December 3, 2002

Can England draw positives from Ashes debacle?

England cricket fans are an unlucky bunch. For the past 15 years, the team has been struggling to transcend mediocrity, stumbling through the deepest troughs. Contrary to popular belief, the loss of the Ashes, and the spectacular style in which Australia routed their visitors, is not a cause to be too gloomy.

The unluckiest England fans are those approaching 20. I have no memory whatsoever of England's last Ashes victory, in Australia in 1986/87. While the 1990/91 series is similarly blurred, I do recall wondering why Graham Gooch kept letting Terry Alderman trap him leg-before in 1989.

Things had not got much better by 1993, when a young, bleached-blond was set to take England by storm. At one of my first Test matches, I saw Shane Warne's "ball of the century". What was most amusing was the equal mixture of bemusement and terror in the eyes of the England fans. They looked as puzzled as Gatting, with the more knowing spectators realising that this man was going to be a torment.

And what torment. Warne, along with the Waugh brothers, Mark Taylor and later Glenn McGrath, would dominate the Ashes Tests of my youth. But England did at least compete. They won two Tests in 1997, and still had a slim chance of squaring the rubber going into the last day of the 1998/99 series.

None of those previous England teams have as much potential as that 2002. None of the Australians could possibly match the superb team they have now. This is not just a good side: at least five (Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath) would walk into a World XI, with Jason Gillespie not far behind. They dominate Test cricket with swaggering ease, and are quite possibly invincible at home.

What then, could England have done to prevent such a crushing defeat? It is a familiar complaint, but the injury list was a huge factor. Australia were able to select their best eleven, while Hussain's side was a badly-botched DIY job. Missing Graham Thorpe, Andrew Flintoff, Ashley Giles, Andrew Caddick and Simon Jones deprived England of six definite starters. John Crawley is more than a fringe player, while Michael Vaughan and Mark Butcher played without being fully fit. Australia would have won the Ashes even if England had been able to select their best side, but they would not have kept the urn with such ease.

It is encouraging that Richard Dawson and Robert Key stood up and battled hard. Steve Harmison - in spite of his run-up jitters - also looked dangerous. Whether they will become genuine Test players remains to be seen, but they have survived the toughest possible induction into the game. Alex Tudor lacked zip, and will surely be affected by the sickening blow inflicted on him by Brett Lee. A word to commend the paceman is necessary, for he was helping Tudor with genuine concern within seconds. He blotted his copy-book by bouncing Harmison subsequently, but this was a tame effort, surely not intended to hit the batsman.

So forget the nonsense about the game dying in England (just look at the crowds when South Africa tour next year) and look forward to the one-day series. It is a tough assignment, but a young England team might just be able to spring a few surprises. The Barmy Army certainly deserve a change in luck.