England set off for Australia today with the intention and the expectation of making history. By early January, perhaps sooner, they ought to have won the Ashes for the fourth consecutive time.
Most of the usually significant portents are in the tourists’ favour. England have the more experienced and settled team in which every man knows his job, does it accordingly and often prodigiously. They are accustomed to winning and against these opponents recently they have won when they might easily have lost.
Not since the late 19th century, when series were rarely of five matches, have England defeated Australia four times in a row. They have had their opportunities.
They missed the chance in 1982-83, though that was slightly misleading because the period before coincided with the upheaval of World Series Cricket. This meant that one of the Ashes victories was against vastly under-strength opposition and a series in which they lost all three Tests the following year did not, for political reasons, have the Ashes at stake.
No, the last time that England went to Australia in this frame of mind as world-beaters was in September, 1958. The squad embarked on the SS Iberia – it was the last time the whole trip was made by boat – with every reason to think that they would embellish their status as the best team around.
They had beaten Australia in 1953, 1954-55 and 1956, and had wiped the floor with New Zealand at home in the preceding summer. They had in their ranks men of class who are still considered copper-bottomed legends of the game.
Five months later they came home with their tails between their legs, beaten 4-0. England were unhappy about the method of their demise since at least four of the Australian bowlers had questionable actions but they were not thrown to defeat, they were undone largely by the paucity of their batting, with the ball going across right-handers on fast, bouncy pitches.
If only for a fleeting moment, in a nod at the past, the present players might consider that as they settle into their seats tonight at Heathrow. Of course, they have the inside track on Australia in a way that their forebears did not: sophisticated analysis and computer wizardry has seen to that.
But computers and their masters can only guide and advise, they cannot wield the bat and it is perhaps instructive that Australia may well attack England once more with left-arm bowlers. In Mitchell Starc, they have a mercurial performer who under-achieved in England last summer, in Mitchell Johnson they have a still more capricious player who is capable of great things and whose form in the one-day series at the end of the English season was a like an irresistible letter of application for the Ashes at home.
If England were undone 55 years ago partly by the shortcomings of their batsmen, it was also in part because the selection of veteran players failed. Five of them played little or no Test cricket again.
That should not apply this time and if some of England’s players are entering the autumn of their careers, it is that part of it where there are still leaves on the tree and the nights have not drawn in. Retirements, of course, can never be entirely unexpected.
Two of this squad, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, have the chance of appearing for the fifth time in a victorious Ashes team, something achieved by the likes of Geoff Boycott and Ian Botham but not by Jack Hobbs, who played against Australia from 1907 to 1930.That is the measure of the achievement that awaits England and for all that bookmakers are quoting the tourists at 10-11 (with 25-1 the whitewash, ha, ha, ha) the difficulties of winning in Australia should not be underestimated. England last did so twice in succession in 1928-29 and 1932-33 but had the misfortune in between of losing at home in 1930.
It is clear that Australians are fed up of their team – they never did like losers – but they are more fed up of losing to the Poms. England are not popular. If this may be mostly because they keep winning when sometimes logic says they should be losing, it is also because of the cut of their jib.
They are quite willing to eschew entertaining cricket, which is sometimes appropriate and sometimes silly, but it is more than that. They have ceased to conduct themselves with much joie de vivre, as if the job’s the thing and nothing else, and if they can regain a little of that this winter they will find it worthwhile.
Eleven of the squad, which may well be the team that starts the series if Tim Bresnan is fit, were handed central contracts yesterday. They will last a year, though the overall deal is for six years, which suggests at least that both management and players – all the players one hopes – are happy with life, including participation in the Indian Premier League. We shall see.
Three years ago, England’s 3-1 victory was as splendid as sport can be. They planned meticulously and executed impeccably. It was a true team effort in which each member seemed genuinely to feed of the successes of the others. It was a joy to behold.
This commodity cannot be bottled, as England discovered a few months ago during their successful home series. The cricket was frequently thrilling but for all their endeavour, there was something somehow heartless about much of it.
The nitty gritty of the series ahead, which starts on 21 November after three warm-up matches, seems to concern the manner in which England will aspire to take wickets. They have four gigantic fast bowlers who will come down from the sky. The bouncer or the rearing ball will be in plentiful supply.
The batting is where England must ensure a rich harvest because bowling is Australia’s greater strength. The captain, Alastair Cook, will be both scrutinised and targeted. If he comes through it all relatively unscathed and with his usual aplomb all be well.
Otherwise, a door may open for Australia who are already talking the talk. Walking the walk, however, is a different matter altogether.