England must beat Aussies at their own game and appoint a ‘matey’ coach who likes a beer and a laugh... Beefy, Freddie: step forward
As soon as England lose they seek to become like their vanquisher
Friday 07 March 2014
England were busy enough this week, labouring their way through the Antigua heat to a 2-1 one-day series win over the West Indies.
The ECB was not just lounging back and watching either, instead finalising the re-appointment of Andy Flower, reborn already as technical director of elite coaching.
But most importantly, not just for cricket but for England too, were the events in Cape Town. With five overs remaining, Australia won the type of Test match that makes you wonder why the other formats and the other sports even bother trying. Darren Lehmann’s side took the series 2-1, even ending Graeme Smith’s career to boot.
These Australians have become giant-slayers. They have reversed years of drift and are now dead-set on top spot. In the relentlessly reactive world of international sport, their way of playing cricket – macho, assertive, unapologetic – has become the new paradigm.
One of the unexpected treats of globalisation is that international sport is no longer a contest between sporting cultures but an exercise in homogenisation and mimicry. As soon as England lose to anyone at any sport, they immediately seek to become like their vanquisher, like a trophy killer in reverse.
The first drafts of the history of this cricketing winter have already been tweeted and retweeted at tiresome length, but there is still just enough time for England to consider the explosive improvement of this Australia team and how they possibly mirror it.
England are not helped by the re-drawing of the cricketing calendar, which will bring Australia back over here for the next Ashes as soon as next summer. The evidence of the last few weeks suggests that it will be harder than anyone feared and that England’s run of three straight home Ashes wins – 2005, 2009 and 2013 – will be under real threat.
The real source of the compulsion for England, as they would know if they managed to catch any of the series from South Africa, is that this Australia team is here to stay. The biggest difference between the two sides in the last Ashes, more than anything else, was hunger. Many of this Australian team were not in the team last time they were world No 1 – a status they lost with the Ashes in summer 2009 – while none of the senior players have become comfortable statesmen.
Chris Rogers had to wait five and a half years between his first and second Tests, Ryan Harris made his Test debut at 30, Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson and Brad Haddin – the soul of the team, with his stubbly Marlboro Man masculinity – have all lost their places and fought their way back in.
Harris is due to have knee surgery this month, while Rogers and Haddin are both approaching their 37th birthdays. But even if they are not here next summer – and they would all dearly love to win their first series in England – Australia are now far better stocked than England with young talent.
David Warner, at the age of 27, has matured into one of the most exciting attacking openers in Test cricket. In South Africa he scored an implausible 543 runs at 90.50, at a strike rate of 86.74, the batsman of the series on every measure. He still might not be a man you would cross a busy Australian-themed bar to talk to, but his impact is unambiguous.
Even behind Warner, Australia’s youngsters – Steve Smith and James Pattinson – seem to have acquired a street-smart savviness that still evades England’s throng of recently thrown-in youngsters, not all of whom have developed as much as the ECB hoped.
Knitting them all together is Lehmann, brought in as coach just before the Trent Bridge Test last July. He is the embodiment of the aggressive style and spirit of this Australian team. Those are meant to be authentically Aussie traits, which Lehmann is nostalgically returning to. Whether England can successfully embrace them, in their own form, is a different matter.
Australia succeeded by re-affirming their religious commitment to “mateship”, disposing of the cool scholarly non-Australian Micky Arthur, he of unpopular homework assignments, replacing him with the far chummier Lehmann. So, naturally enough, England are already starting to do the same, elevating the importance of chumminess above everything else. Kevin Pietersen, of course, has already been sacrificed on the altar of mateship, his 8,000 runs and 23 Test centuries counting for not quite enough in the end.
Enough is never enough, though, when it comes to English sporting recriminations. Our national literal-mindedness means that symbols and gestures are always stripped of their original meaning and elevated themselves; look at our national obsessions with armbands and silences.
What our situation clearly calls for, then, is the unembarrassed embrace of the Australian approach. Never mind the underlying attitudes and issues, if we can just find our own Lehmann, our own good old-fashioned ex-pro, punchily nicknamed, aggressive on the pitch, enthusiastic afterwards, scornful of science, chasing the win; Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff – your country thinks it needs you.
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