Things will be different from now on. Australia formally start their tour on Thursday with a match against Kent at Canterbury. New Zealand have gone home after making an enduring impression, both with the quality of their cricket and the spirit in which they have played it.
The second visitors of the summer can be expected to supply the first, though not necessarily the second. It seems to be expected by both sides that the Ashes series will be conducted in a fiercely competitive fashion that will push the boundaries of decent public behaviour.
It is not expected that either of the captains, Alastair Cook of England, or Michael Clarke of Australia, will be carrying round in the hip pocket of their flannels the brief but vital words of the Spirit of Cricket which form the preface to the Laws. Without much cause for optimism, it is to be hoped that England do not start anything or are not carried along by their opponents.
Australia are a crack team. Some of them are ageing in sporting terms perhaps and especially anxious to reclaim the great prize because they know it will be their last opportunity to do so in England. Of the 10 players who have been on previous unsuccessful Ashes tours – Clarke three times, four of them twice, the rest in 2013 – seven are past 30, five past 33.
But they have been in ripping form lately. The only recent blot was a 2-0 loss to Pakistan in the UAE last October, which, if nothing else, shows they are not invincible away from home. Otherwise, since losing to India and England away two years ago and looking in disarray, they have seen off South Africa and last month West Indies away, and England and India at home.
They are cocks of the walk again. In the splendid Steve Smith they have the batsman of the moment, No 1 in the world and rampant. Their fast bowling attack is so potent that there is even talk that Mitchell Johnson, scourge of England in Australia two winters ago, will not make the starting XI.
The last memory of them, however, is not a pleasant one. In the World Cup earlier this year they were, just, the best side and deserved to beat New Zealand in a one-sided final. In doing so, however, they showed the worst aspects of the Australian sporting character that night.
They mistook manliness and machismo for an unsavoury, snarling vindictiveness which should have no place in the playing of games. In this they were led by the snarler-in-chief, Brad Haddin, an estimable wicketkeeper-batsman of 37 years of age who behaved with the braggadocio of a teenage street brawler.
As yet, Haddin has displayed not the slightest sign of contrition, which means perhaps worryingly that there is to be more of the same to come this summer. A few in the England side will respond only too willingly.
No one expects there to be any pussy-footing about in a modern Ashes series and since the former captain, Steve Waugh, coined the phrase “mental disintegration” there has always been a feisty atmosphere. Not that it can have been replete with bonhomie when the likes of Ian Chappell were leading Australia.
It is the sneering contempt that is hardest to watch, as if this were meant to be part of anything civilised. The trouble with this kind of behaviour – up close and personal – is that it will eventually lead to a punch being thrown and then all hell will let loose.
Nothing of this is likely to be seen in Canterbury. Australia will not be messing about, however, and, it is to be hoped, nor will Kent. Both have picked strong teams. Smith and Johnson are in for the tourists, while Sam Billings returns from England’s one-day duty for Kent.
When one thinks of Kent against the Australians in recent times, it is impossible not to reflect on the match which began 40 years ago.
The tourists arrived in Canterbury hotfoot from the World Cup final in which, four days earlier, they had been defeated by West Indies. They were staying on to play four Ashes Tests, with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson at the height of their powers.
Thomson gave the Kent match a miss, Lillee did not. The Australians, as they were then known in tour matches, as opposed to Australia, dominated the first part of the three-day match. They left Kent 364 to win on the last day.
The county won in 81 overs, led by their veteran former captain, Colin Cowdrey, who at the age of 42 scored 151 not out, the penultimate of his 107 centuries, after coming in at 77 for 2. It is a measure of a different world that Cowdrey’s innings and the result resonated round the country and dominated the back pages.
That will not be the case this year, whatever happens. So welcome, Australia, and let us hope that the smiles may outnumber the snarls.Reuse content