What England needn't learn from Australia September 13, 2005

Hubris and humiliation

Anil Nair
The main casualty this summer might be less Australia's position at the top than a few fundamentals that sustained them there so far

Ricky Ponting: oh, for that air of invincibility © Getty Images
Low skies up for bidding for the most part of two days at The Oval ensured that England were spared the kind of tenterhooks that had an entire nation mopping its brows on day five at Trent Bridge. But if rain did reprieve England to an extent, it was Kevin Pietersen's steady nerves at seatbelt time that finally thwarted the Australians.

In the first innings, Shane Warne applied every bit of his smarts but Andrew Flintoff, well into his harness and with only the horizon in sight, guaranteed that England remained in the reckoning. In the end, England deservedly won back the urn.

For the Aussies, who to begin with had the bragging rights, the series changed from being a Schadenfreude - sentence first, trial later - to maintaining a sedate sangfroid. One needs only to recall the disdain, so snide and sure, the eight-time-in-a row winners showered on their opponents and how all that seemed to be vindicated after that early bath at Lord's.

Credit has to go to the English team who were resolute, refused to panic and, to a man, kept polishing their grudge against the Old Enemy like a new ball. It was clear they appreciated that the battles ahead would be less Eureka than barn-building, attrition rather than A-ha moments.

Then, as the series progressed, Edgbaston came as a twiddle band of unconnected music and the draw at Old Trafford a sort of mute or baffle to a wind instrument. Trent Bridge, particularly for a fully paid-up member of the Oz brigade, meant being shifted to hold, to an electrical nowhere before he could realign himself to a new reality.

England's achievement in Ashes 2005 is apparently the right to be called the new Australia. However, with all the euphoria attending their overhauling the world champions so convincingly it is possible the parvenus are not fully aware of what they are letting themselves into.

This is because the main casualty this summer might be less Australia's position at the top than a few fundamentals that sustained them there so far. To begin with, Ricky Ponting's blowing his top over the substitutes issue and John Buchanan's sad sublimation into an ambivalent figure - giving blindingly sunny talks about the future while his wards were often caught in a mess in the middle - are poignant reminders of where the obsession with "next level" has got them.

If - to give Ponting the benefit of the doubt - Vaughan was indeed deliberately resting his quicks, the larger irony then was lost on the touring captain: it was the Aussies who, collectively, needed a break, a revolving door for players, less for any particular game than as a matter of policy.

To have had only nine debutants in five years and 68 Tests - contrast it with England's 26 in 75 Tests for roughly the same period - speaks of a set-it-in-stone syndrome at work, at once formulaic complacency and an attempt at myth-making.

Rather than treat their team as a work-in-progress, Buchanan and co have tended to see it as a finished product. That accounts for the Gallipoli trip and the meet-up with Sir Alex, not motivational ploys but the necessary rituals of a cricket team bent on creating an aura around itself in the manner of the Chicago Bulls.

And in the light of what has transpired in this series what hubris! Talk of tempting fate. But, as much to blame as myth-making has been the emphasis on the habit of winning. Habits involve a naive system of appraisal. Success is indeed built on repetition, on picking the same players and pressing the same buttons but not at the cost of creating lasting comfort zones.

Yet that is, largely, what has happened to the Australians this time around. They have sort of overdosed on their hitherto fail-safe methods. The reinvention of Test cricket under Steve Waugh's watch has seen the Aussies perennially in pursuit of 300 a day, and it was his programmed over-eagerness to put bat to ball that accounted for Ponting's miserable run earlier in the series as much as it was for Hayden.

Caught four times either at the wicket or in the cordon and dropped at gully a fifth time, when always playing on the up or against the line, it was only when Ponting refused to pre-empt the delivery, putting something away only if it was there to be dispatched, that saw him save Australia at Old Trafford.

Hayden too finally repressed his instinct to climb into the bowling of Andrew Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard and the result was a superb hundred at The Oval. In other words, against an attack of such quality, it was less hard hitting than curbing their habitual aggression that worked for the Aussies.

In fact, the Aussies have shown the capability to knuckle down and jog the singles before too. On their tour to India last year, Gilchrist, standing in for an injured Ponting, was willing to be more defensive than Waugh would have ever contemplated. In Bangalore, the innings was allowed to be built around the debutant Michael Clarke and the slog-sweep was added to the Australian batsmen's catalogue of shots in order to rotate the strike better.

Perhaps, the one element from the original Aussie blueprint for serial success that the English could unequivocally adopt is their celebrated musketeer ethic, the mate-ship. The vibes between the players were excellent, despite the desperation, and they fed off each other's successes quite admirably.

But at particularly trying moments, the one-for-all-and-all-for-one attitude has not been matched by performances in the middle. In many a crisis situation in this series Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath have shown up to be the real marquee performers and the rest of the team mostly supporting cast.

Even as their physical powers decline, it is their nous, their competitive instincts and their ability to work out a batsman quicker than anyone else that has kept them ahead of the pack. McGrath's nine wickets at Lord's and Warne's 40 wickets in the series, including the six-for in both innings at The Oval, are well-deserved bookends at the end of their Ashes careers.

For such a hard-fought series, it doesn't really matter who finally got to parade the urn. For genuine cricket lovers world-over, the Ashes this time has again signaled its symbolic significance: less a contest between two Anglo-Saxon nations than a reminder of what cricket at its incinerating best can be - an incitement to memory, for sporting nostalgia and, like the real funereal remnant itself, always retaining a warmth of the live embers they once held.

Anil Nair is managing editor of Cricinfo India