James Lawton: Bring on the heat of the Ashes in high summer of sport
Buoyed by recent historic triumphs, many are predicting an English whitewash - but Michael Clarke's Australians are very capable of making the series unforgettable
It seems that some people just don't know their place in this latest high summer of British sport. They think they can lurk around the neighbourhood while hardly drawing a glance, except when throwing a late-night punch at a newly installed young national hero, then march in to spoil the party.
If you doubt this you must have missed the talk of an old and desperate foe leaping at English throats at the dawn of the latest Ashes battle at Trent Bridge this morning.
Unfortunately, almost all of it bears an Australian accent. However, if this is not good for dramatic balance we have to remember that sometimes you have to say damn to certain realities.
This is especially so if you happen to be an Aussie. Who can really be surprised that a bunch of them, their pride almost submerged under great heaps of Pommy scorn all spring and summer, their skipper and one proven world-class player Michael Clarke as delicately fragile as a piece of Dresden china, is declaring that news of a historic slaughter of the men wearing the green baggies is distinctly premature?
Or that the old warrior Ricky Ponting, who carries amid so many brilliant achievements deep scars from his Ashes experiences on this soil, still has the nerve to predict a 2-1 triumph for his former team-mates?
No, we shouldn't be startled by this as Nottinghamshire's native son Graeme Swann jokes about impending knighthoods and the wider populace pile on the absurd 12-1 bet that, despite the treacheries of the English summer, Alastair Cook's team is heading for a sure-fire 5-0 whitewash.
An unadorned statement of the current balance of power, you might say, but if Ashes history has taught us anything it is surely the folly of kicking an Australian when he is down.
They are, we should understand by now, just not susceptible to such treatment. Whether on this occasion they can augment their historic competitive instincts with some basic Test-class performance and see from, say, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson serious evidence that they might become part of a great tradition of Australian pace bowling, or that James Faulkner carries at least a scrap of potential as a dangerous all-rounder, is of course an entirely different question.
It is a huge one, no doubt, but as England tick off all their strengths, if they celebrate the return of a rehabilitated Kevin Pietersen and anticipate James Anderson's latest attempt to prove beyond all doubt that he has become the world's most accomplished swing bowler, they might also be wise to linger over their own principal weakness.
It is, let's remember before it is too late, a certain tendency to run ahead of achievement. We saw a grim example of this just 12 months ago when, after years of superb advancement under the stewardship of Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss, the No 1 ranking in Test cricket was swept away by the force and intensity of Graeme Smith's South Africa. It happened under the shadow of the Olympics but it was no less telling for that.
Not only were England thrashed, they were guilty of the most adolescent civil war, an egotistical morass which had Pietersen at its gluey centre and Strauss, who had done so much to heal the wounds which came when the former lost the captaincy, nursing regrets that still clearly cloud the memory of years of outstanding performance as both a batsman and a captain.
Strauss, in his new role as a commentator, has already warned about the dangers of a dressing room losing sight of the need for unity and undistracted application, and it is a caution which simply cannot go unheeded.
We do not have to go too far back in Ashes history to be reminded of the consequences and when the likes of Freddie Flintoff and Sir Ian Botham speak not only of a huge English triumph this summer but also the likelihood of the whitewash, we hardly need to ransack memory to recall why the last such devastation occurred – and why England were the victims.
There were aggravated circumstances, not least the indisposition of the inspiring captain of the 2005 Ashes triumph, Michael Vaughan, but when Australia wiped out England 5-0 in the 2006-07 series for some it was a disaster that might have been avoided by a team less willing to believe that success in England could be so easily replicated Down Under.
After the great breakthrough of 2005, Vaughan was at pains to say that the greatest challenge facing England was not their ability to perform at the highest level – that had been made clear enough in a glorious summer – but whether they would stay competitively honest.
The virtuoso of the 2005 series, Flintoff, was misguidedly given the captaincy and if ever there was a victim of hubris it was the big man.
Ponting said that he was sure there would be a statement of maximum revenge when his beaten team flew back from England. He said that he looked into the eyes of his players and saw that there was an absolute determination to regain lost ground. As it happened, England collapsed desperately in the second Test in Adelaide and what happened from then on could only be described as gruesome.
Plainly, England are free from such risk in the rest of this summer. Pietersen swears that he has absorbed finally the team ethic along with his belief that he can reannounce himself as arguably cricket's most gifted and destructive batsman.
Cook still rides early success and an astounding accumulation of runs. Jonathan Trott suggests that he may have had a revealing moment on his road to Damascus, a dawning sense that he goes to the crease and his elaborate rituals on behalf of the team as well as himself. Joe Root is the darling of the crowd, a choirboy figure with the will of a prizefighter. And then of course there is the bombardment promised by Anderson and Stuart Broad and Steven Finn and the apparently euphoric Swann.
So of course, the Australians are obliged to make fighting talk. They have to believe in Clarke's ability to return quickly to the vein of form which makes him one of the game's outstanding batsman and, also, a captain who recently received the highest praise from one of his predecessors Ian Chappell.
"Michael Clarke," said the man who once so seriously provoked the great Botham, "is a very rare Test captain. Everything he does is tied up with the fact that he wants to win every match he plays. In today's game this is an exceptional quality and I think it will serve him and the team very well."
How well, how quickly, though, is the haunting question for all of Australia and no doubt England will be eager to pose it in the most abrasive way this morning. They are certainly equipped to launch a harrowing prosecution.
Still, it is one which might just benefit from a touch of caution. Who knows, this morning the Australians might just remember who they are supposed to be. Then, even the most complacent England would have to see the danger.
First Ashes Test: Trent Bridge details
England A N Cook (c), J E Root, J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, J M Bairstow, M J Prior (wk), G P Swann, S C J Broad, J M Anderson, S T Finn.
Australia S R Watson, C J L Rogers, D A Warner, M J Clarke (c), B J Haddin (wk), P W Siddle, M A Starc, J L Pattinson, N M Lyon, E J M Cowen. P J Hughes.
Umpires Aleem Dar (Pak) and Kumar Dharmasena (S Lanka)
Weather Cloudy and cool with some sunshine. Maximum temp: 19C
Pitch report Bone dry, should be full of runs but should also offer reverse swing and may break up early to bring spinners into play.
First Test odds England win 4-5; Australia win 3-1; Draw 3-1.
Television Sky Sports Ashes, 10.00-19.00
Ashes series fixtures
First Test 10-14 - Trent Bridge
Second 18-22 July - Lord's
Third 1-5 August - Old Trafford
Fourth 9-13 August - Chester-le-Street
Fifth 21-25 August - The Oval
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