James Lawton: The greatest goal in any sport is perfection and rarely has a team come so close to it
The encouraging belief must be that under the stewardship of Strauss and coach Andy Flower, England have marched beyond the great achievement of 2005
Thursday 30 December 2010
The achievements of Andrew Strauss and his men in Australia have been magnificent. They have set a mark of attainment in the nation's sport, one of maturity and professionalism, and never more so than in the re-statement of their vast superiority in Melbourne over the past few days.
Maybe best of all was the equanimity with which we could now hear Prime Minister David Cameron promising to throw open the doors of Downing Street. Not so long ago that would have sounded like the first creak of a trapdoor, the first tipple of incipient angst. Not anymore.
England were superbly motivated and perfectly drilled in the MCG. They were also a grown-up team, rounded in their skills and single-minded in their commitment. One point of strength was replaced by another in a seamless rotation as the already eroded aura of Australian cricket was finally turned to dust.
In all sport the greatest of goals is the perfect performance and rarely has a team got so close to it.
Some thought they had been fatally undermined by the convulsion of defeat at the Waca but it was a febrile reaction born out of a total misunderstanding of the real distribution of talent which runs far deeper than any set of peculiar circumstances.
England suggested strongly in Brisbane and confirmed in Adelaide that they belonged in a different league to their opponents and at the MCG this assertion could only have been resurrected more dramatically had it been accompanied by seek-and-destroy weaponry.
For many years, of course, the Ashes war was a phoney one. For nearly two decades the Australian ability to nurture outstanding talent, and to house it in a massively stronger psychology, made the contest a humiliating formality of defeat for the English.
After Melbourne it is impossible not to believe that we have come full circle. The reduction of Australian talent has been so pitiful that the hope engendered by England's lapse in Perth now looks nothing less than a haunting example of a desperate fantasy.
This, though, is for the next few years the Australian problem.
For England the encouraging belief must be that under the brilliantly even-handed stewardship of Strauss and coach Andy Flower they have marched beyond the great achievement of 2005, when after an 18-year interval they proved that they had the ability and the nerve to beat their tormentors.
They have now established that not only can they win the Ashes in England, they can hold on to them in Australia, and with massive authority. In other words they have grown up as significantly as their historic opponents have regressed.
There is, however, no need to apologise for hoping the Australians sooner rather than later get down to the job of repairing their broken cricket culture.
It is vital for the health of a world game increasingly besieged by the catch-penny appeal of Twenty20 because without a competitive Australia, without the sense that players of the achievement of a Ricky Ponting will always be able to declare the value of the Test game, cricket has lost one of its most enduring assets.
World cricket can afford a terminal decline of the Australian game no more than football could a loss of the Brazilian dream or rugby union a focused and seriously competitive New Zealand. The West Indians, now ranked above only the Kiwis and tyros Bangladesh, have already gone galloping off down the high road of cricket history – and with little hint of a return journey. It means that if we want the Ashes to remain a vital part of our sports agenda we can only hope that the stirrings of Australian reaction to a truly terrible defeat runs longer and harder than a few bilious headlines.
Of course none of this should deflect from the meaning of England's triumph.
The deepest significance surely rests in the attitude of the team's leadership and most strikingly the attitude of Strauss.
When the Ashes were gathered in again in England the summer before last, Strauss echoed the declaration of his predecessor Michael Vaughan after the Oval triumph of 2005. Vaughan fretted that his winning team might lose its head, become overwhelmed by hubris, a fear that was deeply compounded when injury kept him out of the touring team of 2006-7. His role went to Freddie Flintoff, a great warrior of the game, no doubt, but a catastrophically populist choice as captain, and Vaughan might at the very moment of that decision have tossed into the wind his plea for England to keep their feet on the ground and stay honest.
Even in the first euphoria of Melbourne such fears were swept away in England's victory speeches. Tim Bresnan, whose replacement of leading wicket-taker Steve Finn was a triumphant statement on the value of tough-minded pragmatism, was quick to say that winning in Sydney was the new priority. "We don't dwell in the past, we look forward to the next challenge – it's the way we play us cricket," said the beefy Yorkshireman.
The language of Strauss was less basic, as befitted a future merchant banker, but it carried a similar resonance. It was about understanding the nature of success, how it can seduce as much as it inspires, and that if there had been examples of individual brilliance the matter for most celebration was surely the team effort.
Yet if this was true it was also idle to ignore the huge disparity between the ability of the teams.
In the end not one Australian, not even Mr Cricket, Mike Hussey, was able to obscure the reality that at every turn England held the stronger hand.
When Jimmy Anderson imposed the second cheap dismissal on Hussey, when it was clear that even the most significant of Australian resistance was exhausted, the English celebration was extraordinarily intense. It was not hard to understand why. This was the moment when the English ascendancy was complete.
Already we had seen the great Ponting in the throes of a public crack-up with his doomed challenge to an umpire's decision underpinned by the most explicit technology. Now we had the end of the indomitable Hussey, the hero who had only scraped into the team in Brisbane.
Hussey's fall only emphasised the new stature of so many of the England players. Anderson had bowled god-like at times. Chris Tremlett and Bresnan had replaced Stuart Broad and Finn with a confidence and a proficiency that was stunning. Jonathan Trott's run-hoarding, so jarringly interrupted in Perth, confirmed the impression early in the tour that this was man operating entirely in his own zone – and it was maybe somewhere beyond the gravitational pull of the earth.
Graeme Swann's self-confidence had plainly passed beyond the threat of any passing assault, however ferocious. Kevin Pietersen was restored in his potential to shoot the lights out in any cricket arena. England not only had ability of the highest order, they also had depth of character.
Those of us who heeded for a moment the early warning of Matthew Hayden of the dangers of the wounded Australian cricketer had been given plenty of time to recant. Wounded is one thing, expired is another. Quite majestically, Strauss's England has defined the difference.
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