The Ashes 2005 September 1, 2005

Stability versus stagnation

Jones's presence at The Oval next week will mark this England team out as the most stable Ashes side in more than 120 years

Jason Gillespie and Adam Gilchrist: feeling the ravages of time © Getty Images

It's little wonder Simon Jones is being housed in an oxygen tent and whisked off to see mysterious German doctors with triple-barrelled names and vays of making you valk. Quite apart from the fact he is the form bowler of the past two Tests, Jones's presence at The Oval next week will mark this England team out as the most stable Ashes side in more than 120 years.

Not since Arthur Shrewsbury's tour Down Under in 1884-85 has any Ashes eleven remained unchanged from first match to last, and in a happy omen for the current campaigners, Shrewsbury's men finished on top, sealing a 3-2 win with an innings victory in the final Test at Melbourne. One only need witness the effortless camaraderie of England's pre-match warm-ups, or the sheer unadulterated delight in each other's success, to know that the current team is a team in the very truest sense of the word.

Cricket may be a individual sport played by teams, but for sustained, collective success, there really is no alternative to the policy that England have now set in stone, of identifying your men for the role, and sticking with them through thick and thin. England were first taught this valuable lesson in the seminal summer of 1989 when, in a nod to the sort of outback free-for-alls that used to take place on the earliest tours Down Under, the 29 of Albion, led by Hon. DI Gower, were routed 4-0 by Mr Allan Border's XII.

Four years later, the lesson still hadn't sunk in, as England's 24-man federation were stuffed 4-1, this time by a 13-man Aussie contingent - an extra player had to be drafted in after Craig McDermott twisted his bowel during the Lord's Test. Even in 1997, England's year of relative glory, the respective tallies were 18-14, after Steve Waugh's thousand-yard stare had panicked England into a hasty blooding of the Hollioake brothers.

There is, however, a flip side to this ethos of mateship, one that Australia are only just beginning to fathom, and one that England - being a decade behind in every step of the cycle - would do well to heed when their own turn comes for blood-letting ahead of the 2013 Ashes. The side that grows up together grows old together, and without careful management, gets rolled over together. Every dynasty is the same - they all think the good times will last forever.

The fascination of this series - aside from the endlessly thrilling cricket, of course - is the sense of journeys being completed and embarked upon. For the past decade and more, Australia have been on the ride of their lives, but slowly and inexorably, the momentum is beginning to wane. Before too long, regardless of the result at The Oval, the great Aussie juggernaut will have shuddered to a halt, and given their current rate of development, there's no question that England have what it takes to fill the power vacuum for at least the next five years.

Australia's story, however, will not be complete until it has gone full circle, and in that respect, it is how the current brotherhood react to their new adversity that will colour the coming generation. The one scenario that all of Australia has striven to avoid is a repeat of the traumatic departures of Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Greg Chappell, at the end of the 1983-84 season.

That triple retirement at Sydney was the template for Steve Waugh's own swansong 20 years later. Chappell made a massive hundred, Marsh and Lillee combined on the scorecard for two final occasions, and Australia sealed a thumping ten-wicket win. They needed to savour the moment as well - in the next five barren years, Australia would achieve just seven more victories.

There's no way on earth that this team's decline could be quite so dramatic, but the past month has awakened those long-suppressed notions of mortality. The same issues of stability and loyalty that were once Australia's trump cards are now coming across as complacency and stagnation. Of the stalwarts to have taken part in the series to date, Matthew Hayden and Jason Gillespie seem certain never to play for their country again, while Adam Gilchrist's alarming decline is a stark reminder that he turns 34 in November, and his best years could well be receding.

All such issues lie ahead of England. With an average age range of 27 to 30, this current crop has at least three years of prime athletic prowess before the worries need set in. But ever since the first of those Ashes trouncings in 1989, Australia has been the role model for every step of England's regeneration. On the evidence of this tour to date, the lessons are not over yet.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo