December 30, 2010

The voice of New England

The MCG result tells us things about the visitors and the hosts both: one young and ambitious, the other inept and fretful

England's comprehensive victory in Melbourne meant that the Ashes had been retained. It is an outstanding achievement. It's one thing to win the urn on home soil, another to venture overseas and protect it.

Andrew Strauss's side has accomplished a historically difficult feat, and with a game to spare. Unsated, in the way of true champions, they seek to inflict a heavy series defeat of the sort Australia seldom suffer, and even the West Indians have avoided in these years of decline and difficulty. That is the stuff of ambition.

Although the visitors will not agree, the match itself was a letdown, largely because the issue was settled on the opening day, and perhaps even before tea had been taken. It ended before lunch on the fourth day and with supporters still trying to get into the ground. Australian journalists regretting the loss of the three-day Test match of previous years - reporters appreciate a free day as much as the next man - found that it had most unexpectedly been revived in another guise. Truly the boot was on the other foot.

It is curious that three of the Tests have been one-sided and the fourth became a batting bonanza. Spectators yearn for a tight contest at the SCG, with the teams going toe to toe and ending up neck and neck. (Assuming, that is, readers can manage the mixed images!) Although it has been fun watching a visiting team so efficient that at times it has resembled a slick rugby side, a close match provides the tension upon which sport depends. Many Australians who were bored by the easy victories of previous seasons now feel the balance has shifted too far in the other direction. Cricket counts amongst the most cut-and-dried of games.

So many points arise from the contest that it is hard to select a couple for consideration. That sport tells us something, though by no means all, about the state of a nation widens the debate. Indeed the recent and most laudable trend in cricket writing has been to take the game out into the world, where it belongs, and not to pretend that it exists in isolation. Of course that attaches a responsibility sport ought to welcome. That all 22 players appearing at the MCG were pale skins ought to perturb both participants.

Two facts emerged from the match with particular clarity. Australia cannot quite so easily be put into a cosy package and labelled arrogant or condescending or any of the other epithets commonly applied by the occasional visitor moving in a small circle for a short period and nevertheless prepared to pass judgement. Certainly, like the fauna, local newspapers can be a trifle colourful and loud, but it is silly to assume that the entire nation treads that path.

Englishmen were startled to find upon arrival a few weeks ago that hardly any locals expected their own team to win the series. Had they tarried a while longer and listened a little closer they'd have discovered that not many Australian even like their side. If anything, that view goes too far. The players have their faults but they hardly wear horns. Just that none of the moderns has quite captured the public imagination in the way of folk heroes like Doug Walters or naughty champions such as Shane Warne. Visitors don't observe these things because they do not fit the stereotype.

Australians support their team from patriotism not nationalism. Admittedly punters were willing to back the hosts but cricketing folk were pessimistic. Having cast the Aussies as unrepentant loudmouths, these observers were taken aback. Had they not been informed on previous trips that they were doomed? Had not these remarks been only partly humorous? Where was the cocky Australian?

In fact all the assessments were realistic. And all proved correct. Perhaps the truth is that Australians don't stand on ceremony and have a keen understanding of sport. Of course they like to win and wear their desire on their sleeve. As far as can be told, though, they have not resorted to pitch- or ball-tampering to do so. Despite its image, too, Australia comes closer than most countries to attaining the noble goals of the French Revolution.

The sight of an England team dancing a jig in front of thousands of travelling supporters, none of them inclined to take themselves too seriously, was encouraging

England's victory has also offered insights into the state of that nation, all of them positive. The sight of an England team dancing a jig in front of thousands of travelling supporters, none of them inclined to take themselves too seriously, was encouraging. In much the same way one of the pace bowlers had posed for the front cover of a magazine considered in some quarters to be vulgar and dubious, and another has taken to sending entertaining tweets and making lively videos.

Previous England teams have tripped the light fantastic but none of recent memory has been remotely as relaxed and yet single-minded as this outfit. A supposedly uptight nation has produced a splendidly outgoing team. Starched shirts have been sent packing, and so have the wild ones. Meanwhile their opponents are surrounded by spin doctors anxious to massage the message and conceal all warts.

The second point to crop up from the MCG was that England's back-up players are not only superior to their opponents but also more mature and confident. Whereas the local replacements floundered, Chris Tremlett took the ball in Perth and promptly emerged as a match-winner. Tall, muscular and persistent, he worried every batsman and deserved his wickets. Adjusting his length he bowled just as well in Melbourne but wickets somehow eluded him. It's not so long ago that Tremlett was regarded as a softy. No less an authority than Shane Warne, once his county captain, tried to goad him into action, to little affect. Somewhere along the way the current team management has been able to transfer him from tentative outsider to strong-minded insider. Presumably the metaphorical carrot and stick were employed. Tremlett embraced both his talent and opportunity.

Much the same can be said about Tim Bresnan. He looks like a Yorkshireman - somewhere between a lump of coal and a porkpie - and he also plays cricket like one. So much of the best of England can be found in its south-west and north-east corners. Honest and skilful, Bresnan landed his fast-mediums on the spot, worried every batsman and kept going throughout a long and probing spell. Jonathan Trott's carefully constructed hundred alone denied the speedster recognition as man of the match.

By all accounts Bresnan is as likeable as he is capable - he was certainly popular during his stint in Sydney club cricket - and he too grabbed his chance with both hands. No hint of fear or doubt could be detected in his work. Plain as day the team's think tank has fostered belief in the rooms. Plain as day, too, a role has been assigned to every player. Bresnan was not asked to take on all Australia, merely to play a part within his capacity, one he had practised a thousand times before.

Contrastingly the Australians seemed to be living on a wing and a prayer. It has been a super reversal, engineered by astute leaders, executed by gifted players, carried out by a disciplined outfit. It has, too, been an expression of New England, with its classless babble. Suddenly Australia looks inept and fretful. It will last as long as England stays young and ambitious and dares to look forwards, and as long as Australian cricket dithers.

My guess is that Australia will take an entirely young side to England in 2013 and that the result will be much harder to predict than might currently appear likely. After all Australia is a modern, intelligent and literate country that celebrates sport and loves winning. The current hullabaloo might seem harsh but it is a necessary part of the restoration.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It