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Let me explain. Between 1987 and 2005, and one Ashes series after that, England were the side that turned up to be trampled over. Sometimes they tried, sometimes they gave the impression they were packing the white flag into their kit-bag. And so till the Ashes of 2005 so dramatically happened, a young adult in England wouldn’t have known that beating Australia was a possibility, let alone an option That wasn’t only because the Aussies had an extraordinary collection of players, it was because they never let go. Forget a window, there wasn’t a sliver of light coming below the door for England.
Now, they come from different corners. England marching forward as favourites, possessed of players that shouldn’t ever lose. Australia are limping in, beset by trouble and a sudden flight of batting talent. At the turn of the century, a similar difference in class would have meant a 5-0 win for Australia. Now do England have it in them, with this scarcely believable turn of events, to do an Australia? Shut them out? 5-0?
Last year I saw both teams play in India and though conditions were very different from those looming in England, I saw two very contrasting traits. England hadn’t won in India since 1984-85, had a phobia for spin and a reputation for not being the best travellers. A turning ball carried the same fear as malaria. In the first test in Ahmedabad, they were bowled out for 191, saw India pile on 521-8 (decl) and slumped to 199-5. I promise you the words, “4-0” were on everybody’s lips. Then Alastair Cook and Matt Prior added 157 in 60 overs, England kept India in the field for 154 overs and even though they lost, the courage they had shown augured well. It was like losing a set 5-7 from being 1-5 down.
Then Pietersen played an unforgettable innings in Mumbai, Monty Panesar beat India on a track prepared for a home win, Cook scripted another epic in Kolkata and England hung in grimly in Nagpur. This was a different England, not just ready for a scrap but seizing the opportunity in a land they didn’t enjoy playing in.
Then I saw Australia. Like England, they lost the first test too. Dhoni’s double century, like Pujara’s against England in Ahmedabad was demoralising. But you expected Australia to come hard thereafter, like they always did. You thought they would fight for every inch of territory. But they didn’t. There was a dreadful inevitability to the next three tests. Maybe the skills had declined, it always seems that way after a great generation has departed, but the fight seemed to have gone. They were playing like England were expected to but hadn’t. There wasn’t a Cook or a Pietersen, or a Prior or a young Root, they could bat around.
Based on that evidence Australia are fragile, they give the impression that should they go a test down they will find the journey back into the series too daunting. They need all hands on board, including team spirit, the twelfth player they claimed they always had on the field. And it is this search for team spirit that sees them go back to a tough old-school man. There was a feeling that Australia had, in a sense, shed their traditional macho image for a more metrosexual air. Darren Lehmann will seek to take them back to their roots and it will be interesting to see how much influence he wields. There is such a lot of talk about him but the coach neither bowls nor bats.
To be fair Australia have been pro-active. You could argue that changing a coach two weeks before a major campaign isn’t ideal but in truth, they were going nowhere. Lehmann’s appointment comes with another change which might be as significant. Michael Clarke will no longer be a selector, Lehmann will be, and the relationship between the two becomes critical because a captain must get the players he wants and yet has no say in who they will be.
And so just as Australia’s ability to fight hard, to hang in there will be examined, so will England’s ability to play front-runners. Can they be ruthless enough? Will they go for 5-0 if the opportunity presents itself or will they be happy with a series win but a lesser score? Can they trample over Australia and inflict scars that could help them later in the year when another Ashes series comes around? Can they create an aura about them like Australia used to? Seed hopelessness in the opposition ranks maybe?
The essence of all sport lies in the mind of the competitor. It is there that the most fascinating battle will be fought this English summer. Assuming of course that there is a summer.