June 30, 2010

All hail England's new spirit

Strauss's boys are full of a new attitude, defined by resilience, optimism and unbreakability

Hope and hurt fell upon English sportsmen during a tumultuous week. Hurt came from another heavy defeat at the hands of the Germans, so often a nemesis on the games field if not upon the battlefield. As usual England's football team had arrived with a vast retinue and high expectation, and as usual it ended badly. Hope came from the cricket field, where the national side met and subdued its own dragon, a fearsome beast known for its leathery skin and salty tongue.

All the evidence indicates that England's football team is a busted flush and that the cricket side is the likelier to reach the summit. Indeed the flannelled fools have already taken a title, seizing the 20-over crown with a display of panache and punch so painfully missing among the kicking fraternity. Admittedly the Twenty20 crown is not the most precious in the collection - it's a bit like becoming King of Liechtenstein. Still, the trophy was hotly contested, and claimed with conviction. Paul Collingwood's side was the most daring and adaptable on display.

Without radical change England cannot hope to win a football World Cup. Doubtless injuries and bad luck played their parts - Wayne Rooney, the team's only priceless player, was not properly fit, whilst Rio Ferdinand was missed. Certainly the failure to review contentious goals and penalties is ridiculous. Sport goes to absurd lengths to protect referees and umpires, thereby encouraging what might loosely be termed the Darrell Hair Complex. In fact refs, like taxes and parking police, are a necessary evil. No significant effort ought to be made to enforce respect. In any case respect cannot be imposed, it has to be earned. Far more important to get the decisions right. Sport has always been unduly authoritarian. But then it is run by conservatives for conservatives, or it was until maverick businessmen took over a few years ago.

Regardless, English soccer, a product of the tabloids, was given its just desserts. At least supporters surpassed themselves. None of the feared violence or the nationalist fever that has been sport's worst enemy, even as patriotism has been amongst its greatest friends, was observed. Of course they had shown their mettle merely by turning up, thereby ignoring all the patronising talk about flak jackets and the drivel written in newspapers by slap-happy reporters of limited experience and bereft of worldly wisdom.

Despondent by pallid defeat on an African soccer field, English sportsmen could console themselves a little with red-cheeked victory over the Australians in the ODIs. Andrew Strauss and his cosmopolitan collection took an unassailable 3-0 lead in the series, and did so without any titanic individual performances but instead by dint of teamwork and determination. Throughout, the players summoned the sense of service and awareness of role that was missing from the football side with its big names.

Not so long ago the prospect of encountering a spirited, daring, nerveless England cricket side seemed about as distant as, well, watching a young and adventurous German soccer team, or an Argentine line-up that played with gusto and without cynicism, or an advancing African side that did not rely on a smattering of great players. (Ghana was the first African country to obtain independence, the first visited by Barack Obama after his election, and like all the last 16 nations at the World Cup it is a thriving democracy. Of course it is all connected; does anyone seriously suppose otherwise?)

Strauss and his merry men made the Australians look careworn. Ricky Ponting will not want the list of defeats to lengthen any further. Better than most, Australians understand the importance of edge. Part of the reason Brazil so often crush Chile is that they can tap into an intimidating history so that they take to the field with an air of invincibility. It's not so long ago that the appearance of an Australian had the same effect upon English cricketers. Not even the best of the recent captains could entirely disperse the element of fear. It's important to confront these demons. Graeme Hick had the same effect on Somerset bowlers. On a pre-season tour once, our players watched him endlessly run up and down a steep hill. Sensing awe, I went over and did the same, showing that he was not a demigod.

Of course a handful of ODIs are not the Ashes. Though they scorn excuses, the Australians could offer a few. Certainly it is their off season and the players have been enjoying a long break after 18 months of almost constant cricket, with all the strains and stresses that entails. Not the least telling remark about the personal complications that affected Michael Clarke in New Zealand was his coach's comment that "these things happen all the time, just that usually they don't come out". Cricketers are human, a point one tends to overlook a few years into retirement.

Ponting and pals are rusty. England are primed for battle. Obviously it has been a factor. If so inclined, Australia could point out that Brad Haddin has been missed and that their pace-bowling department will be stronger when the teams meet again in a few months on antipodean soil. All of these things are true and, not wanting to get carried away, England will acknowledge them. But do not distract attention from the two central points about the matches: England have batted better than their opponents. England have also been the better bowling side

As far as the batting is concerned, Australia's middle order has been scratchy. Ponting's form has been particularly poor. He struggled last season as well, at any rate till compiling a double-hundred against a fractious Pakistan outfit in Tasmania, and even then he lobbed a sitter to long leg before he scored and endured a torrid first hour at the crease. Till then his back-foot play, once the core of his work, had been a weak point. Often he was a fraction late on his pull - and it only takes a fraction. Defiant as ever, he refused to give himself more time to settle, and put away his leg hits till he was in complete command, strategies adopted by Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar in their later years. He intends to go down fighting.

Part of the reason Brazil so often crush Chile is that they can tap into an intimidating history so that they take to the field with an air of invincibility. It's not so long ago that the appearance of an Australian had the same effect upon English cricketers

As Tendulkar's resurgence has amply demonstrated, it is folly ever to discount a great sportsman. The same mental powers and exceptional abilities that took them to the top might yet reappear. If England can keep Ponting down, though, the job is half done. Part of the fascination of the coming winter lies in the sight of a great batsman trying his utmost to rouse himself into one last, gigantic performance even as he coaxes from his charges the sustained hostility needed to recapture the urn.

Michael Hussey, the other ageing batsmen, will also be in the spotlight. Australian sport is seldom slow with the axe. Contrastingly none of the Englishmen need fear that the end is nigh. As with the Australians, the order changes a fair bit for five-day cricket, but in both disciplines those in occupation are climbing as opposed to falling.

But it's the bowling that has given England its advantage. James Anderson might be a tad fitful - swing bowlers are haunted by the fear that they will lose it, the intangible thing that is their entire game - but on song he curls the ball both ways and does so at his leisure. Last spotted playing grade cricket in Sydney, where his attitude and talent were much admired, Tim Bresnan has emerged as a strong, sturdy campaigner able to hit the pitch and ball hard. Stuart Broad is tall and liberated and capable of turning a match around, and he proved his temperament at The Oval and Headingley last time around.

But it falls to Graeme Swann to define the new English spirit. Let's not beat about the bush. He is an offspinner. It is a mundane enough calling: more bank clerk than bank robber. What sets Swann apart is the same thing that is starting to infuse the entire England team. It is called spirit and it's not to be mistaken for cheerfulness. Spirit is not about back-slapping or huddles. Resilience is the crucial part of it. Grumpy teams and players can have it in abundance. Laughing sides can fall apart in a minute. Spirit is the difference between cement and ice. One lasts the course, the other goes to water when the heat is on.

Swann's spirit has two aspects. Presumably he is a merry soul, always game for a lark. Far more importantly, he has another quality, one possessed by bowlers greater than him, including Anil Kumble and Shane Warne. It is the outlook of eternal optimism. Not once in his illustrious career did Kumble admit that he was beaten. Many times he took the ball against the Australians with the batsmen dominant, and always he expected to take a wicket. Rage was his manner, as cheek is Swann's, but the result is the same. He keeps coming, remains optimistic, refuses to go away to lick his wounds. Warne, too, endured numerous beltings and never whined. He was not for breaking.

Although he does drop the ball cleverly and disguises his straight ball and changes of pace adroitly, Swann does not have at his disposal the dazzling deliveries detected in the repertoire of these predecessors. Indeed he toys with the humdrum. But he was dared to push himself to his limits, dared to press the button time and again, and has found a coach and a team that understands and encourages enterprise. It is so tempting to seek security - I built a career on it - but no glory lies that way.

Physical courage has long been recognised and respected in sport. Indeed it is one of the reasons for taking up a game, to be tested. Yet there is courage to be found in the leaving of the comfort zone. Swann unfailing meets that challenge. And his spirit is infectious.

It's never wise to underestimate an Australian desperate to reclaim the Ashes on home soil. The deed might yet be done. Mitchell Johnson and Doug Bollinger can bowl a bit as well. But this time England will come to play. Previously demolished in a few days, the team is showing the spark that counts among sport's most vital ingredients. Ponting and the touring think tank will not be rattled by these setbacks, but they will know that a worthy opponent arrives in Perth in October, and that between times there is a lot of work to be done.

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

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