One of two things is happening to Australians at present. Either the whole lot of them are in denial and will be dispatched again pretty soon with empty swagbags, or they are genuine in their apparent belief that a corner is about to be turned.
To listen to Michael Clarke, their captain, was in some ways to think that recent history was being airbrushed, rewritten or both. Yet his earnestness and faith were so patently sincere that it would be folly to presume that the impending Ashes series is to be an England cakewalk or even an England victory.
Here was a man whose team have won fewer Test matches this year (one) than Zimbabwe (two) but who was able to say without a shred of irony: “I think the team is in a fantastic place and the feeling in the group is outstanding. It’s been very nice to get some results in the one-day games in the UK and in India and I think the boys are flying. They’re all looking forward to Thursday week.
“We’re all heading in the same direction and the senior players deserve a lot of credit for that. I’ve read criticism of the senior players in the team but the likes of Brad Haddin, Peter Siddle, Shane Watson and Ryan Harris have played a huge part in getting us to where we are, bringing us so close together and all heading in the one direction.”
True, Australia beat England 2-1 in the one-day series and lost to India 3-2 in a turkey shoot recently, but of 10 Tests played in 2013 they have won only the first and lost seven of the next nine in falling to series defeats, 4-0 in India, 3-0 in England. If they are heading in one direction that sequence of Test results might indicate which way that is.
Since Clarke was speaking at the launch of his book, The Ashes Diary, which chronicles in daily detail the tour of England last summer that started chaotically and ended in heavy defeat, there might have been slenderer reason for predicting a bright future. Yet the feeling is growing that Australia have closed the gap.
Their squad for the first Test in Brisbane next week was due to be announced overnight but in truth Clarke could have named the starting XI yesterday had he wished. He declined to do so out of courtesy to the selectors, of whom he is not one, but said: “I believe that, if they’re going to pick 12 players, 11 of them are no-brainers and I think you guys are smart enough to work out who those guys are.”
Clarke’s captaincy has been closely scrutinised in the last few days, not least by his chum Shane Warne, who urged him to improve his off-the-field performance. Noting wryly that everybody was entitled to an opinion and that most people these days seemed to express them, Clarke insisted: “The communication between everyone in the team is outstanding and I think everybody knows where we are going and how we get there and their own personal role in the team, which is critical.
“There were a number of incidents on and off the field where this team could have broke down and fallen apart and lost the series 5-0. But I think everything that happened to the team brought us closer. When you see us on the field you can’t fake that. We have shown that in the way we are playing. I really believe the work we put in, in the UK, will stand us in good stead and we’ll get some rewards this summer.”
The proof of all that will be in performance and to have a chance against a side who have won the Ashes three times in a row, Australia have to take some stardust to Brisbane. While Clarke claimed to be paying no heed to his opponents, he cannot have failed to notice the continuing sequence of inconveniences befalling England.
Matt Prior, who has played 57 successive Tests as wicketkeeper, was diagnosed with a low-grade tear of his left calf yesterday. It is, on the face of it, a minor injury but it could conceivably keep him out of the opening Test. Jonny Bairstow would take his place and, official reserve wicketkeeper or not, that is hardly a scenario that was contemplated when the team was selected. Bairstow, whose 12 Tests have all been as a batsman, will play against a New South Wales Invitation XI tomorrow, the final warm-up match.
If Prior is expected to recover, it now seems there was precious little wrong with Kevin Pietersen in the first place, although he had a cortisone injection in his vexatious right knee on Sunday. Pietersen was due to take a full part in the squad’s enforced indoor practice session yesterday but in the event appeared to do less than might have been expected.
But he will play on Wednesday against a side possessing minimal seam bowling experience. England will use the top six that will feature in the Test, though it would be fascinating to see what would happen if Bairstow made a big hundred and Prior was fit to return.
The bowlers are less clear-cut and only when they name their side at the toss will England give a clear indication of which one from Chris Tremlett, Steve Finn and Boyd Rankin will avoid drinks carrying at The Gabba.