James Lawton: Test game needs another dose of Gabba high drama

We didn't need an extra morsel of edge or pressure when the Ashes were stirred into life again here in this cockpit of a cricket ground in the smallest hour of the English morning. But we had it all right – and especially those who worry that arguably the most absorbing and intriguing form of international sport is under siege as never before.

By a quirk of history it was, give or take just a couple of weeks, the 50th anniversary of another crisis of the sport when Australia's Ricky Ponting and England's Andrew Strauss went out to the green, rain-freshened strip for the calling of the coin toss that could give one of them a huge strategic advantage.

December 1960, was when two other captains, Frank Worrell the most elegant of West Indian batsmen, and Richard Benaud, a former crime reporter and fine practitioner of both leg spin and polished batsmanship, went out here also conscious that the future of Test cricket was under grave threat.

Then the problem wasn't a surfeit of near-beer, pyjama-game Twenty20, of dancing girls and fireworks and instant gratification, but a dull sense that something adorned by men like Compton and Miller, Bradman and Hutton and the three Ws of the Windies, Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott, was in danger of dwindling into some passé remnant of a more thrilling and intriguing game.

The perception was that Test cricket had become predictable, a sagging drama with an unbending plot.

What followed, of course, was a stupendous rebuttal of the charge. Cricket had rarely lived so vibrantly as when the teams of Worrell and Benaud slugged it out for the tie which came when brilliant fielding by Conrad Hunte and Joe Solomon ran out the last two Aussie batsmen with just one delivery left in the final eight-ball over hurled down by the formidable Wes Hall, a God-fearing man so capable of conjuring hellfire.

No doubt it is asking too much of the men of Ponting and Strauss to reproduce quite such pyrotechnics over the next few days but there is, no doubt, a clear challenge. It is to present the best face of Test cricket at a time when even Australia's commitment to the classic form of the game is being widely, and in some cases, angrily debated.

Ponting, particularly, emphasised the need to build on the dramas of recent Ashes series when the captains made their eve-of-battle speeches.

Strauss and England's coach Andy Flower had already laid down their priorities for the most stringent preparation, banning the presence of wives and girlfriends until the series has taken some shape in the first two battles, here and in Adelaide next week.

The order left superstar Kevin Pietersen particularly inflamed but the message could scarcely have been more blunt: four years ago England were the opposite of a fighting force and one of the re-polished jewels of Test cricket, genuinely revived competitive Ashes cricket, was turned into a parody of a great contest. Ironically enough, Pietersen was an English cricketer above suspicion when he topped the averages and produced a superb innings at Adelaide, which might, with better stewardship by captain Freddie Flintoff and coach Duncan Fletcher, have turned away the possibility of a shattering whitewash.

Here this week England's new resolve sparked unrest among the burghers of Brisbane when not a single player showed up at a reception lavishly supported by local business. Strauss sniffed that his team had more important matters on their mind – and former captain Nasser Hussain was required to fend off the complaints and claim that a new England had come to protect the spoils won at home last year.

Yesterday a streamlined Ponting – he has shed nearly a stone in his effort to turn back the ignominious possibility of losing three Ashes series in an otherwise superb career – stressed the need for Test cricket to reinvent itself, most helpfully by re-kindling the spirit of the superb series in England in 2005.

The Australian captain has long been anxious about the threat to Test cricket from the lavish pickings of the instant game – and he was rendered incandescent by the decision of Cricket Australia to order Test candidates for the recent pivotal series with No 1 Test nation India, Mike Hussey and Doug Bollinger, to put their obligations to the big-money Indian Premier League before preparations with the rest of the Australian squad.

For Ponting this was a worrying confusion of priorities. The deeper fear is that the Australian board may already have made a potentially fatal decision to put the big rupees before rebuilding a Test team which has slid so far, so quickly from the days of demigods like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist.

What can Ponting do? Most immediately he can whip a fragile looking Australia into the intense battlers who so ruthlessly demoralised England here four years ago. "You can't flick it on like a switch," said the captain earlier this week, "but I do have reasons to believe we will show plenty of it in the next few weeks. The Ashes are important not just to Australia and England but all of cricket. It is one of the great contests in the highest form of the game."

It was something he recognised most clearly in the defeat at Edgbaston five years ago, when England held their ground after being overwhelmed by McGrath and scored a series-turning win that in suspense at least matched the achievements of Ian Botham and Bob Willis at Headingley 24 years earlier. In victory one of the great heroes, Flintoff, bent to console the beaten Brett Lee – and froze for ever an image of Test cricket at its best.

Such examples of character and passion were again the imperatives in the small hours of this morning. Ponting was fighting for a brilliant career and Strauss, so far cool and admirably statesmanlike, was seeking to enforce last year's hard-won advantage.

Impressively, both men also seemed aware that they might also be having something to say, and do, about the future of the greatest but most imperilled form of the game.

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