The Ashes: Why England Should Be Pleased Rather Than Triumphant

Retaining The Ashes is one thing, but only a victory in Australia will give this team license to celebrate place themselves amongst the greats...
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Retaining The Ashes is one thing, but only a victory in Australia will give this team license to celebrate place themselves amongst the greats...

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Not by a bang but by a whimper - TS Elliot, The Wasteland

There’s a brilliant line in a film called The Candidate starring Robert Redford in which he runs for Senator. You live all his ups and downs, his challenges, machinations, disappointments and ultimate success. At the end he sits with an empty feeling in a hotel room, a sense of hollowness accompanying his victory, as he turns to an aide and asks plaintively, “so what do we do now?” The question could very well apply to the England cricket team as well.

For those of a certain vintage like myself winning the Ashes was as ridiculous as a British winner of Wimbledon. Of course you dreamt about it, and wondered what it would be like, but you couldn’t really envisage it. Not properly anyway, as the concept was so outlandish as to be rendered ridiculous. Between 1989 and 2003 England lost every Ashes series. Some by humiliating margins that made you embarrassed to admit you loved the game, certainly in front of Aussies at any rate.

I lived in Australia for 18 months a decade ago. It also coincided with arguably the best squad of Test cricketers ever assembled – or at least on par with the West Indies sides of the mid 80s. I was at the SCG for the whole five days of the Fifth Test in 2003. Admittedly we won the game even if we were already 4-0 down in the series and had actually lost the Ashes in nine days of playing time. Michael Vaughan even got man of the series - and for me more importantly he had actually won the respect of the Australian cricket team - if only the same could be said for the rest of the squad.  But what struck me during the overhyped celebrations at the end was the sense that the Australians simply expected the arrangement to go on forever.

It wasn’t so much a feeling of complacency, for Hayden and Langer, Ponting and Waugh, Gilchrist and Lee, and McGrath and Warne, teak tough great cricketers that they were didn’t do complacency, more the fact that an Australian Ashes triumph was the natural order. It was what was supposed to occur, no matter how hard England tried, or how many English players won their respect.

I recall Jonathan Agnew and Henry Blofeld being on air on at the time. Whilst being dignified and gracious in defeat as ever the sense of despair was palpable. The pair even discussed in anguished terms the notion that the Ashes would never be won back in their lifetimes. Sat amongst the Barmy Army under cloudless blue skies watching an orgy of Australian back-slapping that day I don’t think they were alone in thinking that.

That was why 2005 was such a seminal series. For England not only outplayed a truly great Australian side but won the Ashes back. Michael Vaughan admitted that in public utterances following a memorable series win in South Africa the winter before that they were banned from mentioning the Ashes, but that was what every player had on his mind. To win in such an absurdly gripping series was all that mattered to the team and the nation. Kevin Pietersen’s never to be forgotten 158 on the last day of the final Test at the Oval, eviscerating 95mph Brett Lee balls in such tense circumstances was immediately elevated into the pantheon of great passages of Test cricket.

In the end the weather forced a premature end to the game and England had won the series through a draw. Sound familiar? England at a wobbly 37-3 with a victory total well out of sight, from an Australian view were saved by the rain at Old Trafford. Of course it could be argued from an England point of view the weather only stopped us demonstrating the battling instincts that saved the Fourth Test in Nagpur thereby wrapping up the series 2-1, but the fact is that the Ashes were regained despite us being outplayed in an ultimately disappointing end to the game.

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Thankfully there hasn’t been any triumphalism along the lines of 2005. Why should there be, that series marked the end of 16 years of one sided contests, there was an explosion of joy and previously unfulfilled longing that was an expression of relief as much as delight in victory –although there was certainly much of that too. Along with a good old fashioned  booze-up that culminated in an unnamed player urinating in the garden of Number 10. Whilst predictably the politicians got in on the act. And I would love to have it confirmed one day that a player drunkenly called Tony Bliar a twat – for that alone they deserved their MBE.

But I am also glad there hasn’t been much in the way of triumphalism in this series because we haven’t deserved it. Of course being 2-0 up against the Australians with the Ashes regained borders on unimaginable territory for those who do remember the ritual beatings the Antipodeans routinely dished out to us. Yes Australians could argue that they were only 14 runs from victory at Trent Bridge, even if we could counter that at 118-9 only the magnificent defiance of teenage fearlessness of Ashton Agar’s improbable 98 stopped them ceding a considerable first innings deficit that would have changed the whole nature of the game.

But that is the point – this is a professional England team now, where victory, if not expected, is routinely sought after, not merely hoped for. We now have a travelling troupe of dieticians, psychologists, fitness coaches, fielding coaches, batting coaches and bowling coaches whose sole aim is to contribute to English victories.

Gone are the days when the then captain of the England cricket team in trying to raise the spirits of an English top order batsmen about to walk out to bat at Lords, told him to listen to the encouragement that the crowd would give him on his way out - only to hear the reply, “yes but they won’t be dong that on my way back when I’m out in a minute”.

Ironically the fact English cricket is in rude health has contributed to the underwhelming feeling following the Ashes being regained at Old Trafford.

I was at the Saturday at Lords where a young Joe Root ended the day on 178 not out to a sell-out crowd of nearly 29,000 contributing more in receipts than an 84,000 crowd at the Boxing Day Test at the last Ashes contest at the MCG in 2010 – one of the jewels in the Australian sporting calendar second only to the Melbourne Cup Horse Race. (I have to add that the first day saw England skittle them out for 98 only to end the day on 157-0 – days dreams are made of indeed).

The fact that England won the recent Lords Test by a crushing margin to claim only their second victory against Australia at the Home of Cricket since 1934 only emphasises the point. (For further proof of England’s recent supremacy the previous one was in 2009) Five days later I watched my team Middlesex lose miserably to Surrey in front of over 28,000 in a T20 game that raised more in revenue than a Premier League game at Craven Cottage. For those like myself who prefer the longer form of the game, even the County Championship, for so long derided as a care home for mediocrity is now the strongest domestic First Class cricket league in the world.

And yet.

The players in this current England team have not performed as well as they can as individuals. Alaistair Cook has apparently struggled with a back injury, not to mention having his head in the wrong place, in technical terms if not figuratively. Despite his 180 at Lords Joe Root still looks like he needs more experience of the new ball in Test cricket. Thankfully it doesn’t appear to be a problem in terms of technique, as opposed to his Yorkshire teammate Jonny Bairstow who’s first instinct appears to play the ball far too square, thus straightening his shoulders, making him far too unbalanced, not to mention a more likely candidate for lbw. Jonathon Trott looks less adhesive than normal – it is also a wonder that the Aussies don’t target him on the back foot more as he is prone to take a step forward almost as a trigger movement a fraction before the ball is bowled - thus rendering him vulnerable to a shorter pitched delivery. (if you don’t believe me take a look at his stance at Durham).

It may be churlish to highlight any negatives with Ian Bell, the batsman of the series so far but he is still susceptible to momentary loss of concentration – witness his dismissal to a filthy ball in his second innings at Lords. Matt Prior is still trying to regain form with the bat if not confidence in his keeping – although even then he hasn’t been at his unflappable best with the gloves either. Stuart Broad may have taken victims this series but has still gone for over 30 a wicket, whilst we still hold our breath every time Swanny takes a ball on his elbow. For me Tredwell rather than a Monty Pansear struggling for form in the county game would be a better replacement if the worst happened.

Tim Bresnan whilst most certainly not having the “air of a man with an emergency chesses roll in his back pocket” as he was unfairly described as by one journalist still doesn’t have the look of a match winning bowler since his elbow operation. And as for Jimmy, well, I wouldn’t subscribe to the idea of resting anyone during an Ashes series, even if those 13 overs on the bounce at the end of that gripping finish at Trent Bridge in the searing heat has clearly had an effect – along with bowling on an unresponsive home surface at Old Trafford - yet the time to rest him would surely be during the ODI series in early September.

To answer the question what happens next, is that England re-group, re-focus and go on and clinch the series (weather permitting 4-0), setting them up nicely for as determined and professional performance down under as 2010. The time for celebrations will be for a day or two after the Oval at the end of this series before aiming to join the true greats by winning in Oz this winter.

If that is achieved, no matter how much of a damp squib clinching victory in terms of the decisive match, the celebrations accompanying back to back Ashes victories by players and supporters alike will be most certainly (and deservedly) carried out with a bang not a whimper.

Follow Layth on twitter @laythy29