It's the toughest task in cricket... but England can win in Australia
With Ponting's men vulnerable, the tourists fly south today full of optimism but well aware that Ashes history is against them
By now, Andrew Strauss should be aware of a few harsh, Antipodean truths. Only 12 England captains have brought back the Ashes from Australia. Four of them did so in the century before last. None has done it for 24 years, the last five men to take teams out there have led sides that were pulverised and the most recent suffered the weightiest of humiliations when the series was surrendered 5-0.
Apologies continue to be offered for the shambles of 2006-07, as if no other touring party had suffered retirement, injury, resignation, ennui, or reversal of fortune, which are the permanent lot of tourists anywhere. The urn may as well have been handed over wrapped in pretty paper bearing the emblem of the three lions with a white flag on the top.
All this suggests that, however strong the following wind behind Strauss's squad when they leave today for the latest rematch, they can expect to run into a hurricane on arrival in Perth tomorrow lunchtime. But the captain will also know that history supplies an upside. Of the dozen men to have led the 13 triumphant sides in 32 contests – Arthur Shrewsbury did it twice – four, like Strauss, have been from Middlesex, including the last two.
Given that strike rate, it is only a wonder that the selectors have not tried this ploy before this century. Nothing else has worked and on reflection, of course, this fact alone should have been enough for Strauss to earn the nod over Andrew Flintoff four years ago when England eventually descended to ignominious defeat. What chance could a man of Lancashire possibly have? Mike Gatting, of Middlesex, won only twice in 23 Test matches as captain of England but, crucially, both victories were against Australia in Australia in 1986-87.
Gatting might (rightly and voraciously) have spent many of the succeeding 24 years dining out on the feat but his remains the last England team in Australia to secure perhaps the greatest and most evocative of all international sporting trophies. There are sound reasons, Middlesex or not, for suggesting that Strauss may be instrumental in reducing the number of Gatt's banquet invitations, or at least the resonance of his introduction to the assembled throng.
England are capable of beating Australia this winter, a prediction that can be made with more evidence and certainty than at any time since 1982-83 (when they eventually lost) and that includes Gatting's expedition. The biggest mistake the squad and their followers could make is that it is a cast-iron certainty.
The only statistic firmly in the tourists' favour is that Australia, once not long ago conquerors and kings of all they surveyed, are now fifth in the official world Test rankings and England are fourth. This is cruelly misleading. Australia may have fallen from grace but they have still lost only nine of their last 63 Test series since being edged out by West Indies at home 18 years ago.
Since being beaten by England in that stunning series of 2005 they have, it is true, lost four of 19: two away to India, one in England last year, and one at home to South Africa two winters ago, a defeat they immediately avenged on a return visit. But they still tend to win many more games than they lose, and at home, since they inflicted their gruesome whitewash on England four years ago – a result they claim with some justification that the Poms have airbrushed from history – they have won 12 of 17 starts, including the last six in succession.
Australia are already taking succour from these figures because, in their world view, it gives them reason to believe that they continue to prosper without the legendary players who helped them to sustain such a prolonged pre-eminence. You know who they are, but a great cast is always worth repeating inside and outside Hollywood and Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist (names above the title) and Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer (just below it) would be impossible to replace anywhere at any time. It might be to their immense credit but Australia have continued to win despite their absence, not because of it.
They have been carried along on a tide of self-belief that was the chief legacy of a virtual hegemony lasting 15 years and the knack of finding just enough new players to see them through. Oh that and the bristling nature of their captain these past six, going on seven, years, Ricky Ponting.
His detractors seem to be growing in number, not least because he appeared to give them ammunition on Australia's recent tour of India, when they lost both Tests, albeit the first by a measly margin of one wicket. Ponting is also suffering because of the growing suspicion that his batting is looking over the wrong side of the mountain top. A brilliant career average of 54.51 embracing 39 hundreds cannot disguise a figure of 40.11 with only two centuries in his last 20 Test matches since the beginning of 2009.
But Ponting, as he did on England's last tour after he led Australia to Ashes defeat in 2005, will consider this as a mission for vengeance. Do not suppose he spent his childhood days in Launceston, Tasmania, being persuaded how much the islanders owed to their British forebears. Much more will be spoken and written of this in the next few weeks before the action finally starts in Brisbane on 25 November, but that should not erode its pertinence.
Ponting is still only 35, a batting spring chicken compared to Sachin Tendulkar, his only modern equal in the middle order who has just finished an annus mirabilis in his 38th year. It is nonetheless on Ponting's perceived vulnerability, which in turn aggravates possible weaknesses elsewhere in Australia's batting, that England's attention will focus.
Strauss, the coach Andy Flower, and their back-room staff are meticulous in their planning and their approach. There may be more inspired – though few more statesmanlike – than Strauss but few have proved so canny in being prepared to see through a carefully plotted scheme. There have been occasions when it might have been wished that Strauss would change things for the sake of it. Equally, he has tended to resist that for the sake of the plan and has been eventually rewarded.
Under Strauss, partly, but only partly, thanks to the way of the Test fixture list, England have become used to winning again. They have avoided India, the new No 1 side, since his tenure began and they eked out a 1-1 draw in South Africa last winter.
Most relevantly of all, of course, they beat Australia at home last summer when all the most significant individual performances in the series came from opponents who had six of the seven leading run scorers, the top three wicket-takers and still lost 2-1. That was a series that showed all the virtues of cricket as a team game. It is what should keep England warm even if they freeze under an Australian onslaught in the next two months.
Strauss appears to have some players at or approaching the peak of their games, while Australia cannot be sure. Graeme Swann embarks today utterly defying convention, an orthodox finger spinner who is also the leading slow bowler in the world. It is not too much of a stretch to propose the motion that Swann, after only 24 Test matches, is second only to Jim Laker among all English off-break bowlers. The next 10 weeks will determine its validity.
Until now, it is possible that Swann has thrived because not much has been expected of him. All that has changed and he must hope two things against hope – that Australia's line-up continues to feature a plethora of left-handers and that the umpires continue, as they should, to look favourably on granting lbw appeals.
It will not be all down to Swann (and, given their relative paucity in the slow bowling department, Australia might attempt to neuter him by slogging and creating pitches enabling the deed) but he will be a frequent key in creating a bridgehead from which the seamers can operate.
As for England's batting, it does not inspire automatic confidence. Strauss will be required to score almost twice the 247 runs he mustered in the last away Ashes series. If Jonathan Trott can continue to demonstrate his old-fashioned worth as a Test batsman, Kevin Pietersen can regain a semblance of form and Ian Bell can deliver on that abundant promise – no longer a whimsical aspiration that – then there will be enough runs against Australian bowling, which England must always remember is not what it was.
So much to play for, so much to anticipate, no better place to be for anybody who recognises what sport and cricket and the Ashes above all represent. Strauss can be the 13th man.
Days to the Ashes
27 Number of matches won, from 34 games, by Australia on their 'Invincibles' tour of England in 1948. Winning the five-Test series 4-0 to retain the urn, Don Bradman's team remained unbeaten for the whole of the tour, winning 27 and drawing seven.
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