Ashes tours down under have defined many cricketers’ careers. They’ve also, in many ways, defined my life as an avid sports fan, too. Australian Test matches are etched in my memory – the good, the bad, and the painfully ugly.
I might go as far as to say that Ashes tours have actually shaped my personality: frequently anxious, always expecting the worst, occasionally jubilant, and overly emotional. I’m kidding, of course, but Ashes rollercoasters certainly haven’t helped my blood pressure!
Although I’ve mellowed a tad now that I’ve reached middle age, the series still has a special place in my heart. Watching the series live when I was backpacking around Australia in 1998/99 was probably the most memorable experience of my life. And it brings back so many precious memories.
England were actually quite competitive in that particular edition. We were saved by the rain in Brisbane, and got battered at Adelaide and Perth, but we then won a remarkable victory at Melbourne and probably would’ve tied the series 2-2 at Sydney had it not been for some one-eyed umpiring by Simon Awful.
It’s also worth remembering that Graham Thorpe – who was our best player by far at this point – was ruled out of the series after making 70-odd in the first Test. Had he taken part in the rest of the tour then results might have been different.
When I look back at that team, it actually had many ingredients you need to be competitive down under: two decent openers, experience in the middle-order, pace in Darren Gough and Alex Tudor, and decent spin options in Robert Croft and Peter Such. They weren’t all world-beaters but we had a good spirit.
So why, precisely, did they ultimately fall short? It’s because, in my opinion, and indeed in the opinion of Kevin Pietersen in his Betway interview below, that starting the tour well is crucial. And sadly, England’s 1998 tourist started poorly. Australia were well on top in Brisbane, won the next two games, and that was that. The series had basically gone before any of our guys found form.
The lesson here is that Australia at home are like a juggernaut when they get on top. It’s a cliché because it’s true. Their cricketers smell blood, the vocal crowds get on top of you, and the press really stick the knife in. Things can go from bad to abysmal before you can say “Five nil”.
The only England team to triumph in Australia over the last 30 years was obviously Andrew Strauss’s well-drilled 2010/11 team. The crucial moment in that series was probably the record-breaking partnership between Cook and Trott in the second innings of the first Test. Australia had a first innings lead, as they normally do at Brisbane, but England stopped the rot before things got out of hand. Our obdurate not-so-dynamic duo dug in, frustrated the Aussies, and gradually ground them into the dirt cathartically. England took so much momentum from that draw.
As KP also points out in his interview above, if things don’t go well for the Aussies (as they clearly didn’t at Brisbane in 2010) then it doesn’t take long for their supporters and media to turn on their own team instead. It might astonish you, but I’ve heard Aussie supporters berating Glenn McGrath for being an “overrated carthorse” in the past. And we think our supporters are fickle!
Consequently, Joe Root’s team simply have to start well. The blueprint for England teams is usually damage limitation at Brisbane and Perth (where Australia are incredibly strong) and then a push for victories at Adelaide and Melbourne. It’s not impossible to win in Sydney either, although the quality of Australia’s spinners has made it hard to win batting last.
This time, however, it’s not a traditional Ashes schedule. And this might actually play to our advantage. Normally, two of the first three Tests are played in Australia’s traditional strongholds, with only Adelaide offering our batsmen some respite in between. This time, however, England will have three potentially winnable games in a row after Brisbane thanks to Covid: it’s Adelaide up second as usual, followed this time by Melbourne and then Sydney.
Fortunately, we won’t be visiting Perth at all on this tour. The trip to WA was initially scheduled as the fifth Test (rather than the third) but now it’s been dropped altogether. This creates the intriguing possibility that the final Test could take place at Hobart – at least that’s what the rumours say. Hobart should suit us a lot more than the old WACA used to do. Suddenly, the schedule doesn’t look quite so intimidating.
Although Australia will still be favourites – and quite rightly so – England’s task isn’t impossible. The availability of Ben Stokes is absolutely massive for us. Not only is he a match-winner with both bat and ball; his presence also enables us to balance the side.
Although there’s always the chance that Chris Silverwood will stupidly pick five seamers, England should be able to select a team with plenty of batting, four seamers, and a specialist spinner. What’s more, if Mark Wood can keep himself fit (yes, I appreciate this is a big ‘if’) then we should have all bases covered.
I expect Jimmy Anderson to bowl well, and I think that Stuart Broad will be fired up by the competition for his place. After all, if Wood plays then there may only be space for one of Broad and Ollie Robinson.
Like many observers, KP claims above that you need solid batting, a strike bowlers, and a wicket-taking spinner to win down under. I accept that England’s batting isn’t particularly great, but if Root and Stokes can score a hundred or two, and the likes of Pope and Buttler can make a few runs in the middle-order, it’s quite possible for us to cobble competitive scores together in unorthodox fashion i.e. with the top order contributing relatively little.
Meanwhile, whilst I wouldn’t exactly describe Jack Leach as a big wicket-taking threat, and his lack of overs in recent times has probably stunted his development somewhat, he’s potentially better than many of the spinners we’ve taken down under in the past. I’m looking at you, Richard Dawson. I’ll be disappointed if Root and Silverwood opt for Bess instead because they’re worried about the batting.
So can we win the series? I’m going to say “maybe”. Although English cricket doesn’t particularly deserve any success – the ECB have done precisely nothing to address the systemic problems that were apparent when we lost 4-0 back in 2017 – there are some reasons for optimism: scheduling luck, the return of our talismanic ginger warrior, plus the fact that we’re up against imperfect opposition being three of them.
I wouldn’t bet on it, though.
Fair points, James, as always.
I am STILL unsure about the wisdom of taking Broady and Jimmy. They are world class fast medium pacers, but I cannot help but feel that out and out pace will win the day. Woody and Jofra are needed here
teacher playwright cricket nut from Hexham
Jofra is out, sadly. It’s all up to Wood.
I’m determined to suppress my loathing of the ECB and focus on enjoying the cricket . I really can’t see where we can score enough runs to be competitive though. It’s the hope that kills you in the end.
One fast bowler in Wood, who probably will be lucky if he gets through two Tests. Broad in decline now, and Anderson is pushing 40, I’m not sure what he’s trying to prove. Robinson may do well, but he hasn’t the pace of Starc, Hazlewood and Cummings. Stokes? Can he bowl a spell anymore or will he be just be a third change?
Batting? Not much in it.
I don’t think we stand a chance quite frankly.
“I’ll be disappointed if Root and Silverwood opt for Bess instead because they’re worried about the batting.”
Prepare to be even more disappointed when they play five seamers and claim Root is the spinner. A possibly dank Australian summer, the lights in Adelaide and a few LHBs in the Oz line-up will be all the excuse they need (outside Sydney). I also wouldn’t be too surprised if Pope doesn’t play.
Australia have some weaknesses – Starc looks in decline and there doesn’t appear much back-up, Cummins has to cope with the captaincy and their batting looks iffy if one of Labushagne or Smith loses form/fitness.
I thought the crucial moment in 2010/11 was when England revamped the bowling and replaced Broad/Finn with Tremlett/Bresnan.
One thing that happened in Brisbane in 2010/11 was that a very wet lead up to the game resulted in the pitch being slow and low, in turn as a result of being underprepared. After a couple of days it simply died and a combination that pitch, Cook and Trott v a not particularly accurate attack was not a great recipe. I mention that only because the last few weeks have been somewhat similarly wet in Brisbane. There is at least some possibility that the relatively new curator (who produced a very flat test wicket last season albeit at a different time of year) might have similar issues this year in producing his pitch. The other 2 possibilities are the obvious one of losing a lot of time to rain, but also that steamy overhead conditions might play into England’s hands, if they happen to coincide with England bowling with a new ball. While Anderson and Broad have generally been no more than serviceable in Australia you can’t completely write them off in Brisbane if the cards all fall their way. So all up Brisbane shouldn’t be regarded as a fait accompli 1-0 for Australia.
On paper we have the potential to be competitive. Both sides have stronger bowling than batting so unless the weather intervenes results are likely in all 5 matches. I don’t anticipate it being a high scoring series. Getting off to a decent start is a prerequisite in any series for the away team as they only have a limited number of options. The problem for us is our lack of any recent competitive match practice. An encouraging sign is the bringing back of Travis Head, indicative of the lack of Aussie batting talent coming through.
Tell me more about Travis Head.
How did that work out?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. How many folk expected that?
How many people expected him to make runs?
Well, the Australian selectors who picked him, for a start.
He had a Test average of 40 at the start of the series, which would make him England’s second-best batsman.
James! Please don’t omit Bell’s 76 in the first innings at Brisbane! I was there! He kept on batting while Siddle got his hat trick! The Aussies were running through us. At the time the consensus in our group of fans was that Bell had produced one of his finest innings because he took on the bowlers and showed brilliant intent. He laid down a marker. He was in great form and his batting in the warm up matches was exceptional and he was racking up runs – 192 at Hobart. Flower was still keeping him at 6 below Collingwood at 5 which was queried all the through the Ashes. Strauss and Flower made their notorious comment that they valued character above flair. Bell ended up with high praise and an average of 66. Colly with 14 and he retired from Test Cricket. Important also to remember that Strauss was out for a duck in the first innings! I can remember the shock of the captain’s dismissal so that puts Bell batting with the tail into perspective. Also glossed over now is that the wicket flattened in England’s second innings and it became clear that no one was getting out after that and Pietersen was itching to get in! It suited Cook and Trott but all the England batsmen Colly apart were in terrific form and Strauss got a ton. You write as though they dug in to save the match. Couldn’t be further from the truth. But we may not have been able to take advantage if we had collapsed first innings. Flower was always keen to write the scenario to fit his opinions much as he did at the Oval in 2009 when Bell got 72 in the first innings after Cook was out on 12 in the must win match and England got over 300. The press blamed Bell for not getting a ton! Australia replied with 160. But still a report in The Cricketer failed to mention the first innings in its summary. Flower’s legacy was never to give credit where it was due if it contravened his agenda. As a Bell fan I was aware of his bias. Applies to Pietersen also of course who tried to set the record straight.
The criticism that Bell used to attract still annoys me intensely, especially the fact that he is often accused of getting his runs when England were on top, rather than when backs were against the wall. This was a good example of the opposite. To me, he was one of the best batsman of his era, technically correct, and a joy to watch when he was on song.
One of the best batsmen of his era?
Shermanator had a Test average of 42. Hardly elite.
I’m not sure that Jackie’s obsession with Bell is any more than just the obverse of that criticism though!
Fair points and an enjoyable read.