England poised on the threshold

By Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

There may have been times when cricket was bigger in this country than it is now, though it was probably five monarchs, 30 prime ministers and 70 Test captains ago. It has had its huge moments over the years and for some people it always was the new rock 'n' roll, if principally because they considered Elvis Presley to be a son of Satan and the old rock 'n' roll had thus passed them by.

The difference this time is simply because England are giving Australia a game (and who knows, a beating) after so long. At Trent Bridge, beginning on Thursday, England have an opportunity to lead an Ashes series at such a stage for the first time since 1985. It is now well within their scope, so well and aggressively have they played, but in their minds too will be the fact that this is where the Ashes could be lost yet again. If Australia somehow win, that will be that no matter what happens at The Oval. He who holds the Ashes only has to draw subsequent series to keep them.

England have gone longer periods without the Ashes than the current 16 years, such as the 19 years between 1934 and 1953, but never so many series. Australia were arguably as pre-eminent then as they have been in recent times, but England have had to make up a much bigger gap both in playing terms and in public esteem. In doing so, they have merely tapped into the latent passion for the game. Together with Australia, of course, they have also exhibited why Test cricket is the most resplendent and pure form of the great game (and also shown, incidentally, as the match at Old Trafford demonstrated and why Americans will never take to cricket, that draws after five days are compelling).

The two most recent seasons to which this can be compared are 1975, when a grey-haired, 33-year-old bloke called David Steele captivated the nation by taking the fight to Australia under a new captain called Tony Greig; and 1981, when Ian Botham overwhelmed Australia what seemed like single-handedly after Mike Brearley was recalled as captain by the chairman of selectors ringing him from a call box.

But this is so very different because it is so unexpected and because there is so much attention on it. Cricket, lovely cricket - someone should write a song about it - is head to toe and wall to wall. It is standing on its own feet and has subsumed the start of the football season.

And so to the Fourth npower Test. Among all the other welcome chat about the resumption of cricket's place at the top of the national agenda has been some psycho-babble. Not all of this has been emanating from the lips of Australia's coach, John Buchanan.

Much of it has centred on whether Australia now have the advantage because they escaped with a draw after being outplayed in Manchester. The only possible answer is that they may, or they may not. A measure of their susceptibility, however, is that they asked Somerset to recruit their reserve leg-spinner, Stuart MacGill. No doubt Somerset bit off the Australians' hand, but the deal was scuppered with MacGill en route to the county because of red tape.

It is also being said that Australia have not played as well as they can. This is probably because England are not allowing them to do so. In any case, it could also be said that England could show improvement in certain areas themselves.

By any lights, this has been an extraordinary comeback since the débâcle at Lord's, and you would prefer to be in charge of England at present. However, England's record against Australia in Nottingham is barely more impressive than at Lord's. Perhaps it does not have such resonance, but they have not won an Ashes match there since 1977, when Geoff Boycott made his comeback after three years, ran out the local hero Derek Randall and went on to make his 98th first-class hundred to set up the possibility, which became reality, of his 100th in the Headingley Test. In all, England have won only three matches of 19 against Australia there since 1899.

There is no Boycott and there is no local hero, since Kevin Pietersen, who decamped from Nottinghamshire to Hampshire, hardly comes into that category. England do not need such benefits. This might not be the best team they could field now, given form and the state of the summer, but the value of the team cannot be underestimated. It is why Australia have been so reluctant to make changes, despite glaring losses of form and maybe, too, of class.

England's 12 will be unchanged, and so will their 11 as long as nobody is injured in the nets or the warm-up. The worries about their batting have receded, since everybody in the top six has now made a substantial contribution. Of the bowlers, Matthew Hoggard has to give the captain, Michael Vaughan, a reason for giving him more overs. So far he has made a nonsense of supposedly being the side's workhorse. This could be his moment. If the weather is fine, the ball will swing and swing is Hoggard's strength. He has only played twice at Trent Bridge in his career, both times in Test matches. He has taken a total of seven fairly expensive wickets but he has usually taken early ones. Hoggard has it in him to produce one sterling performance, though in truth it may not be required.

It has taken Simon Jones a long time to work his way back after his long injury. But he is bowling with true confidence again. Still, look for Stephen Harmison to knock off more than Australian blocks sometime soon, and look for Andrew Flintoff to do most things he wants.

Doubts must remain about Geraint Jones's keeping, though it was typical of his competitive spirit that after receiving a mauling for his aberrations he should take the catch of the series on Monday.

Australia will not be going quietly, but England have come back wonderfully after Lord's. In Vaughan they have an innovative, steely captain. They have created this position themselves and will never have a better opportunity of seizing the Ashes for say another 70 captains.