Ashes 2015: England offer promise but Australia know who they are – and how to win

Michael Clarke looked the more comfortable of the captains – Alastair Cook was tighter, more tense

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The Independent Online

The sound of a dog barking somewhere in the background provided one of the more incongruous moments as Michael Clarke discussed all that lies ahead. The canine presence in Australia’s ranks, David Warner, was not in the building, but it felt emblematic all the same. There will be plenty of antipodean bite to come, despite all Clarke’s platitudes about his team not crossing a moral and ethical line in the next 48 days.

The Australians were the ones full of anticipation at the prospect of being unleashed. It is the last chance for Brad Haddin to win an Ashes on English soil but as he walked up to the pavilion, swinging his bat, he grinned at a television reporter who was telling an audience – of CBBC viewers, it transpired – that watching the squad practise had been his “clip of the week”. “You’ll get better clips than that,” Haddin joked, his smile as wide as the sky. It’s a last chance for Chris Rogers, too, but he cooperated with the film crew who wanted him to make his walk to the crease for them. “It’s volatile, stepping over these ropes,” he said, intensity written across his face.

Clarke looked the more comfortable of the captains, too. These Ashes occasions have become so frequent – this is the 26th Test since the fabled and titanic 2005 collision – that the appearances are increasingly robotic and choreographed. But Alastair Cook was palpably tighter, more tense. In reply to the question of what his last words to the team would be, a little off-the-cuff reply about needing to “tell the 11 guys first and not The Evening Standard readers” didn’t work. It was someone very familiar to him from the Telegraph who put the question. The England captain’s second reference in a week to Australia being No 1 in the world – South Africa hold that title – reinforces the sense of burden. Overstating opposition achievements is not an Australian trait.


All just the pre-series ritual, of course, but there is a good reason why Cook might subliminally exaggerate the threat. It is that Australia know who they are. The youthful core of the new England side, on whom so much that lies ahead will rest, certainly reduces the sense that Australia hold all the cards, man-for-man, though the superior captain is theirs as is the finest batsman – Steve Smith – and they have none of the overdependence on James Anderson which is England’s nagging doubt. But England are also the ones searching for the philosophy; trying to fathom how the phantasmagoria we have witnessed in the recent five 50-over contests against  New Zealand actually translates to Tests.

Cook was asked whether he, at the age of 30, is capable of changing his game to conform with the spirit of this new age. It was actually hard to tell if he was saying “yes”. “At certain times I have to be able to get on that front foot as well, as a captain,” he replied, painting a picture of the England side he joined nine years ago which belonged to a different age. It had been “a methodical team” back then. “Bowlers really banging  out areas time and time  again. Batters who were relentlessly grinding down the opposition…”

The recipe for success, of course, lies somewhere between the old and the new and Clarke’s Australia are the ones who know that innately. “I’m not really sure to be honest,” Clarke replied to the question of whether he thought England would attempt to be aggressive and play the Australian way. “I think they have certainly got some players in there who can play that role. They’ve probably got some players in their team who don’t seem as comfortable playing that role as well.

“I think what I’ve learned throughout my career is there are times throughout a game where you might need to be more aggressive with the way you are batting, the way you’re bowling, your energy in the field.

“But then there’s the other side where you have to back your defence, whether as a bowler or a batter, to slow the game down and slow momentum – and don’t allow the opposition to run with momentum.”

There has certainly been bluster dressed into some of Australia’s last big pre-Ashes statements. The relentless talk about netting with a fearsome Johnson – Clarke expanding on the theme of his prodigious swing and claiming there was more pace there than he has ever seen – suggests a need to talk him up.

Nathan Lyon going for 136 runs in the first innings against Essex because Clarke failed “to protect him” was also less than convincing. Don’t dismiss, either, the very acute kind of pressure on the 34-year-old captain, who will not want to go down in history as the first Australian cricketer since the 19th  century to have lost four Ashes series.

“I don’t think it’s about my CV or any individual player to be honest,” Clarke said. That was disingenuous. He is an individual so supremely self-aware that it always is about him and his image. Clarke’s legendary elegy to Phillip Hughes after the batsman’s death in Sydney last November has raised his status in the hearts and minds of Australians, but there is a time when results transcend statesmanship again.

It is the understanding of what it takes to win a Test which will give Clarke heart and dictate the outcome of this series. A losing deficit of one would represent encouragement for England, though a more emphatic outcome – 3-1 in the visitors’ favour – is the prediction here. This Australia team come here from the ritual annihilation of West Indies. England arrive from series draws with the same opposition and New Zealand. “They had a bit of success there,” Clarke said of the New Zealand series, resisting any temptation to say that some perspective might help.