If it were not for Andy Murray, the tension would already be at thundercloud levels. Next week sees the start of the Ashes, the most rivalrous of all sporting fixtures. In three weeks' time, England and Australia will play the Second Test at Lord's. Both sides will be well aware that it is 75 years since England beat Australia at Lord's, so we can be certain that the match will be played in a gentle, sporting spirit: rather like the Battle of Verdun.
The Australians are favourites to retain the Ashes and to gloat anew at Lord's. But England have a chance. They can exploit a weakness in the Australian national character, just as they did in 2005. In that glorious summer, England won back the Ashes, after the most exciting series in the history of international cricket. At the beginning, they were given no chance at all. Australia had a great side. At least five of its members – Gilchrist, Hayden, McGrath, Ponting and Warne – would have been in an Australian all-time XI. Gilchrist and Warne were candidates for a world all-time XI. But they lost, because of arrogance and complacency.
The first Test goes according to expectations. Australia stroll to victory. For the second Test, the Australians have plan A. Win the toss, put the Poms into bat, crush them. But there was a problem. Just before the game, Glenn McGrath stood on a cricket ball and turned his ankle. So Australia's best strike bowler was hors de combat; time for plan B.
There was no plan B. That would have required the Australians to take England seriously. They would drink warm beer before doing that. So England, put in first, scored more than 400 runs, took a sizeable first innings lead and with it, enough control of the match to hang on and win by two runs. England lost the coating of its nerve ends: a price well worth paying for an historic victory. The Australians could still have recovered. By then, it was clear that two outstanding cricketers, Damian Martyn and Jason Gillespie, were past their best. Had they been replaced by Mike Hussey and Stuart Clark, Australia would probably have won the Ashes.
Four years on, England are in a stronger position than they were in '05. Four of the five all-timers have retired. Their replacements are not of the same calibre. Clark and Hussey are both in decline – and the Australian selectors have sabotaged their side. There is an all-rounder called Andrew Symonds. He is truculent and undisciplined. But his talent justifies gritted-teeth perseverance, rather like Andrew Flintoff. Instead, he has been sent home, leaving a gap in the Australian batting order. There is an unlucky bowler called Stuart MacGill. A leg spinner with a formidable record in Tests, he had the misfortune to be a contemporary of Shane Warne's. Another difficult character, he never felt the Australian selectors valued him. As a result, Macgill has retired. He had another Test series in him. With him in the enemy ranks, England's task would have been harder.
The trouble is the Australians have never worked out why their ancestors were given one-way tickets by the British courts. Those early settlers did not have a plan B either. They thought they could beat the rap, and despite thousands of nautical miles, their descendants are no wiser. In 2005, Australia threw away the Ashes. They have not yet done that this time, but they have lightened England's load. We have a much better chance this year than we did back then.Reuse content