Twenty years ago this week, England and Australia began an Ashes Test series in Brisbane, just as they will once again on Thursday. The assessment of the situation was unanimous. In their last warm-up match, against Western Australia, England had performed abysmally. They had shown considerable interest in, and skill at, the party scene surrounding the America’s Cup in Fremantle.
As for the cricket, their performance was memorably summed up by Martin Johnson, correspondent of The Independent. England were fine, he wrote, except they “can’t bat, can’t bowl and can’t field”. They were, everyone agreed, going to be blown away by Chris Matthews, Australia’s new fast-bowling sensation.
By the second afternoon, England were 316 for four and on their way to a famous victory and the Ashes. Matthews was a myth.
Two-and-a-half years later, in 1989, the teams lined up to do battle again in England. There was no reason to assume anything had changed. England approached the series with the humility traditionally associated with Goliath. They were blown away 4-0 and thus began the era of total and tedious Australian dominance that lasted until last year, when England regained the Ashes after one of the most dramatic of all sporting encounters. No one really saw that coming either.
The lesson of history seems to be that, when England and Australia meet at cricket, the preliminary skirmishes – never mind all the mouthing-off – don’t count for much or, perhaps, for anything. The contest will develop its own dynamic, which will be revealed from Thursday.
From an English perspective, that had better be right. The events-leading-up-to have not been encouraging for them. They will take the field in Brisbane having played just seven days of practice cricket, three of those in direct contravention of paragraph 1.1 of the laws of cricket, which states that it is an 11-a-side game. This was partly forced on them by the relentless international schedule and, partly, by the eccentric aversion of their coach, Duncan Fletcher, to warm-up matches.
Their captain and champion, Andrew Flintoff, is recovering from injury and the evidence that he is yet ready to lead his troops over the top in this mother of all cricketing battles is frankly scant. The same goes, even more so, for his senior spinner, Ashley Giles (now apparently out of the reckoning for Brisbane). It is not wholly clear whether the number-one fast bowler, Steve Harmison, currently remembers that his target is the three bits of wood at the far end of the pitch. And now he has a strained side (as indeed do England as a whole).
Worst of all, and shatteringly, England’s most experienced batsman, Marcus Trescothick – just restored to the team after a period of psychological turmoil – broke down in the dressing room on Monday and was flown home. His mental health and his career are both, tragically, in tatters.
Save for a brief, respectful interlude to allow for Trescothick’s personal disaster, Australian critics, headline-writers and the players themselves have been going full blast about the uselessness of the Poms ever since the team arrived.
That will continue on the field in Brisbane in a manner thought to be unparalleled in any other sport, which is why an Ashes series is such a test of mental strength for men far more resilient than Trescothick. England will have to show, more than ever, the chips-down fortitude characteristic of English cricket under Fletcher.
The weight of expectation on both teams is enormous. England’s triumph last year has galvanised the game in both countries. Demand for tickets is unprecedented. When the fourth Test starts at Melbourne on Boxing Day, Test cricket’s first 100,000 crowd is expected and thousands more are clamouring for tickets. About one-quarter of that crowd, maybe more on the smaller grounds, will be English.
That clamour may have faded if things really go wrong. The supporters who have splashed out their savings to have Christmas in Australia are going to find their flights dragging even more than usual if, by that point, England are 3-0 down. If England happen to be 3-0 up, Australian newspapers will just stop bragging and find another topic: there is usually a heroic Aussie battler winning an archery or badminton title somewhere.
There is one factor hugely in England’s favour. Traditionally, they have the older, less mobile players. Yet some time over the next seven weeks, it is possible that England might field their youngest team of all time and Australia their oldest.
The contest may well hinge on whether Australia’s 36-year-old fast bowler, Glenn McGrath, is fit enough for one last heave, as opposed to the capacity of Flintoff’s 28-year-old body to absorb further punishment.
In the great scheme of things, English cricket is gaining strength while Australia are due for a somewhat tougher period in the future. The future may mean the rematches scheduled for 2009, 2010-11, 2013 or sometime never. Or it may just start on Thursday.