James Lawton: Beware of the wounded Australian... that's when they are at their most dangerous
'You just can't hide at The Gabba when it's delivery day. By the start of play, no matter what has gone on before, Australia will be re-formed as a unit'
Tuesday 23 November 2010
Matthew Hayden's arrival as a television chef owing a lot more to Crocodile Dundee than Nigella Lawson is an impressive career development but we surely know the dish that deep down will always be his favourite.
Unsurprisingly enough, it does not involve too much fancy cooking. We are, of course, talking about the raw red meat of the Ashes conflict which breaks out again here at The Gabba on Thursday morning.
No one sought to wage the war of revenge – ideally taken hot and ferociously – more belligerently than the big-hitting opener when England were slaughtered here 5-0 four years ago and now, with Australian chances of another comeback from a humiliating series defeat being dismissed by most everybody except certain cold-eyed bookmakers, he wishes to make one small point.
It has no less impact because no doubt it already figures high in the calculations of England's splendidly down-to-earth skipper Andrew Strauss.
Hayden says, "Beware of the wounded cricketer". Be especially aware, he implies, of the wounded Australian cricketer.
Hayden's most challenging theory is that while England have been almost purring with pleasure over the smoothness of their preparation – and the remnants of the mighty Australian team of 2006-07 and the replacements of men like McGrath, Warne, Langer, Hayden and Gilchrist have been dismissed as inhabitants of a much lower cricket order – the world-weary guys in the baggy green caps are still more than capable of plundering English confidence.
If Hayden's claims seem to veer to the outlandish when you feed in the extent of Australia's recent disarray, and the waspish criticism from Warne of the selection policy launched by the new permanent selector Greg Chappell, it is hard to deny Hayden's point that if anywhere is made for an ambush of the English it is surely the hard, green strip awaiting them here.
Hayden makes the additional claim that if England have been pleased with their acclimatisation in places like Perth, Adelaide and Hobart, they might have been hiding from the cold edge of what might just happen over the next few days.
He says, "You just can't hide at The Gabba when it's delivery day and, don't forget, by the start of play on Thursday, no matter what has gone on before, Australia will be re-formed as a unit. That might not look so impressive right now but you know a lot can happen in just an over or two.
"Remember the last Ashes Test here when [Steve] Harmison bowled that ball to second slip and the world had its mouth open, not to mention Justin Langer, who was down at the other end and wondering if he was on the wrong track. There is no backing away from those first few minutes."
England might just have reason to advise the old warrior to get back to his skillet and back-country recipes. Certainly, they can point out that under the command of coach Andy Flower and Strauss, much of the hubris that affected England the last time they appeared here has been smelted away.
Michael Vaughan, who argued so fiercely that his team stay honest and competitive after the 2005 Ashes triumph in England and the fête that followed, was kept out of the action by injury and if Freddie Flintoff had so many great qualities they did not include the capacity for a hard-headed appraisal of the priorities of the captaincy.
Despite the superior psychology of this England team, however – and the fact that only Kevin Pietersen's form is currently a cause for worry – it is hard to deny Hayden at least a little working credence.
It is easy to forget that, if England's repossession of the Ashes last year was splendidly achieved, it was also extremely hard run. That doesn't diminish some outstanding individual performances, and the impressive growth of team unity, but nor does it say that the Australians are necessarily hopeless cases - or that England will not be asked some extremely penetrating questions when a crowd of around 45,000 gather on Thursday.
What we have, quite as deliciously as anything Hayden might rustle up on his camp fire, is nothing less than an Australian attempt to recreate what they most like to believe about themselves. It is that they know how to fight, whether their health is rude or as anaemic as many claim it to be right now, they know how to "give it a go, mate".
When Hayden talks about a wounded cricketer he is really talking about an uncertain sporting nation, one which is beginning to fret that many of the old assumptions of glory have been swept away.
Somewhat lost in the Ashes speculation, for example, is the fact that, for the first time in 20 years, the country that gave us Dawn Fraser and Ian Thorpe, cannot claim a single No 1 ranked swimmer in an Olympic event.
For so long Australia was the world's most formidable pound-for-pound sporting nation. You could whistle in the bush and summon a Bradman or a Hoad, a Warne or Laver. Now an obscure, left-arm slow bowler named Xavier Doherty is called up to bemuse the Poms. He may confound his critics, but at 28 he is unlikely to announce the arrival of the new Warne.
Certainly, the English have no duty to be impressed, especially not with Graeme Swann's belief that he is the best spinner in the world showing little sign of faltering beneath the theory that one basic Australian strategy will be to attack him from his first delivery.
However, they may be wise to accept that Matthew Hayden is doing a little more than stirring up some old dish of Ashes propaganda – especially when he says that on Thursday morning his old team-mates could find no better place to do a little wounding of their own.
Ancelotti looks like the latest victim of club's bad manager management
One of the more outlandish theories pursued around here was that the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti by Roman Abramovich did not have a lot of point.
Why hire one of the greatest football men around and then do to him what you did to Jose Mourinho, who whatever you thought of some of his attitudes and style was demonstrably a brilliant guardian of the Russian's wealth, as he had been for Porto and would be for the reigning champions of Europe?
Better to give the job, so went the theory, to an engaging front man guaranteed at least a certain amount of sympathy and respect on the terraces – someone like Gianfranco Zola.
As it turned out at West Ham, the great and beloved player of Chelsea could have done with the job, but on what terms for a proud professional?
Ancelotti was done another disservice here when his reaction to the squalid sacking of Ray Wilkins was portrayed as evasive. Ancelotti subsequently made clear his feelings about having an ill-qualified assistant imposed upon him from upstairs. He is also making little attempt to disguise his disquiet over Abramovich's apparent belief that any manager, however distinguished, however brilliant his performance on his behalf, will never be more than a well-paid functionary.
It is looking like another travesty of how to handle a man hugely equipped to build a consistently winning football team.
After Eto'o incident Platini needs an instant rethink on television evidence
It didn't take long for Uefa president Michel Platini's declaration that he will always prefer a referee to some guy sitting in front of a television screen to look like another failure to grasp that football is now a decade into the 21st century.
A guy sitting in front of a television screen would surely have noticed at the weekend, as one did unofficially but vitally in the 2006 World Cup final, that one player had flagrantly headbutted another.
Zinedine Zidane was eventually sent off in Berlin but now Samuel Eto'o, who committed the same offence in Internazionale's game with Chievo, may or may not pay the price of his offence after a television review.
It is stunning that the rulers of football continue to avoid an issue that was surely settled for all time when Thierry Henry cheated for all the world to see instantly as France beat Ireland in a World Cup play-off and Frank Lampard was denied a legitimate goal in another quite important match a few months later.
The great Platini may think he is protecting the tradition of the game he graced so beautifully. Sadly, he is not. He is betraying it.
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