Scyld Berry, Courtesy of the Island, 30 Dec 2010
What distinguishes the two national sides in this Ashes series is that England have made the most of what they have, while Australia have not. For this maximisation of resources England have two men of the highest calibre to thank. In Australia’s set-up there appears to be nobody approaching such accomplishment, on or off the field: only an absence of vision.
England’s captain, Andrew Strauss, has been preparing for this tour, on and off, since being part of the historic disaster here in 2006-7. England’s coach, Andy Flower, has called on his experience with South Australia three years before then, and together they have plotted this series with greater thoroughness than any previous England tour to anywhere.
In consequence, England in the field have always looked like a team, even when they were being blown aside in their second innings on the pacey pitch in Perth. There is the odd blemish – Chris Tremlett has not accepted the two catches offered to him at long leg, Alastair Cook is not the world’s best short leg – but human error has been minimised.
Strauss has the strategy, worked out in advance with Flower, of grinding Australia down with in-depth batting and accurate bowling. Tactical input comes mainly from Paul Collingwood and Matt Prior. The bowlers know their minds and the fields they want. Cook and James Anderson polish the ball as if it were a forthcoming exhibit in the Antiques Roadshow, so that England reverse-swing it far more than the home side can do.
And the thoroughness of England’s preparation has earned them two pieces of luck – one macro, the other micro – while Australia suffered a major misfortune.
The loss of their seasoned opening batsman Simon Katich, to an Achilles injury, holed Australia below the Plimsoll Line, as this is a series in which the new ball has been so influential that no side have managed to bat through the first day of a Test.
England’s piece of macro luck is that this is the coolest and wettest summer in many parts of eastern Australia. Ever since Andrew Flintoff bowled his final ball, in the Oval Test of 2009, England’s strategy has been based on four bowlers, in violation of all precedent as far as England tours of Australia have been concerned – successful ones, that is.
But the lack of heat has allowed the tourists to get away with only four bowlers in every Test, not five. The piece of micro luck occurred at the outset, in the nets at Perth. Tim Bresnan bowled a bouncer which hit Graeme Swann on the right thumb. Thereafter Swann wore protection on his thumb while fielding. But at least it was not broken. An inch either way and Swann could have missed the entire series: the pack would have had no joker.
England started as they intended to go on, by winning. Firstly against Western Australia, even if Perth remained their bogey ground come the third Test. South Australia could have been beaten too if the last afternoon had not been rained off. Then England demolished Australia A, on television, for all to see.
England’s invincibility contrasted starkly with Australia’s vulnerability, as they followed a tour of India in which they lost every game with three limited-overs losses at home to Sri Lanka. England thereby drove a wedge between Australia’s players and their supporters: they softened up public opinion and made it resigned to the prospect of losing a third Ashes series out of four.
By their long vigils at Brisbane and Adelaide, Cook and Jonathan Trott made Australians ever more resigned, their bowlers and supporters alike. Only a burst of greatness could have saved Australia: Mitchell Johnson did it with his spell of savage swing and four wickets for seven runs in Perth, but Ponting has been shackled by England’s predatory bowlers and fielders.
Swann’s video diaries have generated essential humour that has reflected the confidence of winners: when did you last see an Australian cricketer laugh? The Sprinkler dance was another nice touch, giving this tour a cool identity of its own. And England’s supporters have won their vocal battle, too, allowing their team to feel they are playing at a home from home: all the ingredients for England’s success.