England beware. Australia are back in business. It took them about a week to recover from the loss of the Ashes and then it was back to work. And the work has been impressively done. Although it is not quite the old Australia, a side has been formed that will prove hard to beat.
Defeat was not allowed to fester. Now the defeated champions are ready to pounce. England must come fully armed or face heavy defeat.
Although painful, the loss of the Ashes was not destructive. Australians did not start fighting each other or walking around with long faces. Instead they recognised that the better side had prevailed and set about the task of turning the tables. Apart from anything else, they realised that losing 2-1 away from home to the second-ranked side in the world was not such a calamity.
Rather than apportioning blame, the Australian Cricket Board invited respected former captains to examine defeat's entrails. They produced a report recommending the retention of captain and coach, and advocating the appointment of a bowling specialist. Not much else changed. Then it was back to batting and bowling.
Once an inspiration, success had become a burden. Relieved of the responsibility of maintaining a formidable record, the players returned to the work of turning talent into performance. They had been acting, pretending an invincibility they did not feel. And they had fooled themselves, become careless. It was a grievous mistake, and grievously they paid for it. Once they were down, England did not let go. It is the circle of sport, from hope to arrogance to despair to hope. Moreover the side seeking fresh conquests have an easier time of it than a team trying to hold ground.
In the last domestic season the Australians looked altogether more relaxed than the frayed outfit that, at the very last, and not without a proud struggle, succumbed to England's audacity, aggression and ruthlessness. Struggling players realised they had been straining for effect.
Belligerence had been Matthew Hayden's undoing. Now he gave himself time to look at bowling, light and pitch. Ricky Ponting reasserted his authority with scintillating batting and vibrant leadership, Brett Lee improved beyond measure, and Michael Hussey took his long-awaited cue with aplomb. Throughout, the Australians played with renewed energy. The winter has also been productive, with most players resting. Certainly the four mighty players at the core of the team seem to be ready for battle. England cannot win except by stopping Ponting, Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist.
Ponting has spent his off- season at home. Doubtless he has been turning over the past as might a farmer sods of turf. He has much to reflect upon, the folly of bowling first in Birmingham, the lame sweep in the same match, the wasteful run-out in Nottingham and the ensuing protest about English cunning. If he was the agonising sort he would torment himself, but Tasmanian boys don't cry.
Anyhow, most of it was not his fault. Important players were injured, vital tosses were lost, a sitter was untimely dropped and the pace bowlers were about as threatening as Bruce Forsyth. And he did play one of the game's greatest defensive innings.
Ponting knows that the team will be better prepared and supported this time. Moreover his batsmen have recovered their equanimity and Lee has given the attack a cutting edge. He must sense sweet revenge.
Adam Gilchrist has also been idling at home and will return fresher and with a tighter technique against reverse swing - lest England can persuade Kookaburra balls to dance to their tune. He has even been rested from the Champions Trophy, an indication of Aussie priorities, and his own weariness and patchy form in the one-day arena (his position was saved by a couple of timely partnerships with Simon Katich at the top of the order).
Glenn McGrath's rehabilitation is complete and he expects to play in India. His ability to recapture the sharpness, the late movement that dismantled Michael Atherton and others, remains uncertain. Once a bowler loses his nip, the game is up. Shane Warne has mostly managed to keep his trousers on.
Australia are also better balanced than in 2005. Then Ponting was carrying more passengers than a Mumbai rickshaw. Now Hussey has added resourcefulness to the middle-order, Stuart Clark has brought control to the bowling, and Lee has matured into a formidable fast bowler. Runs can also be expected from Hayden and Justin Langer.
Not that the Australians are invincible. Much depends on the new-ball attack. If McGrath and Jason Gillespie strike then England are in trouble. Gillespie was dropped last season but reappeared unexpectedly in Bangladesh whereupon he scored a double-hundred. But taking early wickets may prove beyond him. Nor can Warne be expected to carry the attack again. England, too, will have been making plans. Nor have the Australians found anyone to match Andrew Flintoff. Indeed the commitment to fielding a balanced side may help their opponents. Andrew Symonds has waned more than waxed, and Shane Watson is a solid cricketer wrapped in a Herculean frame. Cameron White might emerge from the pack as a fine batsman and part-time spinner. Or else they will simply revert to the old strategy of playing six specialist batsmen, with Gilchrist to follow.
Meanwhile, England have stuttered along. It is hardly surprising. So much was invested in the 2005 Ashes. Trafalgar Square told the story. As far as a vast crowd were concerned their cricketers had served them proud. No one questioned their right to a place in Nelson's shadow. Sport, it was conceded, was of little significance beside defending the land from hostile forces. On the other hand, trouncing the Spanish or French or even the Germans was small fry besides the feat accomplished by these heroes. They had cracked sport's toughest nut. Revelry and ribaldry alike were forgiven as the victorious players waved to supporters. Nor were the celebrations limited to the mob. The Prime Minister invited them to Downing Street. The Head of State put a medal on the chests of every Tom, Dick and Geraint. The celebrations lasted longer than the series. A craving had developed that went beyond sport. When bad light stopped play on the penultimate afternoon, many fans cheered.
All too easily they accepted the invitation to join in Land Of Hope And Glory and Jerusalem. When victory was sealed the reaction was overwhelming. Even at the time, the frenzy seemed to be overdone. Far from regarding the Ashes victory as the start of a glorious new period, England seemed to rest on their laurels. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. True champions come to resemble vampires. Once they have tasted blood they want more. Opponents have been quick to prick the bubble of English presumption.
Subsequently the team have been dogged by bad luck. Michael Vaughan has been forced from the field, a setback that has put even more weight upon Flintoff's shoulders. England have also mislaid their pace attack, with Simon Jones absent and Steve Harmison losing form. The latter also joined the list of injured this week when a back complaint ruled him out of the NatWest one-day series against Pakistan. Ashley Giles has undergone surgery. He has been missed because he adds balance and maturity to a team needing every run and every ounce of stubbornness they can find.
In the past few weeks, though, England have begun to emerge from their bad patch. Alastair Cook has made a fine impression, and a spinner - Monty Panesar - has been found capable of testing any opponent. Conviction has been detected in the batting, and a proper gloveman has been found. But it took a long time to build the team who won the Ashes. Hence the reluctance to replace the inadequate. Andrew Strauss' side are more talented but not as battle-hardened. Australia must fancy their chances.
Warne admits to misgivings over six-foot kangaroos
As part of their pre-Ashes preparations the Australian squad have been on a gruelling boot camp in the Australian outback.
Shane Warne was one who was initially unconvinced about the timing of the trip, but afterwards he conceded it had its merits. "Having gone through it the group has come a lot closer together," Warne said. "We didn't know much about the camp beforehand, I suppose that's why a lot of us were apprehensive about it."
Warne told of hard days in the bush. "Running up and down with water cans for six hours, pushing cars, sleeping in a sleeping bag with no tent out in the middle of nowhere," he said.
They also orienteered in the middle of the night without a compass. "There were six-foot kangaroos, but we didn't actually know that at the time," Warne added.
The batsman Justin Langer hailed it as an uplifting experience. "We were taken completely out of our comfort zone... Little sleep, little food, no mobile phones, no contact with your family. We didn't have a bed, we didn't have a shower, we didn't have anything."Reuse content