James Lawton: One by one Australia stood up to be counted. Strauss and Co must do the same
A legion of the damned returns from the dead to pose a test of character for opponents who had previously outplayed them
Monday 20 December 2010
Whatever the eruption at the Waca means to Australian cricket, including whether it will deflect for too long concern at the running down of the talent stock, there is no doubt about the implication for England.
It is that the team which looked so vastly superior in Brisbane and Adelaide, which batted with infinitely more touch and confidence than any of their opponents except for the timeless Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin, and which bowled far more convincingly and fielded on an entirely superior level, has to do rather more than merely hang on to the Ashes in Melbourne and Sydney.
Andrew Strauss's team must show something that Ricky Ponting's did in Perth when the pressure reached a maximum level.
They must show that, along with some of the most enviable talent in world cricket, they have also something that might be described, even with vague optimism, as fighting heart.
This was something that wasn't called upon at either The Gabba or the Adelaide Oval.
Once the shock waves of Peter Siddle's hat-trick on the opening day of the series had subsided, England were able to make their opponents look nothing more than over-matched. Alastair Cook, Strauss and Jonathan Trott hoarded second-innings runs, over 500 of them for the loss of one wicket.
Sharing a plane with the Aussie team travelling to Adelaide was rather like stepping on to a galley transporting a legion of the damned.
You had to be in the country to truly gauge the level of national dismay, which spawned not only the dropping of the nation's most productive seam bowler, Mitch Johnson, but a widespread yearning for the return of something tangible, even portly, to remind them of the time when Australia were the world's No 1 team, but unfortunately Shane Warne had more compelling business, not least the courting of one of the enemy, Liz Hurley.
So Johnson was required to get off his cricket deathbed, or psychiatrist's couch, and produce one of the most stunning instant comebacks in the history of big-time sport. Ryan Harris, called up desperately but to no avail in Adelaide, had to remove some of the splattered egg superimposed on the faces of the Aussie selectors by The West Australian newspaper.
Both obliged, brilliantly, and Hussey again proved that Greg Chappell's much ridiculed band of selectors may have produced the most crucial stroke of wisdom when they refused to consign Mr Cricket to the boneyard of once-obdurate batsmen.
This left England with one overwhelming task. It was to prove the embattled Ponting wrong in what may now prove to be his most vital and inspired calculation in a captaincy that has never ranked alongside a superb batting record.
Ponting pored over the film of England's batting collapses at Headingley in 2009 and the Wanderers in Johannesburg at the start of this year and concluded that, if the right hard and bouncing Waca wicket could be prepared Australia, even one that appeared so punched out and on the ropes, might just exploit certain English weaknesses of technique and nerve.
When Ponting got the wicket and the team he wanted – and Australia's lack of anything like a seriously threatening slow bowler was recognised in the dismissal of the young and almost completely untested Michael Beer – it meant that England had to make vital re-adjustments to the batting that looked little less than imperious in the first two Tests.
More than anything, they had to be ready for a fight. That Ponting was capable of producing such a thing with the barest remnants of the team that slaughtered England in 2006-07, and his own batting form in ruins, was no doubt a matter of reasonable scepticism.
It wasn't so, of course, before the first Test because, if Australia came into The Gabba seriously wounded by defeats by both Pakistan and India, it was still asking a lot of the English psyche to expel all of the terrible memories of the whitewash they experienced four years earlier.
This is why some of us in Brisbane refused to let go of an idea of the mythic powers of Australian cricket to remake itself under the hardest pressure. We listened to the warning of Matthew Hayden that you should always beware of the wounded cricketer – and especially one wearing a baggy green cap.
Still, within a few days the prediction that Ponting might squeeze out victory by a margin of one Test was not so much frail as a source of anguish, a feeling unknown perhaps only to those smart-arses who unfurl their wisdom only when the last ball has been delivered.
Logic still insists that unless the "curators" of Melbourne and Sydney cricket grounds can uncannily reproduce all the conditions of grass and atmosphere so superbly exploited by Johnson and Harris at the Waca, an Australian triumph remains unlikely.
This has to be the verdict based on such realities as form that stretches further back than this last weekend and the fact that while Australia are bereft of anything remotely resembling a front-line spin bowler, a rather big handicap at the MCG and particularly the SCG, England can still claim to have in Graeme Swann arguably the best in the world, as well as a potentially significant addition in Monty Panesar.
Yet what we cannot ponder with anything like equanimity is the English ability to find the kind of steely motivation that Hussey and Johnson and Harris found when their backs were not so much pushed as pinioned against the Waca wall.
England have already proved, both at home and away, that they have the ability to outplay such formidable teams as Australia and South Africa. But do they have an authentic streak of resistance to carry them past the hardest challenges?
They did at The Oval the summer before last after being near-eviscerated at Headingley but even then required a docile wicket and the brilliant throwing-out of Ponting by Freddie Flintoff to break the heart of stiffening Australian resistance.
It didn't happen at the Wanderers in January, when Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel overwhelmed a team that had suggested they were superior – and not at the Waca.
Australia had key batsmen who could scarcely buy a run and a bowling unit laughed to scorn even by their own people. Yet they found a way to win, one by one, and in some cases quite raggedly at times, they stood up to be counted. England must now do the same in Melbourne and Sydney.
They have had all the praise and recognition any gifted team might want to enjoy. Now the quest must be for respect, that of their opponents, their critics, and, most vitally, themselves.
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