Six England cricketers went to Uluru today. They probably needed all the spiritual uplift obtainable after the series of unfortunate events that have afflicted the tourists in the past few days and few sights on earth stir the soul as much as Australia’s sacred, most famous landmark, also known as Ayers Rock.
The rest of the party stayed behind in Alice Springs, the red centre of the country, doubtless seeking a period of rest, recreation and reflection. This unprecedented excursion for a two-day match at Traeger Park feels a little like an expeditionary force to spread the word of cricket, which remains one of the purposes of MCC tours abroad but was long since abandoned by England.
It may be precisely what is required to recover from the buffeting of the past week. England’s players were more relaxed than they might have been as they left Queensland. Perhaps they were simply relieved to get the heck out of the place. A town like Alice may be just the ticket. The locals are genuinely excited and sent a welcome committee to the airport.
History, as well as the life force that is Mitchell Johnson, is largely against England coming back. England have now lost 11 of the 20 opening Tests they have played at The Gabba in Brisbane and only once on the previous 10 occasions did they manage to go on to win the Ashes. Equally, they proceeded to win the series following three of their four victories at the ground.
But that does not mean that all hope should be abandoned before the second Test in Adelaide next week. Far from it. Here is Andy Flower, the England coach, on the subject of comebacks: “Let’s judge our batsmen at the end of this tour, not after one Test match. We have to overturn what seems predictable at the moment.
“I am excited about that challenge as I was before the first Test. It will be interesting to see if we are good enough to do that.” But this was not Flower post-Brisbane, this was Flower post-Ahmedabad last year on the Indian tour. Then, England’s batsmen had to adjust quickly to Indian spin and managed to win the series 2-1, now they must repel Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, but above all, Johnson.
Flower was correct to point out, this time post-Brisbane, that Nathan Lyon, Australia’s off-spinner took key wickets in the opening Test. It is, however, hard to avoid the thought that, well as Lyon bowled, the batsmen might have taken their eyes off the ball. Sooner or later, they knew, Johnson and his pals would return.
England have made a virtue of being loyal to players but now they have to take hard decisions. These concern Ian Bell or Joe Root for Jonathan Trott at No 3, a new No 6, either Jonny Bairstow or Gary Ballance – who would be making his debut – and another third seamer. Tim Bresnan, soon to become an official member of the touring party, stayed behind in Queensland and will play a three-day match for the England Performance Programme XI this week.
The intention is that if he comes through it, he will be available for the Adelaide Test. Bresnan is a solid and skilful all-round cricketer and it is probably no accident that of the 21 Test matches he has played, England have lost only two. But he is probably benefiting at present from the old truth that you always seem a better player when you are out of a losing team that when you are in it.
These tourists may take some solace from the fact that in 1954-55, their reversal in the opening Test – by an innings and 154 runs – was greater than their defeat on Sunday evening, which was by a mere 381 runs. The turnaround 59 years ago was effected because they found in Frank Tyson a fast bowler at his zenith. There is no Tyson in the ranks this time, no-one who can ruffle the opposition at 90mph as Johnson can. Yet less than a year ago, it was only mildly idle talk that Steve Finn might test the speed gun to it limits by reaching 100mph in New Zealand.
Finn has lost impetus since and, like Tyson then, he has had a dichotomy over his run-up: short or long. Tyson went short between the first and second Test and Australia reaped the whirlwind as he took 25 wickets in the next three Tests.
Tyson, a cerebral chap who became a university lecturer in Australia and still lives on the Gold Coast, kept a diary on that tour. In it he told a lovely story about one of his veteran opponents, Keith Miller, which England may like to think on now.
“How I admire Miller,” he wrote. “He saw me looking worried and asked after the cause of my anxiety. He then helped to put matters into perspective by enquiring if I could remember what I was worrying about a year previously.
“When I answered that I couldn’t, he made the wonderfully perspicacious observation which put everything in true proportion: ‘Then why were you worrying then and why are you worrying now?’”
Of course, a year ago, England were worrying about how they might come back from disastrous defeat in India.