Time to drop the malice in wonderland and let action do the talking

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The Independent Online

In the Ashes dawn this morning, Pietersen and his more experienced team-mates should do themselves - and the nation - a favour.

They should see his call for the Lord's crowd, including those major-generals and rear-admirals he presumably hoped to separate from their pink gins and rather more ancient battles, to "nail them from the first ball" as the last word in wishful thinking. Pietersen may look like one of the hottest of prospects, but on the eve of his most important cricket match he sounded rather more like Alice in Wonderland.

You don't "nail" Australian cricketers by yelling and jumping up and down on the terraces. You don't beat them at hype or sledging. They can do that stuff in their sleep, and from the deep foundation of nearly two decades of virtually unchallenged mastery of world cricket. Ask Geoff Boycott, Ian Botham, Ray Illingworth, Mike Gatting or any other senior citizen of the land who has had something to do with the downfall of an Australian cricket team and they will all tell you the same story: You get under Australian skin only by playing out of your own.

Despite the huge weight of patriotic betting - and the early and, let's face it, now utterly meaningless English flourishes in those interminable one-day matches of some mutated form or other - the bookmakers were not prepared this week to give you a better than odds-on price for the Australians to maintain a triumphant Ashes run of 18 years. What this says, in that corner of the world where reality comes not as a rare shaft of searing light but an hour-by-hour obligation, is that while there have been impressive stirrings under the England captain Michael Vaughan they still have to be placed in the formative stage.

Beneath the world champion Australians, international cricket has been in quite tumultuous flux, and in that situation England have improved in all areas of the game. They are indisputably the second-best team in the game. In America they say of such achievement, with a philosophical shrug, "Close - but no cigar." In Australia they do not even garnish the failure with the word "close". Second isn't close to anything, in the Australian mind, but finishing last.

It is from under the weight of such a vice-like mindset that Vaughan and young Turks like Pietersen, Andy Flintoff, Ian Bell, Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard, must clamber at Lord's over the next few days. They will not do it - as Hoggard, the hero of South Africa earlier this year, tried this week - by talking themselves up and the Australians down.

When Hoggard took a run at Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne - two of the greatest bowlers cricket will know - you were reminded of the words of one cautious cornerman when his fighter faced the young Mike Tyson: "Whatever you do, don't make him angry." In the last of their maturity as front-line Test players, McGrath and Warne are less likely to be angry than recharged. It was the most chilling of thoughts as Hoggard provided one sports page with the headline that, even as you read it, conjured the picture of Warne and McGrath, the old gunfighters, slugging down a glass of red-eye and walking out into the street. The headline said, quite careless of the possibilities of morbid reflection in a few days' time, "Past it". Hoggard said: "It will be tough for Glenn McGrath and it will be interesting to see if he still is the world-class performer he was ... it will be interesting to see if Shane Warne can reproduce his best because he is getting on a bit as well."

Of course, there is no law against agitating Australians. They have been doing it to us since the days of Ned Kelly. However, the value of timing cannot be overstated. Against Australia in the cricket arena that matters most - the one where Test matches have to be settled - Pietersen and Hoggard speak as young men with everything to prove, and while they should remember hubris is always a problem it is particularly deadly when applied to non-achievement.

Maybe the chief concern here is that England are claiming bragging rights they do not own. As potential comers, a team who over the past couple of years could in many ways not have shaped better for the great challenge of their lives, England have a right to carry self-respect on to the field of Lord's today.

Vaughan is a world-class batsman, Andrew Strauss has shown marvellous instincts for the challenge of opening, Marcus Trescothick is capable of virtuoso performance, and when Harmison's spirits are up he is among the élite of fast bowlers. Flintoff has Bothamesque qualities. None of this encourages the doffing of caps and the touching of forelocks, but there is a huge distance between that and announcing the decline of opponents who have been setting new standards of achievement throughout their working lives.

England have covered a lot of ground under Vaughan, but whether it has brought them to the same competitive level as their opponents today is a question that can be resolved only in the heat of the forthcoming action. Nothing we have seen so far this English summer suggests that the Rubicon has been passed.

Four years ago, with another Ashes series won, the Australian captain Steve Waugh slaved to be fit for the final Test at The Oval. In intervals between the painful work, he sat on a Headingley balcony and watched England snatch a little consolation through the batting of Mark Butcher. Why, Waugh was asked, was he fighting so hard to be fit for the last act of a battle that had already been settled? "I am the captain of Australia," he said, "and it is my duty to be there. A cricket career lasts only so long, and while you are involved you just have to give it a bit of a go." Waugh returned at The Oval, batted bravely through obvious pain, and Australia won.

That was some of the legacy Waugh bequeathed to his successor Ricky Ponting, and we can be sure it will be rampant in its meaning in the Australian dressing-room today. "Nail them from the first ball," young Pietersen demands of the Lord's crowd. Perhaps they could readjust the Red Sea while they are at it.