Despite the very best efforts of the hype machine, this is not 2005. Retaining the Ashes, and don’t forget this is the first time in my cricket watching life that England have clung onto the prize in three successive series, was an oddly muted affair. Of course the Manchester rain ensured that the Australians were denied the opportunity to complete the deserved victory they needed to keep matters alive, but even that would have just delayed the inevitable. The problem is that the home side is simply better but is crumpling under the weight of its own negativity and siege mentality, while the visitors are winning the propaganda war, and the tactical manoeuvres, yet lack the resources on the frontline. Beating this lot is probably no big deal, but doing it in this manner is even less satisfying.
If the first Ashes Test teetered on a knife edge and the second turned out to be among the most one-sided in history, then there was at least a common thread which united them. Both were mired in umpiring controversies, the deconstruction of which filled column inches that ought to have been reserved for stylish straight drives or unplayable outswingers. The Decision Review System (DRS), an innovation designed to assist the match officials but one which has struggled for universal acceptance, absorbed much of the blame. The Luddites were called to arms once more. Such criticism is missing the point. Abandoning this aid will not stop television companies investing in new technologies to enhance their viewers’ enjoyment. Unless harnessed to the cause, these ultra-slow-motion replays, Hawkeye, Hot-Spot and whatever may supersede them, will only further undermine the integrity of those who have just their eyes to trust in. This easy target is a red herring obscuring a more significant problem.
We’re only two days into the series and already it’s utterly riveting. Enough swings of fortune and shifts of momentum have been shoehorned into six sessions to silence even the most ardent detractor of Test cricket. Not that you’ll find too many of those around in an Ashes year. It’s a paltry sample of course but one particular misconception has been laid firmly to rest. It’s the one, never shared in these quarters, that purported Australia would be a pushover. Oh no, there is a glass jaw about England and the combative Antipodeans fancy themselves to land the knockout punch. Even more so now that the pugilistic and gloriously straightforward Darren Lehmann has assumed the reins. If the home side thought the turmoil of the opposition build-up would place them on the front foot, they’ll be more than just a little concerned to be pinned back on the crease fending off the short stuff.
If the young Essex leg spinner Tom Craddock achieves nothing else in his career, he’ll forever be able to dine out on having taken a five wicket haul against England. Alastair Cook’s team completed their Ashes preparations with a challenge game against his county side at Chelmsford, where their uncertainties against this type of bowling were once more rather awkwardly exposed. No doubt encouraged that a mere rookie could inflict such damage, Australia’s granting of citizenship to the Pakistani refugee Fawad Ahmed could not have come at a better time. He’s clearly no Shane Warne either but they probably figure he doesn’t need to be. Unfamiliarity has bred an unhealthy suspicion fuelled by the almost complete absence of these wristy wizards in the domestic game pretty much since the war. But wait, one such home-bred purveyor of the art, with international experience to boot, currently sits second in the national averages. Unfortunately, it’s the batting averages. Just maybe though, that’s a light at the end of the tunnel for Adil Rashid.
Will England ever win a 50 over global tournament? At Edgbaston yesterday the rabbits got stuck in the floodlights as the Champions Trophy tantalisingly called out to them. It was a gloomy day, and not just because of the weather. Just as in this final nine years ago, when the West Indies slipped off the hook, the home side choked. Older readers might reference the last match of the 1987 World Cup, Mike Gatting’s reverse sweep and all that. For India, victory sealed the deal in terms of their distinction in this form of the game. If this really is to be the end for this neat, compact competition, they provided it with a fitting send off.
What is county cricket actually for? Some consider that its only purpose is to produce raw material to be smoothed off and polished up for the benefit of the England team. Fair point, but if the whole process of four day competition is little more than a glorified set of trials, why charge us for admission? Actually, as any follower knows, this is indeed a significant function of the game at this level and one of its many attractions is that excitement of discovering young talent taking its first steps, even if the ‘system’ already has them on its radar. But it is more than that. It is about supporting your local club, tracing the development of a season-long narrative, and mostly enjoying a day out where you might see a memorable contest between leather and willow, and hopefully a positive result. In a nutshell, it is about entertainment. Sport, of course, brings no such guarantees, but this year we might be actively impeding such a possibility.
I might be a bit old-fashioned but ask me which current England cricketer I’d most like to be able to bat like and I won’t say Kevin Pietersen. Of course his improvisations, his swagger, his ability to change the tempo of an innings, all of that would be wonderful, but I remember those black and white photographs in the MCC coaching manual, those strokes you used to practice in front of the mirror. There was no shuffling, whirling and flailing, just balance, economy of movement and sheer elegance as the ball was persuaded rather than coerced to the boundary. As much as power can take the breath away, finesse is what the game is all about. And the player who most often has me purring with admiration is not KP, but Ian Bell. The Warwickshire man is a master craftsman when in full flow, yet I’m concerned. Though I hate to say it, I have to be convinced he’s still worth his place.
Knowing it was close, I made sure I was installed in front of the television on the Friday afternoon of the first Test of the summer against New Zealand at Lord’s. When it arrived it was superficially unexceptional, a ball of decent length moving imperceptibly away from the right hander and catching the edge. It was gratefully clasped at second slip. We had seen it many times before. Except we hadn’t. This was a moment that had been glimpsed only four times in the whole rich history of English cricket. Jimmy Anderson’s celebration was nothing out of the ordinary. He even looked embarrassed. Perhaps he didn’t quite believe that he was joining a club so select that its only other members had become almost mythologised. And I had finally seen it. After thirty years of waiting another England bowler had reached the magic three hundred wickets.
As I write this the second round of County Championship fixtures is already drawing to a close. Temperatures have barely scraped into double figures and only the real enthusiasts have registered an interest; after all, the football season is still in full swing. The lop-sided nature of cricket’s scheduling though means that these early skirmishes are more relevant than many realise. By the time the players feel the first warmth of the sun on their backs, assuming they ever do, destinies may be headed in irreversible directions. Thumbing through the multitude of predictions reveals a series of common themes, but this is a competition which has made fools of plenty of experts in recent times. Here, money does not guarantee success. It helps of course, but team dynamics and good old fashioned luck often count for a whole lot more. So while Surrey might be an easy selection at first glance, don’t go investing too heavily on the chances of the pennant flying above the Oval come September.
England’s struggles in New Zealand are mildly concerning, but with back to back Ashes contests just around the corner I bet they wouldn’t swap places with Australia right now. The Kiwis may have exposed some critical limitations which may be no bad thing. Fundamentally though, while the road might have the occasional pothole, no one will be pushing the panic button anytime soon. In the land of the baggy green however, such piffling setbacks must seem gloriously inconsequential at the moment. The humiliating series whitewash in India, where, remember, their old rivals triumphed so memorably late last year, leaves just an empty three months to properly survey the wreckage and find answers to the myriad questions this mighty humbling has left so alarmingly unresolved. From this distance it looks a shambles of disturbing proportions.