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.
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.
So how to evaluate the Women’s Cricket World Cup? The first thing to say is that the tiresome preoccupation with comparing everything to the men’s game is both unhelpful and faintly ludicrous. Women’s cricket has just recently come to be taken anywhere approaching seriously. It is little more than a decade ago that it was still played in skirts. Funding and resources were almost non-existent prior to that and remain minimal. Opportunities for girls to play are being realised only gradually, and the fight against prejudice and mockery has a long way to go, in some parts of the globe more than others. So what if we didn’t see balls being hit out of the ground or anyone generating the pace of Dale Steyn? That we were able to enjoy the quality and drama that was on display is testimony to how far has been travelled in such a short time.
Watching Australia’s revamped domestic T20 competition, branded with unashamedly populist appeal ‘The Big Bash’, can only lead to an obvious conclusion. We need an equivalent in England. Though the short form of the game originated here, astonishingly just a decade ago, and its creation was intended to reinvigorate the county scene, it has grown into a monster of unimagined proportions. The competition which started it all has quickly grown dated and stale. Sky TV’s coverage from Down Under should convince the various vested interests that we must set aside our differences and quickly adapt if we are not to fall behind disastrously. English cricket has shown remarkable capacity for change in the recent past. This requires one final push.
I felt I really had to write on the momentous occasion of your retirement from international cricket. You seem to have been with us for so long. Winning the Ashes just won’t be the same without your glowering presence in the background, arms folded in stoic defiance at the withering injustice of it all. I’ll miss the scruffy larrikin chirping from mid-on, that tattered baggy green giving you the look of some steerage-class renegade hankering for a scrap. We loved to portray you as the fall guy, standing on the burning deck as the lifeboats sailed off with the remnants of your broken empire. You struggled for a smile sometimes. I’m not surprised.
One thing Andy Flower could never be accused of is complacency. Indeed, since he became England’s Director of Cricket in 2009, the Zimbabwean has left no stone unturned in guiding his adopted nation to the pinnacle of the Test game. Under captain Andrew Strauss, England have gained a well-deserved reputation for thorough preparation and meticulous planning. Focus is very firmly on maintaining the top ranking in what promises to be an epic series against their closest challengers South Africa later in the summer. With a tough engagement in India also on the horizon, Australia are not uppermost in the mind. Having dismissed the old enemy so contemptuously in their own backyard to retain the Ashes just eighteen months ago, theirs is no longer perceived to be the greatest threat. But never underestimate a wounded beast. A new era is dawning under the Southern Cross, and the man at the helm is confident of his destiny. Michael Clarke has silenced the detractors, and he’s ready to stamp his impression.