England v Australia: Don't write off Aussies
when we're underdogs for the Ashes, says Steve Waugh

Former captain Steve Waugh, who upset the odds 24 years ago, tells Robin Scott-Elliot England should be wary of this year’s Ashes tourists

“There was,” says Steve Waugh, “definitely something special about touring England, arriving at Heathrow, coming out… and it’s freezing cold.” He pauses and grins for a moment, then continues. “Being on tour in England was the pinnacle for an Australian cricketer. It still is.”

Come June, few Australian tour parties will leave home having packed such meagre expectations as the squad Michael Clarke – dodgy back allowing – will assemble in Sydney to head for the northern hemisphere’s version of summer. England have issues of their own but they are nothing in comparison to the to-do list Clarke, Mickey Arthur and John Inverarity, respectively captain, head coach and chairman of selectors, need to work through. The Baggy Greens have become battered greens.

The last time a squad set out on an Ashes quest with such similar gloomy forecasts was 24 years ago, the first time a young Steve Waugh made that pilgrimage. In 1989, Australia faced the prospect of a third successive Ashes defeat with a side seemingly held together only by Allan Border’s grizzled leadership – at his disposal was an ageing seam attack, no decent spinner or wicketkeeper and a clutch of young batsmen who gave every sign of being out of their depth. “For six or seven of us it was make-or-break time,” recalls Waugh. It made Waugh.

There are few who can match his subsequent record in England. Only Border and, of course, Don Bradman have scored more Test runs in England for Australia and Bradman, with 102.84, is the only Australian to average more than Waugh’s 74.22. Waugh knows what it takes to succeed in England. The former Australian captain is, though, no nostalgist in bringing up his first Ashes tour, rather he is making a case for why he believes the series is not the foregone conclusion many suggest.

“It’s much the same as when I first toured in ’89 and they said we were the worst team ever to come over – we won 4-0,” he points out. “You play with more freedom when you’re underdogs.”

Waugh accepts there are problems with the batting, and “scars” will have been left by the Indian whitewash, but insists there is genuine cause to regard the stubby as half-full, given the pace bowling resources Inverarity and Co have to choose from.

“Our bowling is as good as our attack has been for the last 30 or 40 years, with the depth and talent coming through,” he says. “We’ve got some unbelievable talent. [Pat] Cummins, who unfortunately won’t be in England but will probably be ready for the Australian series. [Mitchell] Starc and [James] Pattinson are fantastic young bowlers, as good as any I’ve seen. [Josh] Hazelwood is coming through, then you’ve got Jackson Bird, there’s Nathan Couter-Nile, who’s very good. And then [Peter] Siddle, [Mitchell] Johnson, [Ryan] Harris and [Ben] Hilfenhaus – there are 10 bowlers there that are Test standard. When you can take 20 Test wickets, you can win a game. So I think the Ashes will be a lot closer than people are saying.”

If the Ashes are to develop into an even contest then Australia need someone other than the admirable Clarke to make runs. Australia’s batting was a disaster in India, albeit in utterly different conditions than those offered by an English summer. Clarke scored the sole century and averaged close to 50. Steve Smith averaged 40 from a couple of Tests. Starc was next best – below him come the openers Ed Cowan (33) and David Warner (21), while Phil Hughes, a failure last time around in England, managed to average 18, which was at least eight better than Shane Watson.

Back home there is no impatient queue of players demanding a place with weight of runs. The leading scorer in the Sheffield Shield was Ricky Ponting.

“They are in a quandary as to who is the top six,” says Waugh, now an ambassador for Laureus. “I would like to see Shaun Marsh play. He’s a real talent. There’s Nic Maddinson from New South Wales but he probably hasn’t done enough. Then you have the experienced players like George Bailey, Calum Ferguson, who is a talent. He hasn’t scored enough runs but may be ready for that next level. I like Ben Rohrer of NSW.

“At the end of the day the best players probably were in India – Usman Khawaja is a good player, Steve Smith is a talented. We are in a situation now with three or four really talented players but we are not sure whether they are going to make the grade in Test cricket. On the ’89 Ashes tour it was pretty much the same – the jury was out.”

Waugh was part of the Argus review set up in the wake of Australia’s humbling Ashes defeat two years ago. Its recommendations led to Pat Howard, a former rugby union international, being installed as general manager, and Inverarity leading a new-look selection panel that also includes Rod Marsh and Andy Bichel as well as coach and captain. There have been rumblings in the wake of the Indian series that the changes have not solved anything. Cricket Australia has backed Howard, Arthur and Inverarity.

“You’ve got to give people an opportunity to put their plan in action,” instructs Waugh. “I prefer to judge it in 12 months. Yes, we’re going through a bit of change and we’re not winning as much as we used to. That happens in sport. Batting-wise, Mike Hussey was a big loss. They banked on him being there. That leaves a hole.

“To go away from India having lost 4-0 is pretty damaging for a lot of players – particularly the batsmen. Some of those guys are going to have some big mental scars going into the England series.”

Much will depend on Clarke, whose form as captain has been outstanding. The 31-year-old averages 66 as captain compared to 52 in the ranks. He has scored nine centuries in his 24 Tests in charge.

“He is playing so well it’s ridiculous,” says Waugh. “He and [Alastair] Cook have done really well but at some stage they’re not going to score runs and the team’s not going to be playing well. That’s when the true test of captaincy comes out.

“Some people like that responsibility – Allan Border did it well. I enjoyed the pressure of scoring runs when I was captain. Some players are ready for it and take their game to the next level.”

If Clarke stays fit he will play his 100th Test match during the return series that follows in Australia. In all there will be 10 Ashes Tests on the trot – which brings a danger of overkill, suggests Waugh – and it leaves little time for variations in form and fitness.

“If you get into bad form it’s hard to turn it around, so it really is crucial to start the series well,” says Waugh. “England have been hot and cold over the last 12 months. There are some weaknesses. Jimmy Anderson is a key bowler. If he’s injured, that makes a huge difference.

“England are entitled to be favourites in the first series, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we win and by the time Australia comes around, with Pat Cummins coming back, we can win [there].” And there is one more pause, but this time no smile. “Definitely,”  declares Waugh.

The 1989 ‘no-hopers’ who won ashes 4-0

Allan Border’s men, a mix of struggling youngsters and last-chance salooners, arrived in England  labelled one of the weakest Australian sides ever to reach these shores. They were not – far from it. From day one of Test one at Headingley they utterly dominated the series. David Gower put them in, and Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh both made their first Test centuries, Waugh reaching 177 not out, as Australia rattled past 600.

They won the Test by 210 runs. In all, they won four of the six Tests and would probably have won the other two if not for the weather. Waugh made 393 runs before England eventually got him out and the revitalised Terry Alderman took 41 wickets. It began 16 years of Australian dominance of the Ashes.

Waugh's 10 pacemen: can they add up to an Ashes triumph?

Pat Cummins

The 19-year-old is Australia’s great hope. Will miss England tour with a stress fracture of his back but the aim is to have him back for the series Down Under. Took seven wickets in his only Test in South Africa.

Mitchell Starc

Like many on this list, the 23-year-old left-armer has injury problems. Currently out of action in an effort to ensure he’s fully fit for the Ashes. Has 30 wickets from nine Tests.

James Pattinson

The 22-year-old was one of the quartet dropped for not doing their homework in India. Already has 40 wickets from 10 Tests.

Josh Hazlewood

Yet to play a Test but highly rated. The 22-year-old from New South Wales made his one-day debut in England three years ago.

Jackson Bird

Test debut against Sri Lanka on Boxing Day and has 11 wickets in two Tests. The 26-year-old flew home from India with back problems.

Nathan Couter-Nile

The 25-year-old Western Australian toured England with the A side last summer. Was a surprise pick by Mumbai for the IPL – has played one T20 international. 

Peter Siddle

Still only 28. Matured into dependable seamer – did solid shifts in India and made two half-centuries. Has taken 150 wickets in his 41 Tests.

Mitchell Johnson

Returned to the side for the last Test in Delhi but now behind Starc in the left-arm pecking order. Hasn’t take a five-for since 2010.

Ryan Harris

Will have no trouble getting into the UK – he has a British passport. Another who has battled injury. Test record of 47 wickets in 12 games is decent.

Ben Hilfenhaus

The 30-year-old was overlooked for India after dropping out of the side following injury against Sri Lanka late last year. Swings the ball so may well make the cut for England.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back