England were crowned world champs in the 50-over format of cricket, barely a month ago, in a final that went to the wire. The 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup trophy was, in fact, awarded to them invoking a law that no one imagined existed, after the super over too had ended in a tie. That said, the final was both physically and emotionally draining for both teams, as it was for their supporters.
That win for England, though a tad dubious, had come after an uncomfortably long, 44-year wait. The hosts, along with India, had been billed as potential winners long before the tournament began in May 2019. Therefore, the pressures of living up to public expectations and the mental fatigue, post that final, seem to have left England’s Test side a bit jaded, as is evident in the ongoing England-Australia series.
The Australians are already one up in the series. The Ashes are at stake. It’s time, therefore, that Joe Root’s boys woke up and smelt the coffee if they don’t want the Aussies to run away with the series, and retain the ‘urn’ that they had wrested from the Englishmen in 2017-18. If memory serves me right, the last time that the Australians won an Ashes series in England was way back in 2001, when the redoubtable Steve Waugh was skipper of a strong squad from Down Under.
For the cricket fans of Australia and England, the 50-over World Cup is just a sideshow. It doesn’t matter that Australia has won five titles and England one. The real obsession for people of both countries is ‘The Ashes’ — cricket’s eternal rivalry. England’s skipper in the Bodyline Series of 1932-33, Douglas Jardine summed it up when he said, “I’ve not travelled 6,000 miles to make friends. I’m here to win The Ashes.”
The Ashes is no friendship series. It has always been dog-eat-dog, merciless and unremitting for 137 years.
The England players, led by the shrewd Joe Root would have known this. His lads, seven of whom played in that World Cup final at Lord’s, should also have prepared themselves mentally for the ‘street brawl’ that the Aussies would indulge in, in the series that is now on. What’s more, this series also marks the beginning of the World Test Championship, I am told.
Steve Smith, returning after a year’s ban for ball tampering, showed the stuff he is made of, scoring a hundred in each innings of the first Test at Edgbaston, Birmingham. It did not matter to him that the English supporters barracked him or called him names. He put his head down, and made England pay for their supporters’ sins. In fact, when Australia were struggling at 122 for 8 and staring down the barrel, he along with Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon took the score to a fighting 284. In reply, helped by a dour Rory Burns hundred, England took a handy lead of 90 runs.
In Australia’s second knock, Mathew Wade (110), Travis Head (51), James Pattinson (47) and Usman Khawaja (40) helped Smith pile up an imposing total of 487 for 7 declared. Needing 398 to win the Test match, England could either have gone for an unlikely win or played out the last day. They did neither; overwhelmed by the aggression of Pat Cummins and the guile of Lyon, the Englishmen capitulated for 146 in 52.3 overs. Lyon picked 6-49 and Cummins 4-32. England are now, therefore, one down, with four Tests to go.
Burns’ batting isn’t pretty. He has an awkward stance. He leans forward and his head faces mid-on as he watches the bowler intently. In the downswing, his bat face is towards mid-wicket and he squares up as he meets the ball close to his pads. He could in fact be playing ‘French cricket’ when his bat meets ball. Yet, he is a gritty customer. He pats the ball down the track in defence and anything pitched on the leg stump is whipped around for runs. His weak point? The ball pitched wide of off-stump and of course the short, quick ball that is aimed at his throat.
In the second Test at Lord’s, now on, where the first day’s play was washed out, Burns came out on the second day and held the England innings together as wickets tumbled at the other end. He got out in the 38th over — scoring 53 valuable runs — to a brilliant catch at short-leg by Bancroft off a short ball by Cummins. The score then was 116 for 4. Bairstow and Woakes then helped England reach 258.
Jason Roy, who brings value to England’s batting in ODIs, has hardly impressed in the three outings that he has had against the itinerant Australians. Jos Buttler is another batsman who has found runs hard to come by in recent matches. Therefore, unless these two contribute significantly to England’s total in their second knock, in the second Test, they could find themselves sitting out in the third Test that begins at Headingley, Leeds on August 22. With Bairstow and Woakes returning to form, England will now look for sizeable contributions in batting from Root and Denly to try and force the Australians onto the back foot.
Despite the loss of James Anderson to an injury in the first Test, England has an attack that is good enough to trouble the visitors: Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Woakes, Stokes and the left-arm spinner, Jack Leach — who has supposedly been brought in to trouble Smith. For Australia, Cummins and Siddle seam the ball and use the short ball judiciously to keep the batsmen honest, while Hazlewood bowls up, swings the ball late and forces batsmen to make mistakes. But their trump card is Lyon, with 350 plus Test wickets in his kitty. He knows exactly how to work on a batsman’s weak points and that has paid him, and Australia, rich dividends in the recent series.
Root, and the England team management, will hope and pray that Smith doesn’t play the long innings he is wont to in the Tests to come. They will also hope that the skipper and a few top order batsmen in the England team will be able to fight off their lethargy and put up scores that are good enough for their attack to go for Australia’s jugular.
In 1986-87 when England flew down to Australia for the Ashes series, the general opinion was that Mike Gatting’s side was no match for the one led by Allan Border. Martin Johnson, an English sports scribe famously wrote before the Ashes series: “England have only three problems. They can’t bat, they can’t bowl and they can’t field.” England won that series 2-1.
Something tells me that the Ashes series of 2019 will be a close one. If Smith continues his good batting form, Australia will win; if Root returns to form, England will win.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and sports administrator, he believes in calling a spade a spade.