The line between wit and witlessness can be a thin one, and it is hard to guess which it was that induced someone to choose a Coldplay number as the music to play over the loudspeaker at the Sydney Cricket Ground after Australia’s latest and crushing defeat at England’s hands on Friday.
“One minute I held the key/ Next the walls were closed on me/ And I discovered my castles stand/ On pillars of salt and pillars of sand …” which is a perfect summary of Australian cricket’s fall from grace into the pit of Hades.
In the space of one calendar month (plus five minutes, to be pedantic) England have beaten Australia by an innings three times – on Friday it was an innings and 83, completing an unprecedented run of massive successes.
True, Australia did score a one-off win on a peculiar wicket in Perth in between, but all that did was to secure a brief and self-deluding outbreak of naive optimism (always one of the country’s most endearing characteristics) among the Australian public and perhaps – fatally – among the players themselves.
Whenever England win, English cricket followers, with their innate gloom, assume this can only happen because Australia are particularly weak, not that their team are any good. Australians assume the same for the same reason in reverse – they think all Poms are by definition useless.
Most of the 10,000-odd who took advantage of free admission to watch the last three wickets fall on day five were clearly English, though I did overhear an Aussie dad say to his five or six-year-old: “Be the last time this happens in your lifetime.”
Well, maybe. Australian cricket is very resilient: public support for the game is much broader and deeper here. Viewing figures have declined a bit but – in contrast to Britain – Test matches remain firmly on mainstream TV. And it is not at all unusual to see a young man standing at a bus stop with his bat, as I did on Friday. “Better get there quick, son,” I said impulsively. “They need you.” (He grunted.) You rarely see that in an English city unless the kid is Asian.
So the Aussies still have great latent strength. The leading English players now all come from a dangerously shallow gene pool of South African exiles (Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott), public schoolboys (captain Andrew Strauss and man of the series Alistair Cook) and the scions of cricketing families: Graeme Swann’s dad, for instance, was himself a top club player.
But for the moment anyway those genes have been blessed by genius: not the individual brilliance of Ian Botham or Andrew Flintoff that produced previous Ashes wins, but the genius of teamwork: the right blend of men at the right time, helped by magnificent planning and leadership from Strauss and coach Andy Flower.
England knew what team they wanted for the first Test months in advance; the Australian selectors were still flailing around trying to find someone in form in the final week. England were meticulous in their drills and were near-flawless in the game’s secondary disciplines. Australia – the mightiest team in the world for nearly all the past 15 years – made elementary errors. England maintained concentration with the bat and control with the ball; Australia did not.
To win in Australia, you need very accurate bowlers,” said captain Andrew Strauss, “and fortunately very accurate bowlers turned up.” And, he added lightly: “I gave Cookie a few batting tips.”
Australia will be spending the time between now and the resumption of hostilities in 2013 desperately trying to learn the lessons