March 6, 2013

Time for Pup to unleash the mongrel

Come the English summer and the Ashes, Michael Clarke could do worse than look back to 1989 and get some of that Border-Waugh mojo working

The trouble with cricketers these days, in the post-Waugh era, is that they've about as much sense of history as a mayfly with amnesia. I wonder. Take Matt Prior, who recently spoke of the England dressing room's desire to carve a chunky slice of it by chalking up four consecutive Ashes wins, a feat the national team last accomplished so long before the first chocolate cake was cut on Test Match Special, it predated the first radio.

Of course, for an Englishman to admit to even a twinge of a flicker of sympathy for Australia, especially right now, is to risk copping all manner of Twitterish abuse. Is there anything more insufferably patronising than a pitying Pom? I seriously doubt it. I'd be lying, nonetheless, if I denied deriving any delight from the way, however fruitlessly, Glen Maxwell melted India's middle order on Monday.

As any Pom or Cobber with the vaguest feel for the day before yesterday knows, one-sided Ashes victories are almost as insufferable as defeat. When the opposition aren't worthy of licking your boots, whither the satisfaction, that exquisite, ecstatic, sadistic joy of nose-in-the-air one-upmanship? That's why, for a generation of Australians, Pom-pitying became a pre-Ashes ritual. During the internet's early years, emails would ping over from Sydney and Melbourne with nauseating regularity, generously suggesting that this time, finally, my boys might conceivably bloody a few noses (although, naturally, there wasn't a cat's chance in hell they'd last the full 15 rounds).

The wheels grind quicker now. Bragging rights have changed hands three times since 2005; this hadn't happened in the same decade since the 1970s, and that was the first instance of such volatility since the 1930s. In fact, this is the first time in a generation that England - having won three of the last four rubbers, their best sequence since 1981-87 - have had cause to view the urn as a minor bauble. Back then, the all-together-now retirements of Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Greg Chappell, aggravated by unapproved tours to South Africa, left Australia as the only regular rivals they didn't mind playing.

Sealing the deal was the Botham Factor - until 1989. That was the last time England entered a home Ashes series scenting three triumphs on the trot, the upshot a brutal non-contest that saw the lure of the rand re-infect English nostrils, though far greater blame for their worst home defeat by the oldest enemy since 1948 could be attached to the rise of the new macho army, spearheaded by Steve Waugh and Merv Hughes, conducted by the hitherto affable Allan Border. And boy, does March 2013 smell a lot like March 1989.

Back then, you needed x-ray eyes to find an English hack who wasn't utterly convinced that, for the first time since 1956, the urn would be claimed for the third time running. One national paper sacked its correspondent for such woeful non-prescience. Even yours truly, a confirmed non-gambler, lost £50.

That cockiness, felt the victors, extended to the players. "It was not so much the words themselves as the arrogance with which they were delivered that got us hot under the jockstraps," wrote Geoff Lawson a mite too graphically in his diary. "As well as steeling our resolve, I'm sure these statements put a lot of unnecessary pressure on the England players."

Micky Stewart, England's first official coach-cum-manager, said he first became aware of this ferocity of focus before the first ODI, at Lord's. "We had been practising at the Nursery End and were walking back to the pavilion, past where the Australians were practising. Allan Border was very pally with several of the England team: 'Both', David Gower, Allan Lamb and, from his time at Essex, Goochy. But as we approached, somebody heard him saying, 'Don't talk to them at all as they go by.'"

Border was the No. 1 antagonist. "Gone was the apologetic leader of 1985 who seemed to accept defeat as the natural course of events," attested Mark Ray. "He wanted the Australians to thrash every county team they met and to play as aggressively as possible against England. However, he knew that the best way to get his team to play like that was to do so himself." And so he did, on the very first day of the series, at Headingley, source of so many Australian scars. His frenetic, almost frantic, 66 off 118 balls was characterised by Martin Johnson as "a champagne thrash", even if, by contemporary standards, that does sound a tad flat-plonkish.

That 4-0 walloping was the first of eight series on the bounce to go Australia's way; does a complete role reversal beckon? True, England's Lions have just been resoundingly defanged Down Under, failing to win a single match, but those were all 50-over duels. Right now, probably for the first time since 1882 and definitely since 1977, the Ashes seem to be more of a priority for the Poms. The Big Bash League has inspired more vaulting, individualistic dreams. Only a sense of history can fuel a revival for the Ashes as an even match. Or so the prevailing wisdom goes.

This summer it could be very different. Australia's strongest suit by far is pace, a commodity as vital in the shires as anywhere else on Planet Cricket. This is no time, in other words, for England to trade one c-word for another. Confidence is fine and dandy, but when that overgrows, you can bank on the opposition playing the ace in complacency.

That was precisely the trap David Gower and his colleagues fell into in 1989. It is hard to see Alastair Cook and Co following suit in New Zealand, but they might be best advised to ignore the scores from Mohali and Delhi.

During the internet's early years, emails would ping over from Sydney and Melbourne with nauseating regularity, generously suggesting that this time, finally, my boys might conceivably bloody a few noses (although, naturally, there wasn't a cat's chance in hell they'd last the full 15 rounds)

Twenty-three summers ago, Border's brigade had a dozen fixtures before the main event kicked off; this time they have but two: scant time to make a statement, especially for players largely unversed in the conditions, not least since Somerset and Worcestershire are likely to field bags of second-stringers. The most pressing question, nevertheless, is not whether Michael Clarke and his men have time to score psychological points but whether they have a captain capable of emulating Border's growling lead.

Those who scoff at the aura of captaincy will point out that the Australian Academy had opened for business in 1987, and that Bobby Simpson's appointment as coach had instilled steel as well as an emphasis on fielding. For England, moreover, the winter of 1988-89 had been entirely Test-free - thanks to the cancellation of an India tour rendered profoundly un-PC by captain Graham Gooch's links with apartheid South Africa - whereas Australia had been hardened by a five-chapter odyssey against the marauding West Indies, whom they pressed far harder than England had the previous summer. More store could be set by that than the protagonists' latest form in India.

It would be a mistake, even so, to underestimate the power of a captain's example. Even more than Gower, Michael Vaughan is perhaps the closest tosser-in-chief England have possessed to Clarke, in style, cunning, philosophy and temperament. In 2005, Vaughan delivered his own statement of intent, informing Duncan Fletcher he wanted to go in first-drop, a more challenging role than No. 4. Still more telling were the tactics for the summer's early head-to-heads.

"Leave your ego in the dressing room." That was Michael Kasprowicz's rallying cry while playing for Glamorgan under Fletcher. Now England's coach felt entirely the opposite was required. The biggest bullies were targeted: Matt Hayden and Andrew Symonds. At Edgbaston, Simon Jones crossed the line between fair and foul - as Hayden had so often done with his lips - by collecting the ball in his follow-through and hurling it back. Less celebrated but equally pointed was Darren Gough's earlier dart at Symonds at the Rose Bowl - on a hat-trick, in a T20 international, he greeted him with a bouncer. Almost immediately, Jon Lewis dispatched him for a duck. Perversity thy name is strategy.

Clarke confirmed his own penchant for adventure when he declared on day one in Hyderabad. Not since Bradman has an Australian batsman towered as far above his team-mates as he does now. "He's what Aussies love more than anything else, a working-class boy made good," contends Jarrod Kimber, a converted Pup-ophile, in the terrific new Wisden quarterly, The Nightwatchman. "His problem was that Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Allan Border seemed to have no aspiration. They are still seen as battlers made good. Hard men who are heroes to an Australia that likes to see itself as a hard land. It is, to put it mildly, bullshit. The Australian cricket captain is the Prime Minister Australia wishes it had. Steve Waugh is that man, Michael Clarke is not."

Back to the c-word. Another c-word. "Every world-class athlete," a British cycling coach once declaimed, "has a bit of the c*** in them." Notwithstanding Simon Katich's objections, Clarke has yet to show us he is not an exception. If David Steele was the bank clerk who went to war, this Clarke may need to do likewise. The key to confounding the doom-and-gloom-mongers might not only depend on him declaring nine wickets down, or his genius, but his inner Border-Waugh.

Nor would it hurt to remind himself, on a daily basis, of this year's goal: avoiding his country's longest period of cricketing woe since Marconi and his butler started messing about with wires and oscillators.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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