James Lawton: England reincarnation serves to silence Australia's strident fans
Friday 05 August 2005
Fanatics Australia - the "i" in fanatics is made in the shape of the Ashes Urn on their yellow T-shirts - is a version of the Barmy Army, though there are some crucial differences.
The main ones are that they watch the cricket quite intently and are dead set against dressing up as nuns. In fact, their one compromise with a particularly robust form of machismo on a long, trying day came when they sang briefly, "I'd rather be a poofter than a Pom."
This was a gesture of some defiance as the much despised England were approaching 300 for the loss of a mere four wickets at the time. Also, the shock of losing Glenn McGrath in a morning mishap had just been compounded by news that the great man was extremely doubtful for next week's third Test at Old Trafford.
Even more disturbingly, England were showing every sign of believing they could put behind them much, if not all, of the psychological damage sustained in the first Test disaster at Lord's.
Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss, Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen at times look rather more than healed. There were times when they were utterly masterful, Trescothick - a rabbit in the Shane Warne headlights at Lord's - pummelling Brett Lee for 18 runs in one over just before lunch and Flintoff heaving five sixes. Before that last onslaught he had been so uncertain one Australian cry seemed to signal another English collapse. "The bat's not for decoration, Flintoff," shouted the Aussie.
After a series of inexplicably feeble shots had threatened to undermine England's extraordinary aggression, the Wyatt Stand was gripped with the old belief than an Australian recovery was inevitable. But then, slowly, came the resigned acceptance that an England first-innings total of 407 on a day when they had been put in under an overcast sky on a recently tornado-affected pitch, and just less than two weeks after an almost ritual slaughter, was really some of the most spectacular work since Lazarus picked up his bed.
Even Ashley Giles, whose general demeanour since defeat at Lord's had been causing alarm in the England camp, despite statements to the contrary, came out to bat with something that began to resemble soaring conviction.
It was a sharp sadness for him that his wicket, after an accomplished 23 runs, should fall to his nemesis Warne, and especially when he sharply disagreed with the umpire's verdict, but Giles, too, was a man who seemed to be humming the Redemption Song.
Watching and hearing all this impact on the Aussies was surely the best sideshow in Birmingham. Kevin Pietersen is the man who draws most of the Fanatics Australia ire and one jibe might have provoked a frown in some low tavern in Sydney's King's Cross, not to mention to the Old Hill in the SCG. "Pietersen, you're a bloody Yarpie soft cock," the young and powerful South African was told. It didn't help the morale of the heckler that Pietersen almost immediately struck an imperious six. Given the tone of the debate, it might just have been that Pietersen's resistance was stiffening.
There was no doubt about the difficulties of the Australian day. The McGrath accident was freakish and devastating. It intruded into the confident Australian swagger, and it took several hours and the dismissal of the England openers, plus another cheap removal of Michael Vaughan, to bring back a little gusto.
This re-emerged most passionately when Pietersen was joined at the wicket by Geraint Jones, the Australian-reared wicketkeeper who had, with Giles, come out of the Lord's débâcle most scarred. "There's no Englishman on the field," chanted Fanatics Australia, who had of course seized on the absurdity of an English Test cricket field containing 12 Australians, two South Africans, one an umpire, and a Kiwi, another umpire.
That official, Billy Bowden, had brought on himself a torrent abuse from the Wyatt Stand when he twice dismissed appeals by Warne against Giles in one over. But upon reflection the Australians chanted that they would still rather be a Kiwi than a Pom.
When Pietersen moved powerfully into the seventies, he naturally became an even bigger target. "Three cheers for work permits," cried one leader of the hecklers, but as the day wore on the easy old taunts were becoming ever more strained.
In the end there was an unwilling but hardly avoidable concession. The dead men of Lord's had sprung back back to life. The bitterness against Pietersen was, though, perhaps understandable. As at Lord's, his confidence stood directly in the path of any Australian belief that England had, for all the promise of the previous two years, little or no chance of reversing 18 years of Ashes history
His power of concentration is as immense as some of his stroke-making is unpredictable. Some shots, particularly on the leg side, seemed to owe as much to Roger Federer as Bradman and Hutton, but in him the Australians see a little of their own kind.
They see a fighter of vast self-belief. That was something that left the Australians, abruptly, shockingly, in the morning when McGrath was forced to step down. Whether or not it returns today is the issue that will rivet Edgbaston.
Yesterday there were moments when it seemed that the fight and the confidence was back in Australian hearts and minds, but each time England had the nerve to battle on.
It was the strangest of sensations. Elsewhere in the ground, some allowed the belief that it might be rather more than that. They had history on their minds, but as Fanatics Australia were keen to tell them, these were bloody early doors, mates.
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