Ashes / Features

The Ashes 2006-07

Arriving late for the Ashes party

John Stern says that the scoreline being what it is, England can't be thinking about outcomes. It's time for a performance

John Stern in Perth

December 13, 2006

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'As for the England supporters, it's normal service resumed. Gallows humour is restored, sorrows are drowned in the local brew' © Getty Images
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Ever felt that you arrived at a party too late, just after most of the guests have gone and there's only the supermarket own-brand beer to drink? That's how it feels to arrive in Australia ahead of the third Test.

"You here for the cricket?" asked the Michael Clarke lookalike at the immigration desk. He'd probably dreamed up a thousand wisecrack responses in his head but he didn't even register a smile. In fact, I'm not sure he could even look me in the eye.

No one is talking about comebacks or what ifs. To the Australian players and media, it's a done deal, all over. The Ashes are back. The public, or at least the ones I've spoken to, are hopeful that the series still has some life in it. My impression is that the Aussie public want their own 2005. They saw last year's series on TV and, despite their side's defeat, they were awestruck by the quality of the cricket and the closeness of the finishes. And they wanted their own version in their very own backyard. But what they've had so far has just been like all the rest in recent memory, except worse because England actually had a chance this time.

As for the England supporters, it's normal service resumed. Gallows humour is restored, sorrows are drowned in the local brew, sightseeing becomes more appealing than watching net practice (not that they're allowed in the ground). There is an absence of tension. An ad in a Perth bus shelter proclaimed a 'super cold' beer as a 'Pom's worst nightmare'. Boom, boom. But unless that's what they choked on in Adelaide, I can think of plenty of other things keeping England awake at night this past week.

What I'm clinging to is the 'fact' that in the last four and a half years I have seen England play six Tests abroad and they have not lost any. My colleagues tell me that I'm jinxing the team. I say that's the sort of glass-half-empty thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. Ask an Australian how he is, he says: "Good, thanks." Ask a Pom, and he'll say: "Not bad."

Ask an Australian how he is he says: "Good, thanks." Ask a Pom, and he'll say: "Not bad."

England's strategy at Adelaide was all about not being bad, about not being as bad as they were in Brisbane. For four days they managed that successfully. Only rarely, though, were they actually bossing the game. They scored too slowly for that and failed to take their one big chance when Ashley Giles dropped Ricky Ponting.

The over-riding sense was relief that Brisbane had been an aberration. Now England were in the series and we could all settle down. But the problem with aspiring only to parity is that if you slip up, you lose. If you're always aiming to win, parity is a fall-back.

Now, we know from Duncan Fletcher that the England batsmen didn't set out just to hang around on the last day at Adelaide. But not very deep in their subconscious must have been the sense that survival, and only survival, was their goal.

Jeremy Snape, the one-time England spinner turned professional psychologist, says that part of how you develop confidence is to shift focus from outcomes to performance. As soon as you think "we only need to draw this" you are in trouble. You're thinking outcome rather than performance, of how you actually go about achieving your goal.

The scoreline being what it is, England can't be thinking about outcomes any more. So maybe it's time for a performance. And that's not jinxing them, it's just positive thinking.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer

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John Stern John Stern is editor of the Wisden Cricketer, the world's largest selling cricket magazine. Having cut his journalistic teeth at the legendary Reg Hayter's sports-writing academy in Fleet Street, he spent four years on the county treadmill for the London Times. He joined Wisden in 2001 and was deputy editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly at the time of its merger with the Cricketer in 2003 to form TWC.
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