The ghosts of '89
Arguably England's greatest triumph of the 2005 Ashes did not come in victory. "Look over there," said Michael Vaughan at the end of the Old Trafford Test. "Australia are celebrating a draw. Just think what that means."
In a sense, Australia's 16 years of Ashes hegemony were bookended by the celebration of a draw. When Australia went to lunch on the final day of the first Test in 1989, they were thrilled. "As our meals were being served we were cock-a-hoop," wrote Ian Healy in his autobiography, "because we knew we couldn't lose." Australia may have been cock-a-hoop, but they certainly were not the cock of the walk. "Under the Southern Cross" was sung around once a year, not after every match. "We weren't used to winning," said Healy, "or even having a significant advantage in Test matches."
They soon would be. The story of their 4-0 victory in the 1989 Ashes, and how it changed Australian cricket at a stroke, is so well known that it might be on the syllabus. The precedent acts as a cautionary tale for those who think England barely need to dot i's and cross t's to retain the Ashes, yet there are probably more differences than similarities in Australia's build-up to the two series.
Despite some on-field struggles before the Test series in 1989, their world was far more stable: no coaches were sacked or players banned in the making of that Ashes triumph. Nobody predicted an England whitewash. But the odds on an Australia win at Trent Bridge in a fortnight are the same as they were for the first Test in 1989: 11-4. They were emphatic outsiders.
Allan Border's team was famously described as "the worst team ever to leave Australia" when they embarked on the Ashes tour. They were not so much written off as never written on in the first place. Australia had lost three of the last four Ashes, and had managed just one series win in the five and a half years since the simultaneous retirements of Greg Chappell, Rodney Marsh, and Dennis Lillee. The World Cup win in 1987 had not changed their Test form. "I would love the day I was part of a side that was really competitive," said Border, "and I could make captaincy decisions that were really positive."
England's record was just as bad as Australia's - they had won only one of the last 19 Tests - yet there was a widespread assumption that everything would be all right on the night. The reasons were threefold: their excellent Ashes record in the 1980s, the planned return of stars like Mike Gatting and Ian Botham, and particularly the feel-good vibes of the new regime of David Gower and Ted Dexter. "We don't intend to be second to anyone in any department," said Dexter. England fell in love with Gower all over again. He was the subject of various glossy feature interviews, and even adorned the cover of GQ, wearing a white shirt, black tie, and seductive half-smile.
Gower's face was instantly recognisable; that was not the case with many in the Australian squad, which included only four players who had toured England before. When the team arrived, and Border was asked to introduce them to the press, he told the players to come out one by one. "Do it that way," he joked, "and hopefully I might recognise you."
The tour did not start auspiciously. After a couple of gentle warm-ups at Dartmouth and Arundel, Australia lost their first significant fixture, a one-day match against Sussex, with Dean Jones breaking his cheekbone. Later that week they were beaten in the first first-class match of the tour. County champions Worcestershire won inside two days on a dreadful wicket at New Road, with the England hopeful Phil Newport taking 11 wickets.
To compound Australia's misery, Botham's scores of 39 and 42 were decisive in a low-scoring dogfight that Worcester won by three wickets. "BEEFY BASHES THE AUSSIES!" screamed the Daily Mirror headline. Worcestershire had been thrashed earlier in the week by the Combined Universities. By playground logic, Australia were worse than a bunch of students.
The perception was that they sulked like a bunch of children when they refused to play an impromptu one-day game against Worcestershire the following day. That was a little harsh - Australia cited their unhappiness with a pitch that was not just dodgy but dangerous - and it turned out to be just about the only bad press they got all summer. They are remembered for their granite-nosed attitude on the field, and Border's distaste for tea parties. Yet they were quite the opposite off the field. "The players are polite, approachable and socially restrained," wrote Alan Lee in the Times. "Australia may not be quite good enough to win this series but I believe they will compete to the end. I am also convinced that, win or lose, they will go home a popular side."
The English media were generally very respectful towards Australia before the series. They were certainly not the laughing stock that the current team have become on social media. They were generally recognised as an enthusiastic, slowly improving side. But almost everybody expected them to lose. On the morning of the first Test, the former England wicketkeeper Bob Taylor graded both sides' 12-man squads for the Mirror. His verdict was England 101-96 Australia.
The Aussies were perceived as a side that would get runs but not wickets. Henry Blofeld, in the Cricketer, suggested they would struggle to bowl out England in any of the six Tests. As it transpired, Terry Alderman took enough wickets to win two Tests on his own: he ended with 41 in six games, and "lbw b Alderman" was trending all summer.
The two batsmen who would score the most runs for Australia went into the series battling considerable insecurity. Mark Taylor had played just two Tests and suffered a dreadful start to the tour. Healy recalls Taylor telling a few team-mates over a drink: "I don't think I'm good enough to get runs at this level." Steve Waugh had played 26 Tests without making a century. "The insecurity and self-doubt I was carrying had accumulated to such an extent," he wrote in his autobiography, "that getting a century wasn't a target but a barrier."
Even Lillee and Jeff Thomson backed England, an occurrence that made Halley's Comet seem everyday by comparison. "It will be a close series but I think England will win it 1-0," said Lillee. "They are always hard to beat on their own dungheap." Thomson put his own spin on the Castlemaine XXXX slogan that was so popular in 1989. "I wouldn't," he said, "give you a XXXX for Australia's chances of regaining the Ashes."
Australia won a Test for every X. With hindsight, the remarkable thing is not that they triumphed 4-0, but that it was only 4-0: without rain, it would almost certainly have been 6-0. The only contest that England won was musical chairs: they notoriously picked 29 players to Australia's 12 in the series.
Before that Ashes, Australia had won one series and lost seven under Border. For the rest of his tenure they won eight and lost two. And then they got even better under Mark Taylor. Steve Waugh's explanation of his own breakthrough in 1989 might also apply to the team. "How did it all turn around?" he wrote. "I don't really have an answer; perhaps it was just meant to be."
Against that, Healy argues that there was no great mystery: a group of players - Taylor, Boon, Jones, Waugh, Healy, and Hughes - matured into high-class Test cricketers around the same time, and that green-and-golden generation were supported by the brilliance of the returning Alderman. Then there is victory's happy habit of perpetuating itself, especially in Australian sport. "With hindsight," says Healy, "the speed of our ascendancy and the extent of our Ashes triumph is not so surprising."
Rob Smyth is the author of The Spirit of Cricket - What Makes Cricket the Greatest Game on Earth