When it comes to pure enthralling good old Test cricket, there is nothing in this world that comes even remotely close to the spectacle that is the Ashes. Never mind sitting miles away, you can feel the tension in the air, that is if you are a true cricket aficionado. And coming from some one who has been brought up on a fervent buffet of sub-continental cricket, riddled with Indo-Pak delicacies, it is hard not to understand why two major cricketing nations in the world treat this five-match series with utmost respect and passion.
For England, winning the Ashes rates right up there. It is akin to a Brit winning the Wimbledon, which by the way hasn’t happened for long. Or for that matter the English football team winning a major international tournament!
Even the latter phenomenon is yet to repeat itself since 1966, so much so, that nowadays they are not assured of qualification, let alone beating the world. And, thus, the fascination with beating the Aussies, apparently the off-shoots of British culture in a far away land. In fact calling it a fascination would be rather unfair to them Brits, it is more of an obsession. For the Ashes is the only thing they talk about, even if they are doing well against other cricketing nations.
They were talking about it when they won in New Zealand in two years back, when they lost to South Africa after that and to India after that. At the turn of the year, they could hardly concentrate on beating the West Indies away for ‘2009 is the Ashes year’, and even on the return tour in April-May, when the two match series was all about getting it right in the final run-up. Why, England even rested Kevin Pietersen in the opening match of the T20 World Cup, just so that he didn’t aggravate his injury ahead of the test series, and nearly risked themselves being eliminated from a premier world cricket tournament they were hosting. Clearly, little else matters more!
However irritating it may be, it is this fixation that might just come in handy this time around. Knowingly or unknowingly, the Poms have shut themselves to anything else that might be happening in the cricket world and steeled their minds to any criticism that might be coming forth hence. To the rest it might seem folly, but all this while even though losing to other opposition, they kept their focus on achieving one thing, and one thing only. Their single minded approach ever since the 5-0 blanking in 2006 has been to find the perfect blend to beat the Aussies in 2009.
The selectors have chopped and changed mindlessly, neglected the approaches of Michael Vaughan, bypassed a fury-unleashing Stephen Harmison and not taken risks with Simon Jones’ brittleness. They even found a combination of skipper and coach that works well more than it harms the team. And in a re-incarnated Andrew Strauss, they also found an able opener and partner for Alastair Cook. Ravi Bopara seems ready to inflict the same damage which Pietersen inflicted in 2005, while the latter himself has taken a couple more steps towards being the single most dangerous entity in the English side. And that when Andrew Flintoff is fully fit! Plus the Matt Priors, Ian Bells, Paul Collingwoods, Stuart Broads, Graeme Swanns and James Andersons have all stood the test in the last two years. This couldn’t be a much better prepared English side.
For the Aussies, winning the Ashes means equally to them if not more. They take pride in winning all that lies in their path but if the English want it dearly, they only want it more. That explains why Steve Waugh went out on one leg and scored a 150 runs in 2002, or why Shane Warne waited for the 2006 series to bid farewell even after producing inimitable magic in 2005.
The problem for the Australian cricket team at the moment is that for the first time in a long while that one can remember, they probably have a more unsettled side than the English going into the contest. And the reason why Australia doesn’t seem so well prepared is because they delayed finding answers to their problems. They chose to ignore their troubles on the tour to India and then against New Zealand. Even against South Africa, they recovered after the series had been lost. Yes, they may have won the return rubber but hardly any questions were given long term answers.
For old timers like Ricky Ponting, Simon Katich and Michael Hussey (it isn’t a long list any more), it might not be an over-awing situation but they have riddles to solve of their own. At the same time, consider the experienced others; Brett Lee, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke and Stuart Clark all ought to be worried of their recent form, injuries and more. Barring Pup, the rest are making a return to the side with the question as to who will partner Mitchell Johnson – the only one without any seeming troubles – at Cardiff still unanswered.
Then there are those trying to fit in, even though they may not be tender and young cricketers. Brad Haddin, Phil Hughes, Marcus North, Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, Andrew McDonald and Nathan Hauritz, who don’t exactly make you quiver in your boots. Now they take up those places in the first Test’s eleven that would have gone to the likes of Mathew Hayden, Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist. Those were at one point of time, names that would have mentally disintegrated the English without even setting foot on the field.
Let aside mental warfare, to fill those big cricketing shoes is going to be a big ask for the Ashes newbies in the Australian line-up especially considering the enormity of the task at hand. But, look at the bright side it might just work as a double edged sword leaving the hosts with no excuses. For this time around, for the English, it is a question of win the Ashes or simply, shut up!
(The columnist is a sports writer and Mobile ESPN cricket commentator based in New Delhi, India.)