t lost in England since 2001, and since then it’s 7-2. Their team is much younger than Australia’s (the Aussies average age is 31), and filled with names who will be new to Australian audiences, like Stokes, Wood, Balance. The only proper veterans are Bell and Cook, England’s most successful century maker at just 30. It is England who can claim to have the stronger batting order (a statement ripe with the possibility of looking foolish). With the ball, James Anderson is the main question mark – England’s best bowler simply has to bowl well, and stay fit, or all is lost.
It is my contention that England can compete, and possibly win. But they need three things to happen. They need a good start, Anderson has to stay fit, and Ian Bell has to regain his form, because poor recent performances put him two matches away from the end of his test career. These are not outrageously optimistic desires.
There comes a time when the neck must be proffered, however, so here goes. It’ll be competitive, but Australia’s bowlers will prove too strong, and their tail will rescue them a couple of times. Australia to win it 3-0. Sorry.