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Ashes 2001: Preview
by P. Rajan

One day cricket and Test cricket bear no resemblance to each other. Stroke production differs, as do tactics, the length bowlers strive for, field placings, the toss, light (you'd rather bat first in one dayers in England).

By that measure Australia's decimation of England in the recent one day tri-series should have no bearing on the outcome of the Ashes.

Quite the contrary. The mere revelation that an emergency meeting, involving England's top players, coaches and officials was hurriedly called post their debacle, immediately suggests two things.

First, that their momentum, so valuable a sporting commodity for it brings stability and ambition to a fearful, unsteady dressing room, has vanished. The confidence built from the hard work of the past, beating the West Indies at home, Pakistan and Sri Lanka away, has eroded.

Secondly, it reinforces England's brittle character, one easily shaken by Australia's intimidatory quality.

Steve Waugh's reputation as a gritty batsman is intact, but overtaken by his growing stature as an astute leader, a man with his finger on the game's psychological pulse. For him the one dayers were not just an opportunity to reinforce Australia's one-day world champion status, but to strip away England's self-belief prior to the Tests. His players know too, that their superiority lies beyond mere cricketing skills.

Said Glenn MCGrath, "If we really concentrate on our game I can't see us getting beaten. England have won four series in a row and are playing pretty well. Their spirits will be up. At the end of the day I don't feel they really believe they can beat us. That's where we'll beat them."

What it all means is that every previous analysis of the Ashes, where England was seen as a forceful threat, is redundant.

Prior to the tour, Ian Botham said of the Test matches, "I think it'll be very, very tight. England has been building for this for the past two years and their improvement has been 10-fold. At the end it will go one way by only a Test."

Now some say, though this too is a wild exaggeration, that England will be hard pressed to win a Test at all.

Waugh is actively aware of England's fragility, specially in the context of the Ashes. History tells him Australia won the Ashes in 1989 and hasn't since let go. He is desperate not to interrupt that winning run.

Especially since it is his first Ashes tour as captain, and despite his careful cultivation of the media, Waugh, a proud, ambitious man keen to have his name in the history books, will know that he is not yet Mark Taylor. (Taylor won in the West Indies, South Africa, Pakistan, England, and Waugh has yet to replicate that.)

Waugh's greatest strength, beyond his team's combative attitude, alerted sense of danger, and appetite for English blood is his bowling attack. Glenn McGrath is all metronomic line, length, intelligence and fury (like the Energiser bunny in a bad mood), Jason Gillespie as any Indian will tell you has a sharp edge of hostile pace, and Brett Lee is simply frightening. But as much damage could be done by Shane Warne, eager to insist he is not playing purely on reputation, that his turn and drift and accuracy are in working order, and that English batsmen still have a problem with bladder control when they face him.

That said, England is not quite ready to hand over the Ashes and go on holiday.

They will take strength from the reality that though they are a pitiful one day team, it does not necessarily follow that their Test cricket aptitude is as woeful.

They will have noted carefully that Australia's top order has been erratic: Matthew Hayden's Indian halo has disappeared, Justin Langer is testing Waugh's faith in him, Michael Slater is attempting to breathe oxygen into a gently dying career. Slater, of course, a combustible fellow, retains value for his ability to destroy opening attacks every two or three innings, a usefulness Waugh has remarked on before.

(Of course, to England's frustration, Ricky Ponting's confidence has been restored, and the Waughs still pose as a twin danger).

England have assembled too a reasonably adept mix between the tested and untested: Atherton's blade is still stubborn, Hussain more assured, Caddick rediscovering himself, Graham Thorpe (who England desperately need) and the doughty Gough, now joined by the ambitious Trescothick, the comeback Craig White, the spinning Giles with wiles, the gifted Matthew Hoggard.

Youth and experience is a tired cliche, but its value undiminished. Old players have a grasp on cricket’s endless trickery, they draw on their past, but they are also pushed forward by the energy and ambition of the young men. Coach Duncan Fletcher has got them thinking tougher, moving sharper, and some of the despair of past English dressing rooms is dissipating.

In a sense England resembles India, attempting to break the shackles of conventional wisdom, and like India gradually they are evolving into a proud team.

Australia, as India demonstrated, albeit at home but then so are the English, are vulnerable, especially their batsmen. But India’s threat came via spin and a historic innings from an emerging batsman.

To make a contest of this series, England will have to produce similar magic, some comparable performances of majesty.

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