England pass the tactical test with flying colours
Ashes dreams were realised yesterday but the hard work for Strauss's men started many months ago
Thursday 30 December 2010
Nothing illustrated the culture of Andrew Strauss's England more than the immediate aftermath. Barely had the trophy engraver's figurative ink dried on the Ashes urn than the captain was looking forward to next week and next month and next year.
It is the mark of all great sides or those who would become great sides that they are striving always to become better while their time is at hand. But Strauss made no great claims for his team as winners are wont to do in the instant glow of victory when, for a brief moment, anything seems possible. Frequently, they find it difficult to stop short of suggesting that world domination – in everything, that is – is a realistic target.
Of course, England aim to be the No 1 cricket team in the world and Strauss suggested both that it was possible and was a little way off yet. He also made two separate and significant points touching on what is always a dilemma for the game at home. On the one hand, as he said, winning the Ashes had always been the Holy Grail for English sides, but on the other, as he added a few moments later, English cricket is not just about winning the Ashes.
Had this victory – if victory it becomes in Sydney next week – taken place four years ago, or eight years ago, or 12 years ago it would have been a cricketing version of landing on the moon. This has not exactly been a day trip to Bangor, but more an excursion up Everest.
Then Australia had players who come along once a lifetime and they had several of them. As a great cast always bears repeating they were, in no particular order, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, all gone, and, crucially Ricky Ponting himself. The stature of cricketer available to Australia today is not in that league; indeed, on the evidence of the past four weeks it is several leagues below.
But this is to give a bad name to the art of quibbling. England have been stupendous for most of this campaign, for which they prepared meticulously. They did so in assessing the tactics they would need to prevail on Australian pitches and in selecting the players they would need to carry out those tactics. In batting, bowling and fielding they calculated a way they needed to play and for the most they played like it.
To Strauss must go immense congratulations. Those who were at Lord's a little under two years ago to see him anointed as England captain assumed he had also taken delivery of a poisoned chalice. But he seemed at ease in the role from the start. There was something about him that day, something that said he was ready to lead.
Later on, he said that he intended to make players personally responsible for their parts in the team. This has worked to perfection. Players have stood up to be counted partly because Strauss (and Andy Flower, the coach) have made such play of the responsibility of the individual in a team game. It is a simple dictum, as old as the game itself, but it is not always observed.
Several players in this team say privately that Strauss is the best captain they have ever had, which is an easy assertion to make when you are winning but it is what led to the winning that counts. Many so-called experts have pointed to Strauss's lack of tactical acumen as a shortcoming to his captaincy.
This misses the point that Strauss is willing to let carefully plotted strategies work their way through. It may be born partly from the contemporary method of planning victory, looking at hour upon hour of film to spot weaknesses everywhere, whether in opponents or your own team, but he is calmly aware that sooner or later a way should be found through.
If he is not an instinctive cricket captain, he has a serenity in his demeanour (in defiance of the booming voice) which persuades others of his fitness for office. That, as Michael Vaughan, another accomplished captain who owes nothing to England, has often averred, is what matters. If players think you are a leader they follow. In the dark moments there is no greater weapon at a captain's disposal.
England possess no great players at present. They have those capable of greatness. Kevin Pietersen comes closest, but the manner in which Jonathan Trott has begun his international career also begins to suggest that his figures will demand consideration for greatness. Jimmy Anderson bowls great balls and, if he is not a truly great bowler, he has given lie to the notion that there was nothing but misery for him Down Under.
It would be possible to go through the whole team: no great players, plenty of capable ones willing to learn and keep learning. But England really have played for each other. It is why they were able to assimilate as comfortably as bread assimilates butter the two fast bowlers who did not start the series.
Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan (as well as Ajmal Shahzad, who has not yet played) were told by Flower that it was unlikely that England could go through the series with an unchanged team. Perhaps it was stating the bloomin' obvious but players, like all of us, need to be told occasionally that they are not surplus to requirements. Tremlett and Bresnan came into the team seamlessly. In his two matches in the series Tremlett has taken 13 wickets at an average of 19.0; Bresnan came in at Melbourne and took 6 for 75 as if to the manner born.
If the bowlers have been manful throughout, it is significant that in both the Tests won so far England made more than 500 in the first innings. Two of their batsmen, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, average more than 100; two more, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell, above 50. In the draw and the loss they made under 300 and under 200 in the first innings. That is so often where Tests can be won and lost and it is 82 years since England last twice passed 500 in the first innings in Australia (when they did it three times).
This above all is what should concentrate their minds for Sydney. Win there and it really will seem like the Holy Grail. Win there, and why, they can start to think of beating India.
How the urn was retained
Sounds simple, doesn't it? But then why have so many English tourists been so roundly thumped in this country for the past generation? Partly, it is because Australia had a sequence of genuinely remarkable cricketers but partly it was because England were cowed by them. This time England came here with plots for every occasion, coming out of their ears. The upshot was that they felt they could adapt to almost every occasion, and what might have been a cataclysmic blip in Perth apart, they have.
The theory of picking a squad to win the Ashes is always more robust than the practice. Too often, players not in the initial XI are not ready when their turn eventually comes. But as in 1970-71 and 1986-87 – when England also prevailed – the support bowlers have proved eminently capable. Both Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan have shown themselves to be proper Test match bowlers in this series. It may not necessarily last going forward, but their intelligent bowling has counted for much in the past five days.
When a couple of tough chances went begging yesterday morning – with the line all but crossed – it came as a surprise. England have caught splendidly in this series, making tricky little blighters seem like dollies. Their ground fielding has been, by a distance, the best ever by an England side anywhere, perhaps a breakout from their Twenty20 victory last May. Allied to the magnificent wicketkeeping of Matt Prior – a missed stumping on the third afternoon his only genuine blemish of the series – it has made a fundamental difference.
The feeling still persists that if Ponting had somehow contrived a way to make runs, Australia might still have competed. But he did not and they did not. Ponting may not be quite the player he was, but England were on his case instantly, aware that he pushes hard at the ball early on and is not a natural leaver. It paid handsome dividends and the effect on Australia, with vice-captain Michael Clarke all over the place, was catastrophic. Only the experienced Mike Hussey was able to compensate.
While it has not done England much good for the past quarter of a century in most foreign parts, there is no question that the team are genuinely uplifted by the support. They are not paying mere lip service to it and it goes beyond the Barmy Army, which is much too self-satisfied. There are more conventional England supporters all over Melbourne, as there will be in Sydney next week – as there have been all over – and they make the team feel loved, wanted and anxious to please. It matters.
By Australia, that is. While England's panel can give themselves pats on the back all round – even if captain Andrew Strauss had to fall into their laps before they deemed him worthy of the job – Australia have gone searching for a team for the future while trying to win in the present. They have selected two unknown spinners, one of whom has yet to make the final XI, and two batsmen patently not yet fit for purpose. With the others underperforming it has made for ghastly viewing.
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