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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A Tale of Two Countries

Will Pearson

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

For Andrew Strauss and England, the best: a draw in the first Ashes test – snatched from what at the end of day three looked very much like the gaping jaws of certain defeat – must have tasted as sweet as victory.

For Ricky Ponting’s Australian side it was undeniably the worst: after scenting the metallic tang of first blood for so much of this encounter, the deflation at stumps yesterday was palpable;  nowhere was the pain more evident than in the image of tired resignation etched on the captain’s weary and weathered face as he trudged from the field.

And while it is far too early to label this Ashes series with the term so often afforded to the novels of Charles Dickens – “a classic” – this opener had all the hallmarks of what made the two previous contests so thoroughly compelling.

The story of the 2009 series, of course, began in a similar fashion: a famously stoical last stand between Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar saved England from defeat in Cardiff, after Australia had posted a mammoth first innings total of 674 – a deficit of 239 over England’s opening efforts.  The squandering of such a powerful position certainly damaged Australian morale and confidence that time, with England going on to win the next test at Lords – the first time they had done so since 1934 – and subsequently the series 2-1.

While England’s comeback at the Gabba might not be quite as psychologically galling to the Aussies as failing to bowl out one of the worst batsmen in international test cricket, it was a sizeable blow all the same.  That it occurred at what has long been an Australian stronghold in Brisbane – England last won at the Gabba in 1986 – only served in further souring Antipodean taste buds.

It has to be said, however, that Australia didn’t lose the match; the series is of course very much alive.  The interesting thing will be to observe how Ponting and his team respond to this setback.

An always-frantic build up had been largely dominated by Australian pessimism, yet for the first three days of this test the prevailing mood appeared ill-founded. 

It may seem like a lifetime ago, but things started very well for Australia: after winning the toss and electing to bat, England captain Andrew Strauss fell to the third ball of Thursday morning before Peter Siddle ripped through the middle-order with the first Ashes hat-trick since Darren Gough’s in 1999, leaving the visitors deposed for only 260.  The previously-maligned Mike Hussey and wicket-keeper Brad Haddin then vociferously proceeded in taking apart England’s muted bowling attack, launching Australia in to a 221-run lead.  This flying start resulted in a noticeable upsurge of mood and confidence in both the team and Australian public.

And surely if this series is to rank up there with classic Ashes of yore, that can only be a good thing.

Australia need that swagger and self-assurance. It has always been natural for Australian sportsmen to embody confidence and to maintain an unshakeable belief in their own ability, to revel in their status as world-beaters and to excel to such a loathsome extent.  If it were to become any different it would devalue this age-old contest: the Australian spirit is all part of the theatre of the spectacle, and England and its fans wouldn’t want it any other way.  It is, after all, the pantomime season and the English love nothing more than to hate a villain.

And so, in some ways, it was a shame when the wheels came off Australia’s unprecedented revival in the final two days.  A bad Sunday was followed by a terrible Monday, the likes of which even the most fanatical Barmy Army patron could scarcely have envisaged at the end of Saturday.  The best of times had rapidly wilted to the worst for Australia, and the lingering doubts and negativity returned. 

England, though, were in dreamland.  The fightback that had begun positively on Sunday continued unbroken through Monday, and with it a plethora of records fell faster than you can say Roy Castle and Cheryl Baker: the magnificent Alastair Cook’s 235 not out was not only the highest ever knock at the Gabba, but also the longest innings of any English batsman in Australia.  On a team note, it was the first time the top three had all scored centuries in an innings since 1924, and the first time that England have ever scored 500 for the loss of only one wicket.  Stunning.

Everything went England’s way, and Australia were unrecognisable.  When Michael Clarke put down a simple catch in the slips heads began to droop in what was an uncharacteristic display of self-doubt.  Ricky Ponting’s captaincy had taken a battering in the lead-up to the match and once again the Tasmanian failed to rally his flagging troops when faced with adversity.  Throughout England’s second innings Ponting was continually guilty of ball-following, and the defensive nature of his field settings on Monday morning was truly baffling.

Ammunition aplenty for critics of Ponting’s reign.

As the game slowly slipped away from Australia so too did their fans, as Monday saw the swathes of empty that Cricket Australia had earlier feared.  And when a contest as fiercely competitive as the Ashes is struggling to fill grounds then surely that should be a major concern for anyone involved with cricket.

Credit has to go to Kevin Mitchell Senior and Junior for creating a wicket that not only hosted two 6-wicket hauls, in Siddle and Finn’s efforts, but five centuries as well.  It may have flattened in to the type of road more at home on the Lincolnshire Fens by the final two days – when only two wickets fell for 624 runs – but it served in providing a superb sporting exhibition all the same.

The pitch was indisputably a dream to bat on, but the nature of the test’s denouement raised questions over whether either team can claim 20 wickets in a match.   Australia will certainly be looking at making changes, the awful Mitchell Johnson looks the most likely to miss out in Adelaide after returning figures of 0-170.  England’s attack is not completely bereft of worry either, with the usually reliable Graeme Swann appearing most out of sorts in the first test.  The Adelaide wicket – although also flat – usually offers a bit more turn but this will be elementary if Swann cannot regain a consistent length.

However, from an English perspective, this initial encounter did nothing if prove a newly-instilled resilience and confidence to take forward in to the rest of the series. 

The Australians should not be underestimated though.

Dickens’ themes of destruction and resurrection in A Tale of Two Cities resonate strongly in the sporting world.  Time and time again the world has witnessed eminent sporting teams crumble before rebuilding anew; and with such cricketing legends as Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist – to name but two – retiring in the last five years perhaps it is unsurprising to find Australia at their lowest ebb in two decades.  Before a rise there is inevitably a fall, and whether Australia’s renaissance occurs in this series or beyond, only time will tell.

Andrew Strauss travelled not to Paris, but to Australia to bring an urn back to Lord’s; if he proves to be successful in his quest then critics in Australia may be calling for Ponting to do “a far, far better thing” than he has ever done as captain by calling time on his era as skipper.  Perhaps, like Sydney Carton’s demise in the Dickens classic, only the self-sacrifice of Ponting – unquestionably one of the greatest batters ever – will allow the rebirth of a truly great team.

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