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