Six factors that shall decide the Ashes
At 11am, the world will gather around its TV sets and watch in amazement, as Aleem Dar emerges from the umpires’ module in the Cardiff pavilion, strides down onto the outfield where no man has previously stepped (at least, not in a Test match), and utters the immortal words: “Two small steps for two men (umpires, specifically), one giant leap for mankind (or, at least, the subset of mankind that consists of the cricket-watching publics of England and Australia).”
(Incidentally, so incredible was the 2005 Ashes that cynics have suggested that the entire series was a forgery, filmed in a studio in Texas, to stop the Russians hosting the perfect cricket series first. They cite as evidence Matthew Hoggard’s cover drive for four at Trent Bridge, a shot they claim was so unlikely and outlandish as to have been a patent hoax. And Ricky Ponting clearly flapped when he shouldn’t have flapped.)
Here, then, is the Unremittingly Official Confectionery Stall List Of The Six Factors That Will Decide This Ashes Series (excluding the six most obvious factors that will define the destiny of the urn, namely: (1) batsmen, (2) bowlers, (3) fielders, (4) wicketkeepers, (5) umpires, and (6) the magic bionic knuckle Nathan Hauritz bought from a backstreet alchemist’s shop in Cardiff yesterday).
Lady Luck is notoriously one of the world’s more fickle females, to the extent that many now question her suitability as a peer of the realm and role model to millions. Nevertheless, the flighty temptress absolutely loves cricket, keeps interfering with it, and will undoubtedly pay a visit to the Tests at some point.
In what appears likely to be a close-fought series, both sides would be well advised to get down on their bendiest available knees, offer to take her out for an extremely expensive meal, and beg her to be nice to them.
Four years ago, England, although the dominant team for most of the decisive part of the series, still needed some giant splodges of fortune custard dolloped on top of their otherwise excellent cricket crumble. They won 2-1. They could have won 3-1. They could also have lost 4-0, if Edgbaston, Trent Bridge and the Oval had taken slightly different courses at critical moments.
Admittedly, a 4-0 scoreline would have been the greatest miscarriage of sporting justice since Goliath was posthumously awarded the Slinger Of The Match medallion by a home-town adjudicator from the Philistine Board Of Single Combat. However, 4-0 could easily have happened. And, if it had, I don’t think I would ever have left my house again. And nor would any other self-respecting England cricket fan. (Have left their houses, not mine.) (In case there was some confusion.)
These prime slices of honey-roasted luck included:
− an inquisitive little cricket ball deciding to take a peek at the ground underneath Glenn McGrath’s foot on the first morning of the 2nd Test;
− Brett Lee seeing the juiciest imaginable wide, low full-toss with only four needed to win at Edgbaston, but failing to juice it;
− the marginal caught behind decision against Kasprowicz immediately afterwards, which was clearly out in all but reality;
− Pietersen’s first-ball edge off Warne on the final day at The Oval, which was heading straight towards the safe hands of Hayden at slip until it thought, “Hang on, do I really want to deprive the watching millions of one of the great modern innings? No, I do not, I’m going to deflect off Gilchrist’s gloves and take the battering I deserve”;
− the boundaries at The Oval not being set a quarter of a mile deeper, out in the streets of South London, otherwise Pietersen’s hooks for six off Lee could easily have been caught; and
− Don Bradman being born in 1908, as opposed to 1978.
Upon such slender threads...
Which, if either, leader will be prepared to whip out his captaincy cojones, thud them both down on red, and spin the roulette wheel?
Ponting may be known as Punter (partly due to his youthful love of gambling, partly due to his predilection for propelling himself slowly up rivers with a long pole), but as captain he has not always donned a cavalier’s hat (the rarest headgear in Test cricket after the sombrero (which has not been seen in an Ashes Test since Douglas Jardine famously ‘went Mexican’ in the final Bodyline Test, charged down the wicket to Bert Ironmonger shouting ‘it’s chimichanga time’, and spooned a catch to Vic Richardson)).
In the Caribbean this year, the Strauss-Flower axis showed itself to be not merely risk-averse, but risk-allergic. The mere concept of taking a calculated gamble in an effort to recover from 1-0 down in the series seemed to bring them out in hives of indecision. At some point, they will need to shut their eyes, glug down a powerful tactical anti-histamine, and pray that they are not allergic to that as well.
McGrath’s ankle was arguably the single most influential factor in 2005. He had taken 9 for 82 at Lord’s. He took 10 for 358 in the rest of the series. If only he had trodden on a cricket ball before every Ashes Test he played in, there might be a few more MBEs floating around English cricket.
Brett Lee is already out of at least one Test, probably more − a major disappointment for the series, as, with his pace, attitude and vulnerability to counterattack, it is scientifically impossible to conceive of cricket being dull whilst he is bowling. Australia are thus denied a fearsome-looking and perfectly balanced pace quartet. Regardless of Lee’s statistically unimpressive record in this country, and Australia’s victory in South Africa without him, this is a potentially decisive development.
His absence leaves Ponting and Katich as the Australian bowlers with most Test wickets in England, each boasting a grand total of one. If they remain at the top of that chart come the end of the Oval Test, England will be either deliriously parading around Trafalgar Square in an open-topped bus, or catastrophically embarrassed. Whilst Andy Flower tries to explain to an angry press conference why occasional left-arm wrist spin and dobbly medium pacers are the toughest types of bowling to face in Test cricket these days.
It seems almost inconceivable that Flintoff will last for five Tests, although the entire English cricketing nation will spend the next seven weeks rubbing soothing lotions and tinctures into its Big Freddie voodoo dolls. Pietersen is irreplaceable, in terms of talent, tempo and temperament. If Cook or Strauss is injured, England have no Test-hardened cover.
But the key injury victim could be an unexpected one – Nathan Hauritz. Following his unimpressive performances in the warm-up games, and the rest of his career to date, the off-form offie will be keeping a sharp eye on his team-mates.
I am not suggesting that they will deliberately injure Hauritz. Far from it. But I am suggesting that, if they see him walking down the road, unaware that an especially slippery looking banana skin lies ahead on the pavement ... well, they might not warn him quite as quickly and loudly as they would alert Mitchell Johnson in the same scenario.
And then, when it subsequently emerges that McGain, Krezja, White and the rest have mysteriously all simultaneously lost their passports and been handcuffed to a lamppost in Alice Springs, Ponting will make a televised appeal to the patriotic nature of a certain member of the TV commentary team, and the rest will be talkative history.
Recent research shows that most British cows, when facing up to the icy, mechanised hand of death, spend their final conscious moments hoping that their leathery hides will be made into Test-grade cricket balls. A lucky few beasts will be unwittingly playing potentially pivotal roles in this summer’s action, and how they choose to behave in the hands of Anderson and Johnson could dictate the series.
The Australians will have to adapt to the unfamiliar Duke ball, which is different to the Kookaburra used down under, which is made, I believe, of a fossilised platypus egg coated in a beer-soaked kangaroo pouch.
Stepping up to the plate
In competitive eating, ‘stepping up to the plate’ is merely phase one in a campaign of intestinal mayhem, base camp on the Everest of Herculean Hot-Doggery.
In the Ashes, however, both teams will need new heroes not just to step up to the plate, but to dive into that plate face first, with the fearlessness of an angry wife in a shopping centre, and keep eating up until victory is assured.
Each side is likely to start today with only three of their first-choice XI from 2005, and many reputations will be made and broken in this series. Is Hussey the untouchable perfectionist who averaged 85 in his first 20 Tests, or the uncertain grinder who averages 30 in his the last year and a half? Is Cook’s Test average of 45 that of a maturing master bordering on world-class, or of a flat-track accumulator flattered by the age in which he plays?
Will Broad ever be a major wicket-taker? Prior and Bopara certainly cut the mustard against West Indies, but the mustard was Scandivianly mild and came ready-cut. Will their cleaving be as effective against an altogether more nose-watering class of condiment? Is Pietersen able to dominate an entire series? Is Hughes the world’s next batting genius, or a flawed rookie with much to learn? Or both? I cannot remember a series in which there were so many uncertainties.
In 2005, England arguably managed to choke three times − in the second innings (with bat and ball) at Edgbaston, chasing at Trent Bridge, and on the final morning at the Oval – but still win. Having stepped up to the plate, they found themselves struggling to keep their food down, but they managed to Heimlich themselves to safety each time.
In Adelaide, they collectively turned a slight tickle in the throat into paroxysmic spasms of self-asphyxiation. If the series is close, the side better able to suppress the early splutterings of a choke, should emerge triumphant.
OFFICIAL CONFECTIONERY STALL SERIES PREDICTION
I have absolutely no idea what will happen. Both sides have enough question marks hanging over them to punctuate a Spanish quiz book. So I will guess that Australia will win 3-1. I hope I’m wrong. England can certainly win, but I think the English media underestimate the Australian pace attack (even without Lee). England have lost their last two late-summer home series. And I am a born pessimist. Roll on 11 o’clock.
You can listen to my Ashes radio comedy show ‘Yes It’s The Ashes’ on BBC 5 Live.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer