Pietersen the big hope of his new nation
The waiting is over - Team Vaughan can win, but they need the very best from the debutant's bat and Harmison's arm
This moment has been a long time coming, and all England's roads for more than a year have been leading to it. The reason for the mood goes beyond the hoopla attendant on all big-time sport, and can probably be traced to the March Sunday morning in Kingston, Jamaica last year when Stephen Harmison put the frighteners on West Indies by taking 7 for 12 in 12.3 destructive overs.
It was then that it became possible to start thinking the impossible, that after 16 years and eight series Australia could be beaten. That session was the catalyst for what has followed. England have taken nearly all before them, losing only one of 18 matches, and almost as importantly have found the tools to dig themselves out of deep, dark holes.
Each session, each match, each series has been important in its own right, but all have been conducted with this challenge in mind. Building blocks helping to construct a magnificent cathedral intended for completion by the late summer of 2005.
England can win, but the most honest and optimistic assessment is that they have a better opportunity of doing so than at any time since 1989. As, in the old phrase, their realistic chances in that period varied between slim and none and slim had left town, this is a considerable improvement.
No sane observer is underestimating the significance of the First npower Test. So often has England's fate been determined by the inaugural events that they must cling on to Australia's coat-tails at the very least at Lord's. History is against them. The plain fact is that England have not beaten Australia there since 1934, 17 matches ago. If they could add to their nine draws in that period it would have to be considered, in the parlance, a result. But who decided to stage the First Test at Lord's?
"It is important to go out and not try to look too much at the bigger picture," said Michael Vaughan, England's captain, yesterday. "Try to break the match into small parts. Aggression is a word that has been used a lot but I think if anything it's important to stay level-headed and not get drawn into the emotions of playing in an Ashes game. If you do there's a danger it might get the better of you."
It is unlikely that at any point in the plotting England's selectors assumed that their middle order would consist of two players who have played three Tests between them. If they did, they should have played Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen together long before now. This was not the side they had designed to win the Ashes.
But there it is, staring out of the team- sheet. Bell, who has played all three of those Tests, and Pietersen, who will make his debut, are being invited to take on and see off the most successful team in international history. It is often said that previous England teams have suffered against Australia because they have borne the scars of previous defeats, but this would appear to be taking the antithesis of that to ridiculous extremes.
The selection, which ultimately proved irresistible if it was not bowing to public clamour, is a bold gamble. Effectively, it means that England have jettisoned two of the batsmen who helped them to victory in their last meaningful Test series, against South Africa. Robert Key's 83 in the heady Test at Johannesburg seems largely to have been forgotten. Had he got the elusive extra 17 it would not have been. Graham Thorpe heard his fate last week. Despite the apparently sincere sentiments of the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, that the omission did not mean the end of Thorpe, if he were recalled everything that could go wrong would have done so.
Much of the attention will be on Pietersen, the South African exile who plumped for England four years ago and has never looked back. He has made a dramatic start to his one-day international career and the automatic supposition is that he will similarly storm the bastions of Test cricket. So he might.
Forget all you may have read about method, Pietersen has a belief and a drive which separates him from the common herd. He has also, it should be categorically stated, exhibited none of the brashness or impertinence of which he was accused early on in his migration to this country, which shows that you cannot judge a man by his haircut. Rather he has gone out of his way to please.
The way he bats and the manner of his belief suggests that he will play at least one coruscating innings. Supporters should also brace themselves for low scores. On balance, he does not seem to get out in single figures more than any other middle-order batsmen - 33 times in 124 innings, when even Don Bradman was not far short of being dismissed a quarter of the time between 0 and 10. But Pietersen has begun to make a habit of ducks: five first-class ducks last season and four this. Pietersen's first-class average this season is below 40, Key's is 61.
There is a danger, because of the magnetism of his play, that Pietersen sidetracks everything else. The batting of the top three, however, has to provide the ballast for England to win. Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss and, above all, Vaughan have to provide the substantial platforms. Vaughan was, unbelievably considering the 1-4 scoreline, man of the series in Australia two winters ago. From somewhere he has to summon up similarly domineering performances.
Either he, or Andrew Flintoff, or above all Harmison. If Harmison can get it right on Thursday morning - should Australia win the toss and bat - anything is possible. Australia have won their past six Test series, drew the one before, won the seven before that, and apart from a brutally dismissive batting order they have Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. They are not keen to relinquish their pre-eminence, and the 71 years since they were beaten at Lord's will merely supply with them with further reason not to buckle to the old enemy.
Something Vaughan said in February and repeated again yesterday struck, nay positively clobbered, a chord. "What excites me is that I'm going into an Ashes with a young team. One that will be around in 2006-07, whereas [the Australians] openly admit they'll lose some players," he said, then repeated it almost word for word in Leeds. It hints that deep down Vaughan suspects that England's best chance may be next time. He is in no doubt about the enormity of the task - "60 wickets will win the Ashes, we've got a bit of talent to work with" was hardly a declaration of intent.
This is not going to be easy, and it relies to a great degree on Warne being on the wane and Harmison reaching the heights. The decisions of the captains, Vaughan and Ricky Ponting may be decisive. Both can think on their feet but the feeling is that Vaughan is sleeker: Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly. So, while attempting not to get caught up in the ballyhoo, conceding that any prediction of a home victory is allowing the heart to rule the head and estimating that the selectors may have called it wrong, it remains in prospect that England by 12 September could have won the series 3-2 and regained the Ashes.
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