As Clivejw commented on our last post, “isn’t it great to have some test cricket again today?”
Australia are in Dubai for a two-test series against Pakistan, after which they head home for a summer itinerary which offers scant comfort to those who fear for test cricket’s future. The Baggy Greens host South Africa for five ODIs and three T20s, but play only four home tests in their entire 2014/15 season, all against India.
Meanwhile, next spring England have a truncated tour of only three tests to West Indies (assuming they don’t pull out), followed sixteen days later, in a masterpiece of scheduling, by the first of two home tests against New Zealand.
And then it’s the Ashes. They’re only eleven tests away. Eleven tests separate us from a series which promises to answer a sizeable raft of questions.
English cricket is still at civil war. Will the unique power of the Ashes act as a unifying force and bring people back together? Or just increase the acrimony?
The 2015 Ashes will serve as a kind of judgment on Downtonianism. Everyone probably recognises that. An English victory might seem to vindicate his entire strategy: the resurrection of Peter Moores, the iron-cladding of Alastair Cook, and everything else.
It would surprise absolutely no one if, should England reclaim the urn, Downton suddenly loses his shyness of interviews and emerges beaming from the shadows to soak up the glory.
Certainly, for ECB supporters it would be their Francis Fukuyama moment.
A catastrophic defeat, on the other hand, would finally terminate Cook but might not quite see off Moores. Would there be consequences even more profound?
Perhaps the very worst possible result, for everyone, would be a narrow defeat. Michael Clarke flies home with the urn while our Dear Leader talks of upskilling and positives taken – and nothing would actually change.
This summer, for the first time ever, we encountered England supporters – in significant numbers – who cheered on the opposition and wanted “us” to lose.
Could that happen next year? With the greatest respect to Sri Lanka, Australia are a different emotional proposition.
Imagine the sight of Alastair Cook lifting the Waterford crystal replica at the Oval. Then imagine Michael Clarke doing the same. How do the two contrasting visions make you feel?
And which is more likely? On both sides of English cricket’s schism, the assumption is that Australia are clear favourites, and the bookies agree. Johnson and Harris will obliterate a fragile batting line-up who were flattered by India this season.
But looking at Australia’s current line-up in Dubai, doubts creep in. They are an ageing team, shrouded in question marks.
By the time the series begins Johnson will be nearer 34 than 33. And will his radar still be functioning? Ryan Harris, who’ll be nearly 36, hasn’t yet returned to cricket since a knee operation. He says he’s “one bad injury away from retiring”. Peter Siddle, surely, won’t bowl England out alone.
Among the batsmen, both Chris Rogers and Brad Haddin will be nearly 38. Shane Watson is still working his way back from injury and may not regain his place from Mitchell Marsh, who has a strong claim to the most Australian-sounding name in cricket history. A debutant in the current match at Dubai, Marsh is as yet an unknown test quantity.
Michael Clarke has played fifteen Ashes tests in England but only once made a first-innings century. Steve Smith is, well, Steve Smith.
For England, the weakest point is probably the captain – judging by his record in home Ashes series. Cook made 222 runs at 24.26 in 2009, and 277 at 27.7 last year. He could probably do with finding out who he’ll open the batting with; Sam Robson wasn’t given a central contract and the now selectors are back to square one.
So you get the feeling the series might be determined by England’s middle order. Buttler seemed to change the whole mood of the team when he arrived on the scene. Everyone likes Moeen, bouncer problem notwithstanding.
But Ballance and Root are the main men. The arguments are well rehearsed. Will their back foot techniques be exposed (again, in Root’s case) by genuine pace? My hunch is that (a) Ballance is tough enough and classy enough to prosper regardless and (b) Root has tangibly grown in stature.
The 2015 Ashes will test more than just the relative strength of the teams. It will take the temperature of the English cricketing public. Will the grounds be sold out? Do people still want to support England? Are the Ashes still special? By the end of the series, England will have played twenty seven tests in twenty six months – fifteen of them against Australia.
In other news, you might already have seen our open letter to Waitrose. This has now been despatched and hopefully will eventually reach the office of Mark Price, their managing director. If you agree with its sentiments, please add your comments – because the more voices, the better the chance of getting the point across. Thanks to everyone who’s already contributed.
The letter caught the eye of Jonathan Agnew. In this week’s edition of Waitrose Weekend, he writes:
I view the forthcoming series against Australia as being absolutely crucial in the battle that the ECB faces in winning back its many disenfranchised supporters.
The board has had a rotten year in terms of its public relations, starting with the pompous statement that referred to the criticism of Pietersen’s departure as coming from people “outside cricket.” That observation rightly made a lot of cricket lovers very angry – and not just those in Pietersen’s camp.
Fans who support England religiously and buy tickets every year suddenly found themselves wondering if they, too, were considered to be outside cricket. The various leaks along the way, particularly the dossier containing Pietersen’s alleged misdemeanours in Australia, made the ECB look petty and vindictive.
These scars will take a long time to heal. Not as long as it will take for Pietersen to feel welcome again, but he does not appear to be bothered about that. The relationship between England cricket and its supporters must be at the top of the agenda for its new chief executive, Tom Harrison. A shrug of the shoulders and a ‘they’ll be back’ approach will not do. The division runs far too deep for that.