Cricket: Atherton's chance to settle old scores: As the England party leave today for Australia, Martin Johnson assesses their prospects for regaining the Ashes

Click to follow
APART from the fact that they will be flying in executive class and wearing slacks and blazers, rather than inside the hold of a ship and wearing balls and chains, England's cricketers will arrive in Australia tomorrow with much the same credentials as the first expatriates a couple of hundred years ago.

A criminal record.

In the last three Ashes series, England have not so much lost (4-0, 3-0 and 4-1) as been humiliated. For some reason, as soon as they come up against their most ancient foe the three lions on the sweater are instantly transformed into three kittens, and the time for settling old scores is long overdue.

An Australian would gloat that England's old scores are usually in the region of 150 all out, and that there is no compelling reason for thinking that this series will be much different to the previous three. The last time an Australian crowd expressed a worry about the destination of the urn was unveiled on a banner in Perth. In a reference to their belief that the Poms have as much relish for a cricketing dogfight as they do for personal hygiene, it mocked: 'Hide The Ashes Under A Bar Of Soap'.

England's criminal record also extends in a more literal sense to their captain, who has doubtless asked for his tour fee in advance to help pay off last summer's fines, but not since James Lilleywhite first led England to Australia in 1877 has a captain sounded as upbeat as the not quite so lily-white any longer Michael Atherton.

On the face of it, this 'forget the past, we can do it' kind of rhetoric is nothing less than traditionally expected before an overseas campaign, and if Atherton (or indeed his chairman of selectors Raymond Illingworth) privately thinks they will be hard pressed to give Wagga Wagga Seconds much of a contest, they would hardly be expected to say so.

However, there are a number of reasons for believing that this optimism is slightly less cosmetic than Merv Hughes's zinc cream, not least because Merv himself will shortly have a bit of natural whitener in his moustache as well as across his nose. In fact, the contest between a longer-in-the-tooth Hughes and the born-again self-believer Graeme Hick is one in which the playground bully may finally get his own ears soundly cuffed.

England's overall confidence is based on the fact that Australia are no longer particularly well off for pace bowlers ('Ashes To Ashes, Dust To Dust, If McGrath Doesn't Get You, Fleming Must' does not have quite the chilling ring to it as the old Lillee and Thomson war cry) and the success or otherwise of the mission will largely revolve around whether England's batsmen can handle Shane Warne.

In any era, Warne is a rare breed of leg-spinner in that he can turn the ball on any surface (prodigiously on helpful ones) and is remarkably accurate for a wrist spinner. In the last Ashes series, Warne took a record 34 wickets at 25 runs apiece, and of the 440 overs he sent down, 178 of them were maidens. Graham Gooch, England's best batsman in that series, and arguably still their best, lost his wicket to Warne five times.

However, the real key to this series has less to do with individual characters as collective character. When Craig McDermott was invalided out of the last Ashes conflict, Australia's attack was perceived to be not much more than ordinary, but so fierce was Australia's focus when confronted by their most ancient enemy that England's batsmen contrived to make even unconsidered performers such as Paul Reiffel look as though they were bowling hand grenades.

England, by contrast, seldom seem to possess the kind of patriotic intensity manifested by Michael Slater removing his helmet to kiss the Australian crest after his Test century at Lord's in 1992. There are various theories as to why this might be, one of which being that England have struggled for a national identity. When Gooch was captain, he wanted the national anthem played before Test matches. Alan Smith, the Board's chief executive, told him it would be 'too difficult' - possibly on the grounds that England had so many potential national anthems the band would still be playing at lunchtime.

On the last Ashes tour, Gooch lamented: 'Our spirit is nothing like that of the Australians,' and raised the same question marks against unnamed individuals as were raised again on last winter's trip to the West Indies.

There have been times when the selectors should not have been thinking in terms of taking a physiotherapist, as a heart-transplant surgeon.

Atherton's major priority on this tour, therefore, will not so much be in reading pitches, picking the right team and making canny bowling changes, as in igniting a passion in his troops that will match the Australians' legendary capacity for shedding blood for the cause. Otherwise, the only thing England will be shedding is a few more tears.

Despite the nagging feeling that another left-hander in the top order would be more reassuring against Warne, man for man England's squad look strong enough to make dreams of regaining the Ashes something other than the pipe variety. If Australian batsmen prefer to play off the back foot, England have enough heavy artillery to accommodate them, although if they do start to get splattered the omission of Angus Fraser will not look any more sensible than it did at the time.

Besides which, Devon Malcolm and Martin McCague should already know that Australian pitches do not all persuade the ball to leap around like a kangaroo on a pogo stick. Illingworth's references to 'hard, bouncy surfaces' merely illustrate the 1972 date stamp on Raymond's last Australian visa. It is almost as big a myth as the notion that all Australians wear corked hats and eat meat pies.

Perth will certainly bounce (if, being the venue for the final Test, it is of any relevance by then), but Sydney is a slow turner, Adelaide traditionally flat, and Melbourne as unpredictable as its weather. Brisbane, venue for next month's first Test, is a seamer-friendly result pitch, and whoever draws first blood here will gain the crucial pyschological advantage.

It will be wonderful if England win, not least because no one crows quite like an Australian when the Poms are getting a stuffing. Unlike England, Australia have a unique safety valve when they lose, which they have sadly not had to engage since Mike Gatting's 1986-87 tour. They pretend it isn't happening.

The Test score suddenly gets relegated to the small print, alongside the Toowoomba tiddlywinks results or the Alice Springs smallbore rifle shooting.

When they are winning, on the other hand, it is sheer purgatory to be out there. This fact alone should be all the incentive England need.

(Graphic omitted)