July 5, 2013

Can England do an Australia?

Judging by their recent form, the hosts can push for 5-0 in the Ashes. But can they be ruthless enough to do it?

A tri-series after the Champions Trophy, inevitably featuring India and Sri Lanka, has all the appeal of a civics class after a nice lunch. Inevitably then, the cricket world turns its eyes towards a contest that promises to be rich in character and which will be a great test of grit and temperament and all those other lovely words that we grew up associating Test cricket with.

And as the teams approach each other from corners so completely different to those they occupied for almost all of the last 25 years, I will be very interested in seeing whether England can do an Australia.

Between 1987 and 2005, and for one Ashes series after that, England were the side that turned up to be trampled over. Sometimes they tried, sometimes they gave the impression they were packing the white flag into their kit. Till the 2005 Ashes, a young adult in England wouldn't have known that beating Australia was possible. That wasn't only because the Aussies had an extraordinary collection of players, it was because they never let go. Let alone a window, there wasn't a sliver of light from below the door for England.

Now they come from different corners. England are marching forward as favourites, possessed of players who shouldn't ever lose. Australia are limping in, troubled by a sudden loss of batting talent. At the turn of the century, a similar difference in class would have meant a 5-0 win for Australia. Now do England have it in them, with this scarcely believable turn of events, to do an Australia? Shut them out 5-0?

Last year I saw both teams play in India, and though the conditions were very different from those looming in England, I saw two very contrasting traits.

England hadn't won in India since 1984-85, had a phobia of spin and a reputation for not being the best travellers. A turning ball carried the same fear as malaria. In the first Test, in Ahmedabad, India piled up 521 for 8 and England were bowled out for 191, before slumping to 199 for 5 in the second innings. "Four-zero" was on everybody's lips. Then Alastair Cook and Matt Prior added 157 in 60 overs, England kept India in the field for 154 overs, and even though they lost, the courage they had shown augured well. It was like losing a tennis set 5-7 from being 1-5 down.

Then in Mumbai, Kevin Pietersen played an unforgettable innings and Monty Panesar beat India on a track prepared for a home win. Cook scripted another epic in Kolkata, and England hung in grimly in Nagpur. This was a different England, not just ready for a scrap but seizing the opportunity in a land they didn't enjoy playing in.

Then I saw Australia. Like England, they lost the first Test too. MS Dhoni's double-century in Chennai, like Cheteshwar Pujara's against England in Ahmedabad, was demoralising. But you expected Australia to come hard thereafter, like they always do. You thought they would fight for every inch of territory. But they didn't. There was a dreadful inevitability to the next three Tests. Maybe the skills had declined - it always seems that way after a great generation has departed - but the fight seemed to have gone as well. They were playing like England had been expected to but hadn't. There wasn't a Cook or a Pietersen, or a Prior or a young Root, they could bat around.

Based on that evidence Australia are fragile. They give the impression that should they go a Test down, they will find the journey back into the series too daunting. They need all hands on board, including team spirit, the 12th player they claimed they always had on the field. It is this search for team spirit that sees them go back to a tough old-school man. There was a feeling that Australia had, in a sense, shed their traditional macho image for a more metrosexual air. Darren Lehmann will seek to take them back to their roots, and it will be interesting to see how much influence he wields. There is such a lot of talk about him but a coach neither bowls nor bats.

To be fair Australia have been proactive. You could argue that changing a coach two weeks before a major campaign isn't ideal, but they were going nowhere. Lehmann's appointment comes with another change that might be as significant. Michael Clarke will no longer be a selector, Lehmann will be, so the relationship between the two becomes critical, because the captain must get the players he wants without having a say in who they will be.

Just as Australia's ability to fight hard and to hang in there will be examined, so will England's ability to play frontrunner. Can they be ruthless enough? Will they go for 5-0 if the opportunity presents itself, or will they be happy with a series win of a smaller margin? Can they trample over Australia and inflict scars that could help them later in the year when another Ashes series comes around? Can they create an aura about themselves, like Australia used to? Can they seed hopelessness in the opposition ranks?

The essence of all sport lies in the mind of the competitor. It is there that the most fascinating battle will be fought this English summer. Assuming, of course, that there is a summer!

Harsha Bhogle is a television presenter, writer, and a commentator on IPL and other cricket. His Twitter feed is here

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