James Lawton in Adelaide: The harder they fall
Defeat in the last Ashes series cemented a sense of relentless purpose in Ricky Ponting's Australia, which they seem certain to carry into the second Test
Thursday 30 November 2006
There is something addictive about watching Australia work in the nets. The rhythm of it reminds you of one of the best pre-fight work-outs, when a Roberto Duran or a Sugar Ray Leonard used to reach a level of intensity that the only proper reaction was awe. One ringsider once said that it was surprising the trainers did not arm themselves with chairs and whips. They weren't working fighters; they were taming lions. It was a little like this at the Adelaide Oval yesterday, even when in mid-afternoon the temperature touched 98 degrees.
Training can create myths, of course. Old pros say that one minute of real action is worth hours of superb practice, and for England here it is a notion to prize - a haymaking delivery from Andrew Flintoff perhaps, or another surge of virtuosity from Kevin Pietersen, and maybe the aura of the resurrected Oz can yet be broken.
But then it is also true that at these nets it is not easy to question the thunderous Australian belief in regained momentum. There is simply no pause, no rumination. The declaration of the captain, Ricky Ponting, that his team has, at least in some of its key components, and perhaps for one last time, found itself again, is supported by a quite seamless flow of effort.
In the shimmering heat, for a little while at least, Australian cricket has been reunited with its past as it attempts to win back the future. For what ghosts of a great past still occupy this place. Sir Don Bradman came here from New South Wales and redoubled his legend. The Chappell brothers, Ian and Greg, made their names at Australia's most beautiful cricket ground. Now it seems that the great tradition is indeed alight again. It is a powerful suggestion in the expression of players like Justin Langer and Ponting as they go about their work; it is an edge, a restlessness that was once ascribed to the greatest Australian all-rounder of them all, Keith Miller. A Second World War fighter pilot, it was said of Miller that at the peak of competition he carried an expression so alert, so fired, that he might have been scanning the sky for an enemy plane.
For Ponting's team the enemy is the possibility of Australian cricket's hardest fall from grace, another Ashes loss. In the hours before their latest challenge they seem intent on hunting it down.
For the sake of a little English peace of mind, however, it has to be reported that Glenn McGrath, the 36-year-old who claimed seven of their wickets at the Gabba a few days ago, did take an early break from the three-hour work session. His bruised heel was still a little sensitive, a team official said, so the great man merely put the pads on and batted for half an hour. He left with an assurance for a small army of anxious fans that he would be perfectly fine on the dawn of tomorrow's second Test. If he wasn't, young Shaun Tait swiftly announced, Australia would not be without an option of a certain potency. The 23-year-old local hero promptly sent down a barrage of deliveries so quick and so menacing that they created a heat haze of their own.
Still, the net aficionados said, it was a pity that McGrath was in wraps because the last time Australia worked in the Adelaide nets he and his opening partner, Brett Lee, put on a show that was already part of cricket folklore hereabouts. Three stacks of soft-drink cans were placed in line with the wickets at those points which would represent perfectly pitched deliveries. Six balls were delivered, alternately, by McGrath and Lee, working from left to right. Each ball shattered the tins.
However, such a cabaret might not have been injected into yesterday's work even if McGrath had been going full bore. The overwhelming suspicion has to be that this is an Australian team which will be no more subject to distraction and humour than a dedicated firing squad right up to the moment the Ashes yielded in England in the summer of 2005 are regained.
Yesterday in the nets we had the choreography of absolute commitment - a mood that was underlined when the opening batsman Matthew Hayden, one of the veterans who took defeat in England especially hard, dismissed the possibility of any serious menace in England's expected selection of two spinners, Monty Panesar and Ashley Giles. "I don't think," he declared, "this Australian batting line-up has too much threat from either of these players. We are confident because we had to answer some hard questions - like are we still hungry, can we be ruthless again? We think we have answered those questions but we also know we have to keep doing so for four more Test matches.
"At the Gabba we were everything we promised ourselves to be in the 14 months since we lost the Ashes, and I can tell you we remain in that state of mind. After Brisbane England are now being asked the questions we have had to answer. Are you still hungry? Or are you fragmented? Look, let's be clear, we didn't begrudge the English their celebrations when they beat us, and you know in one way the Australian people have been celebrating the reverse side in that it is true it had been almost monotonous the way their great team had been beating people."
Ponting's current intensity is remarkable even in the tradition of cricket's finest nation of recent years. He says that the seed of recovery was sown as early as the flight home from England.
"In England it seemed as though we couldn't do anything right after taking the first Test at Lord's, but you know I couldn't have been prouder of this bunch of players than when we first arrived home. We were playing the Rest of the World in something called the Super Series but you know I had the feeling we truly bounced back and applied ourselves and it gave me the feeling that no matter who we happened to be playing, we were bound to win. You could just see it in the guys' eyes.
"We've been able to maintain that for a long period of time now with one eye on the first Ashes Test; now that's gone, we've just got to make sure it carries on the same way. I suppose what we discovered in England was that it is always going to hurt when you lose, and this is something maybe you have to relearn after a lot of success. We came home from England thinking, 'We are better than that'. Now I don't think we have any greater pressure than England... in fact, at the Gabba I thought we were able to play pretty much pressure-free. We talked about the situation after the first day's play. I said, 'Look, it's no good having one good day. In our position there is no alternative... we just have to keep having good days. What we did today is irrelevant now. It won't mean anything if we don't back it up'. What we have to do is play good, hard Test cricket for five days."
In the nets that resolve has been an intense reality. Hayden says it is engendered by a belief that ground has been regained that can never be surrendered again, not at least in what is left of his own playing days. The Queenslander is 35 and those playing days are no doubt drawing near to their close. But then what better reason to play - and to work - as if there may be only one tomorrow? England, there can be no mistake, are facing no ordinary challenge, no ordinary team. They have to break down a booming state of mind - and a great weight of history.
Probable Adelaide XIs
R T Ponting (capt)
J L Langer
M L Hayden
D R Martyn
M E K Hussey
M J Clarke
A C Gilchrist (wkt)
S K Warne
S R Clark
G D McGrath
A Flintoff (capt)
A J Strauss
A N Cook
I R Bell
P D Collingwood
K P Pietersen
G O Jones (wkt)
A F Giles
M J Hoggard
S J Harmison
M S Panesar
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