November 2, 2010

No favourite, no underdog

Form or intuition - what does one go by when picking a team to back for the Ashes? Both Australia and England seem vulnerable this time round

Just as no battle plan survives contact with an enemy, few cricket predictions survive even a day of actual play. But the augurs of the forthcoming Ashes series are worth recording: England enter the series in the decidedly unfamiliar position of overdogs, forecast to ratify the possession of the urn they regained 14 months ago.

When did this last happen? England arrived with the Ashes four years ago, but vestigial belief in their hopes lasted approximately one ball - the Steve Harmison wide that zeroed in on Andrew Flintoff's sternum at second slip. Even when England last prevailed down under in Australia, they were decidedly unfancied, their tri-cornered triumph of 1986-87 coming after an immortal three-pronged assessment of their capabilities from the Independent's Martin Johnson: "Can't bat, can't bowl, can't field."

There was 1978-79, although the forecast that stands out from that series was Australian captain Graham Yallop's flippant prediction of a 6-0 scoreline, which Mike Brearley's Englishmen would almost entirely reverse. You must look back a further 20 years for a parallel with England's current favouritism, when Peter May's team of the talents arrived in Australia tipped to carry all before them - and were right royally stuffed. Expectations weren't ill-founded. It's hard to pick a bone with selection when you run your eye down the MCC team sheet, studded with such names as May, Cowdrey, Graveney, Bailey, Evans, Laker, Lock, Trueman, Statham and Tyson. As Jack Fingleton records in his classic account Four Chukkas to Australia, May's team was thought so strong that it would have "played the Rest of the World and beaten them"; their 4-0 defeat duly became the "biggest upset of modern cricket times".

One individual who was not surprised, however, was May himself. He embarked on the trip full of foreboding, believing "we were always going to struggle". The series was overshadowed by the Australian chuckers to which Fingleton's title slyly referred, but May declined to use this as an excuse, at the time or in retrospect: "Australian cricket played on huge ovals is a young man's game and we had too many players on their last tour. If you have lost the keen edge, Australia finds it out."

The fashion nowadays is for two - and three-Test series; Ashes cricket, over 25 days, fluctuates naturally, involves accepting that this will be so, and cultivating the competence of regrouping

So how does an XI's reputation inflate beyond its abilities, and do any such considerations apply to the circumstances preceding this Ashes series? May points to one common mistake: the tendency to read teams on paper rather than gauge the potentialities of individuals at particular stages in their careers and against particular oppositions.

Something similar applied ahead of the Ashes of 2005. On Statsguru, Ricky Ponting's team looked unassailable. McGrath, Lee, Gillespie and Warne versus Harmison, Flintoff, Jones and Giles? And had McGrath been injured at the end of summer and Jones at the start, what price the MBEs and open-topped bus rides? Yet as Adam Gilchrist has since admitted, the Australians, for all their battle honours, were an unhappy side, grumpily led by Ponting, absent-mindedly coached by John Buchanan. Andrew Strauss has also confided that a key conversation for him that summer was with Stephen Fleming after England's defeat at Lord's. Fleming urged Strauss to look past his chagrin - Australia were vulnerable, apprehensive about England's pace - and feeling turned out to matter more than figures.

An interesting aspect of the prognostications about the forthcoming Ashes is that they might be thought guilty of the opposite sin, of being intuitive rather than empirical. Alastair Cook, Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen rather drifted through the northern summer - in Pietersen's case, out. Andrew Strauss averages less than 25 in Australia and barely 30 this calendar year. Of England's key bowlers, Graeme Swann took just six wickets in the first four Tests of last year's Ashes, while Jimmy Anderson has paid 56 runs for each of his Australian wickets and 82 runs for each of his wickets in Australia. The vibe around England is that of a resourceful team rather than a particularly accomplished one, well led and well coached. But from whom do we members of the media pick up that vibe? Often from others just like ourselves, where it's easy to fall in with a consensus.

How, meanwhile, does one read form ahead of an Ashes series? Ashes form seemed to point only one way in 1958-59. England had won the three preceding Ashes series; Australia had won only two and lost eight of the previous 16 Ashes Tests. Yet there were other indicators. England had toured South Africa in 1956-57 and been well held; a year later Australia had stuffed the Springboks out of sight, Richie Benaud and Alan Davidson, previously disappointments against England, suddenly coming of age. Why did observers choose to ignore this? Perhaps because of the Ashes' cultural hold on both countries - the sense that only what happened in an Anglo-Australian contest counted. Perhaps also because overseas Test matches then took place well out of sight. Even their own countrymen were unaware what allrounders Benaud and Davidson had turned into.

Those considerations no longer apply. The Ashes are no longer the only game in town, nor do the cricket teams of Australia and England disappear from the view of their own followers when abroad, even if it is true that foreign cricket feats still tend to be discounted, football lording it over the sporting winter of both countries. A kind of comparative indicator is available today in the respective recent meetings of Australia and England with Pakistan. But who can now say with confidence that performances against Pakistan are corroborative of anything?

The ultimate reason to distrust form seems to me to be just how different Ashes cricket has become from even the rest of Test cricket. The fashion nowadays is for two- and three-Test series; Australia last played a five-Test series against other than England 10 years ago; England last played a five-Test series against other than Australia six years ago. Test cricket over the shorter timespan is often about winning first up, then attempting to live off that modish cricket concept of "momentum"; Ashes cricket, over 25 days, fluctuates naturally, involves accepting that this will be so and cultivating the competence of regrouping.

It is also a different physical proposition. The world now seems to want its cricket games to end in three hours. Each day this summer, Australia and England will spend almost as long as that simply preparing to play; twice, they face back-to-back Tests. So this is not like wondering whether racehorses bred to gallop 2000m have it in them to tackle 2500m; it's comparable to setting 2000m thoroughbreds the challenge of a 20km cross-country course lined with hurdles and equestrian hazards.

But while contemplating the Ashes in advance might be confounding, it also reminds us of just how intricate are the contests within the contest of a team game played in changeable conditions over such a long duration. We are not simply looking at two teams; we are looking at two teams against each other and over the longest cricket haul of all. Swann has prospered against left-handers in his career, but how many will Australia pick? Strauss has fallen five times to Zaheer Khan in five Tests and four times to Mohammad Amir in four, so how will he deal with the similarly left-armed Doug Bollinger? And because England and Australia are now both middling international teams, it is almost the case that the longer you dwell on one or other, the more palpable seem their vulnerabilities. England, you think, can't possibly be favourites - until you start looking at Australia.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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