An Ashes forecast 2005 September 23, 2004

Freed from the psychological shackles

Now there are plenty of wise souls out there who would warn me to wind my neck in and take stock of my senses, but all of a sudden, I really don't care



Michael Vaughan: played the team, not the format © Getty Images

Now there are plenty of wise souls out there who would warn me to wind my neck in and take stock of my senses, but all of a sudden, I really don't care. In my entire 26 years I have never known what it is like for England to be in possession of the Ashes, and for all I know, I may have to wait another 26 for hell to freeze over, or for Glenn McGrath's ankle to buckle once and for all.

But (and having got this far, I might as well blurt it out in the open), I believe that the Ashes are coming home next summer - and you know what? - I believe that the England team believes it as well. That's a sensation I have never, ever, encountered before, and it's a safe bet that no English player of the 1990s ever felt it either. It's all rather surreal, but as my uncle used to say while letting rip at the dinner table, such things are better out than in. Anyway - that's the brainfart out of the way. Let's look at the evidence.

Admittedly, this bout of optimism is tinged with opportunism. The English have long been scathing about the merits of one-day cricket (this column has been no exception) and so it is a little rich, all of a sudden, to parade a one-off pyjama bash as definitive proof of a brave new world. But, though they seek to deny it, Tuesday's victory at Edgbaston holds far wider significance.

For the past 15 years (with a brief and heady exception in 1997) Australia have merely had to click their fingers, and England have rolled over to have their tummies tickled. This time, however, there was not an iota of servitude on display. Even at the halfway mark of the match, when Australia had posted what looked like a healthy 259 for 9, the team was a sea of smiles and back-slaps. "Job done," was the message being transmitted, and so it turned out. The fear factor that has held England in a vicelike grip for eight consecutive series has been banished, quite possibly for good.

That is an outrageous amount to read into one miserable one-day game, I hear you say, and granted, it is something of a leap of faith. But to be freed from those psychological shackles is half the battle won, and all things being equal, next summer's Ashes will be decided purely in terms of the players on display, and not in terms of what has gone before. When you consider that, since 1989, England have won just one "live" Ashes Test in 43 encounters (Edgbaston 1997), that is a vast amount of baggage to offload.

Let's not kid ourselves - Australia desperately wanted to win the Champions Trophy. The tournament has been much maligned for its poor organisation and midwinter atmosphere, but it remains the second-biggest trophy in the one-day game, and a notable omission from Australia's CV.



Andrew Strauss: straight into the thick of things © Getty Images

However, somehow England wanted it more and, in the circumstances, that is no mean feat. Australia, famously, had not lost a one-day game to England for five years and 14 matches, and on the last two occasions - a VB Series final and a make-or-break World Cup clash - they came storming past in the final straight to win through their sheer force of personality. Those performances were awesome and inevitable, and England were given no right of reply.

But never mind the result itself. Tuesday's sub-plots were perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the day - in particular, Michael Vaughan's dissection of Brett Lee. Vaughan, lest we forget, has been a hopeless one-day batsman for England this season, but at last, here was a stage on which he simply refused to fail. As a general rule of thumb, it is inadvisable to play the man, not the ball; but on this occasion Vaughan took the law one stage further, and played the team, not the format. As his confidence grew, so the shots were unfurled, and before long it was just like watching Sydney all over again.

Marcus Trescothick scored some notable hits as well during his vital innings, but Andrew Strauss was the bigger revelation. Here was the sort of lily-livered public-school boy that Glenn McGrath would once have hunted down for fun, and yet he sashayed onto centre stage (not for the first time this season) and cracked 52 not out from 42 balls. There had been fears that Strauss might turn out to be the modern-day equivalent of Tim Robinson - a magnificently effective batsman against the lesser lights, but out of his depth at the ultimate level - but on this evidence, he's got the mental strength to match his undoubted talent.

England even managed to win without a significant contribution from Steve Harmison or Andrew Flintoff, an unheard-of development in one-day cricket this summer. Mind you, Flintoff did have one role to play - he showcased Lee's insecurities towards the end of the game when, with 11 runs needed and the victory in the bag, he was caught at slip for 16. Lee celebrated with the sort of exaggerated and inappropriate gusto that Usman Afzaal had demonstrated on reaching his half-century at The Oval in 2001 - and it revealed more about the stature of the opponent than it did about the skill of the celebrator.

Admittedly, there is a mountain of cricket to be played between now and July 21, 2005, the date of the first Test, and one only needs to rewind 12 months - to Flintoff's coming-of-age Test at The Oval - to see how far the fortunes of England and their next big opponents, South Africa, have diverged in that time.

But it is Australia who have the truly gruelling itinerary. They face their final-frontier summit meeting with India, home-and-away grudge matches against New Zealand, and a three-Test series against a resurgent Pakistan. If that sort of a match-up does not produce a few notable casualties, then fair dinkum - the Aussies are superhuman after all.

Given a settled side and a following wind, and England will surely enter the Ashes with their best opportunity in a generation. In the meantime, until next summer, I'll wind my neck back in again.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. His English View now takes a break until May, when he will get ready to eat his words. Sambit Bal's Indian View will appear here every Thursday until then.