Picking a winner
In the wilder prognostications there is only one winner of the series. England are clearer favourites than they have been in any year since they went on to lose in 1989. That alone would give Australia reason to hope.
Of the eight Ashes series in which Shane Warne featured, Australia won seven. It would be natural for him to see it only one way. But as well as being a genius he was the ultimate pragmatist as a cricketer. Without suggesting that Australia’s cause is doomed, he speaks of England’s chances with an unsentimental realism.
“At the moment you have to say England are firm favourites the way Australia are playing and the way England are playing,” he said. “If both teams play at their best you’d have to probably still favour England as favourites, but if Australia can gel together quickly I think they could surprise us on that score.”
Not only will it need the squad to gel, which it patently has (for the moment anyway) under the new coach, Darren Lehmann, but it will also require individual heroics. Warne seems fairly relaxed about Australia having the heroes to perform them. He singled out a left-arm fast-bowling all-rounder who has yet to play a Test match and a bowler of sheer pace, whose elder brother played for England, respectively the Jameses, Faulkner and Pattinson, born five days apart in 1990.
“James Faulkner to me is one of those guys who wants the ball in his hand when it’s tough, he wants to be in the middle when it’s tough,” Warne said. “The one thing that’s outstanding about James Faulkner is he’s a young kid, he wants to learn, he’s hungry, he’s really passionate and it’s amazing when Australia is in trouble, even when I’ve played with him or seen him play, whenever the game’s in the balance he wants to be in there, and that’s a special trait to have.
“And, generally, most of the time he performs. His belief, his mindset, his skill and his variety being a left-armer, and his batting, he could be the nucleus of an Australian team going forward.”
As for Pattinson, there were the highest praise and expectation. Like his predecessor, Glenn McGrath, Pattinson is confounding: the model of approachability and friendliness off the field, a single-minded devil in whites on it.
“This kid, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was getting close to 100 miles an hour in this Ashes series,” said Warne. “He’ll bowl consistently at 90 miles an hour-plus and I think he could record one of the fastest balls ever recorded bowling. This kid could be a superstar.
“He has been working his absolute butt off to get right for this series and I’ve seen that at close quarters. He’s got a real chance, he’s got a great attitude, he’s aggressive. Those two guys are really going to stand up and they’ve got special skills. People are going to know who Pattinson and Faulkner are at the end of this Ashes series.”
Pietersen’s the man everyone talks about
One of the most famous Ashes moments of all occurred at The Oval on the final morning of the final Test in 2005. Warne dropped Kevin Pietersen at slip when he was on 15. He went on to make a blistering 158 and England won the Ashes they might have lost had Warne hung on.
Warne has seen at first hand Pietersen’s power and style, and is well aware that eight years later he remains in his pomp. “The thing with the rock star big show is that we know he is such a class act. We know he can be destructive, we know all those sorts of things. You’ve got to have your set package on how you’re going to bowl to him and stick to it.”
The likelihood is that Australia will be resigned to expecting that Pietersen will have his day. Warne, who is likely to be welcome in the Australia dressing oom now that his good mate Boof Lehmann is in charge, is clear about what Australia must do.
“You know he is going to have one or two innings where he’s going to come out of the blocks and be superb, but it’s about knocking him over early when he first gets in. There’s a few different tactical ways that I’m sure Australia will look at to try to get him out early, but I think you have to be aggressive against Kevin Pietersen.
“If you sit back and just try and block off his boundaries, he’ll cut you to shreds, so it’s important you get aggressive against him, try and knock him over and stick to your plans.”
Leading the attack is vital
In Warne’s view, the leader of England’s attack has to be treated with extreme care. He said: “If Jimmy Anderson fell over the day before the Test and you had Finn, Broad and Bresnan it’s still pretty good but Jimmy is a huge player.
“The way he leads, the rest feed off him, so I think they’ve got to be really careful with Jimmy, they don’t want anything to happen to him. But there are no real obvious weaknesses there I don’t think.
“The first two Test matches are really going to set the tone for the series. England are in great shape, Australia have been in a bit of turmoil, they’ve got issues to sort out, but I think they will. I think you’ll see Australia in that first Test match come out all guns blazing.
Losing the plot in Australia
Warne was an arch-competitor, a master of the theatre of sport, who knew instinctively how to expose opponents’ weaknesses. Sometimes, it was not an edifying spectacle, but he never transgressed the laws of the game and rarely strayed outside its spirit.
“At the moment as a general rule, in all sporting codes, there’s not a lot of characters,” he said. “We’ve got to be very careful about the fine line between policing the game too much and allowing the emotions and characters to come out.
“Take cricket, for instance. As soon as someone gets a bit of fire in the belly and a bit of – not argy-bargy, but a bit of sledging or a bit of lip work, or a bit of aggro in the game – it gets stamped out so quickly and people then judge them so quickly and they get nailed.
“So what ends up happening is that people go into their shell and are too afraid to express themselves and I think as sport lovers we all want to see some tough, formidable characters that we love to hate. We have just got to be careful that we don’t police the game and judge people too quickly.”
The effect on Australia’s psyche has been dramatic. Warne appears to share the view that Australia are not short on talent but on Australian-ness at present.
“Sure there’s a line, you can’t be in pubs at two in the morning putting a punch on someone’s chin, that’s not what I’m talking about,” he said. “But you want to see people express themselves on the field and actually stand up and be counted and say you’re not getting me out, ‘over my dead body’ sort of stuff, and with the ball you want to let them know the batsman’s in a contest.”
The legacy of the great team of the 1990s and early 2000s may not exactly have been frittered away but it has hardly been built on. Like West Indies before them, Australia have found that replacing great players does not happen automatically.
“It’s been difficult for the Australians,” said Warne. “If you checked out eight of your best England players, even if you take out three or four, your two best bowlers Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann, two or three of your best batsmen, say Kevin Pietersen, Alastair Cook and Ian Bell, it’s obvious, you can’t replace those guys. You might be able to replace them with some decent players but they are going to need time to start to perform. So it’s always difficult.
“I think where Australia were a little bit overconfident, was that because for 20 years we could probably have had two or three teams, the mentality was something of, ‘Oh we’ll just produce some more players, they’ll just keep coming’.
“All of us who are Australia supporters and ex-Australia players, are prepared to be patient and tolerant, although disappointed in some of the results of recent times. But it’s mainly been the way, the style of play and the way they’ve lost or the way they’ve played, that’s been the disappointing factor.”
Spinning to disaster
As a leg-spin bowler who took 708 Test wickets, it is hardly surprising that Warne has proved to be irreplaceable since he retired from the international game in 2007. But at the very least his epic deeds should have inspired thousands upon thousands of kids to emulate him – yet Australia’s spin stocks seem bare.
“Without wanting to be too big-headed about it, there are a lot of young spin bowlers who want to be Shane Warne and bowl leg-spin,” he said. “But this is the problem. The coaches and captains of 14, 15, 16-year-old leg-spin bowlers are all about drying the runs up, and if a young spinner bowls a long hop and a full toss and gets hit for six and ends up bowling his first three overs for 20, they’ll go, ‘Oh that’ll do, let’s go medium-pacer, wing slip, third man’.”
What grieves Warne above all is that he quite rightly knows that he inspired the next generation. But others who should know better have let that legacy be dissipated,
“So what happens when they get to 15 or 16, they all want to be leg-spin bowlers, but suddenly they don’t get encouraged, there’s no real support system in place for when they get whacked. They get dropped, they want to play medium-pacers in a 17-year-old side instead. The sun’s shining, it’s 35 degrees, so they say, ‘I’m going to the beach and I’m going to have some fun’.
“Or they are asked to bowl faster and dry up the runs. The real art of throwing the ball up and being prepared to get hit for six but to get a stumping and all those sorts of things, is a real dying art. The support they’re getting as young kids, all over the world, is not enough and that’s why they lose interest. What I suppose really needs addressing is the bigger picture – the under-age coaching and captaincy of spin bowlers.”
Remaining at the pinnacle
Warne the ultimate showman easily recognises the allure of short forms of the game. He seems relieved that the recent Champions Trophy provided a tremendous fillip for one-day cricket, although the ICC in its wisdom have now done away with it. But he also knows where the enduring beauty lies.
“We have to have Test cricket,” he said. “Now, who knows, in a hundred years’ time we don’t know what’s going to happen and in society these days everyone’s busy, everyone’s got someone to see and everyone wants everything yesterday, so it’s always the demand for instant things, like with social media.
“I think in a funny sort of way it will actually help Test cricket because of the tradition, the unique blend of the slow-paced game, the excitement and edge-of-seat drama Test cricket offers, that unfolds over a period of time. People crave that because everything else is so fast. The real key to its survival is the players’ attitude.”
But the Ashes, in particular, is where it’s all at in the end. Warne said he was very proud of his Ashes record, and while he did not know his stats off by heart, added: “I’m sure they are probably better than anyone else.”
This Ashes will spur on the 2013 generation, as it has generations for 140 years. “In both England and Australia there is no doubt that people are judged by how they played in the Ashes. It is unique and everyone in world cricket is aware of it.”
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