July 31, 2013

The Phoenix factor

Do Michael Clarke's beleaguered company have it in their loins and hearts to call on the spirit of 1937?

"We were uplifted in time for Christmas. The streets of Sydney, in the sudden and glorious twilight, twinkled welcome as we reached the city after the second victory. In the crowded lounge of Usher's, a man came up to me and asked if I would have a drink. I thought it was very nice of him to be so quick with his congratulations. But apparently he was celebrating for another cause. 'You are Neville Cardus,' he said, and when I said I was, he went on: 'Well, here's to you. I've been looking for years for an uglier man than me, and you win easily.'"

Cardus took the insult in good heart. After all, the Ashes were as good as regained. England had whisked Australia out for 58 and 80 in successive innings en route to demolitions in Brisbane and Sydney: two up, three to play. What unfolded before Cardus in the first week of 1937, though, was the opening act in one of the game's most startling plot-twists.

The baggy green shoots of recovery began to peep through at the MCG, nourished on the first evening by a downpour of 40 days and nights' intensity. England had dispatched Australia for a paltry 181 for 6 but while the ensuing sticky situation saw the captain, Gubby Allen, hesitate and lose - first the grip then the match - Don Bradman pulled the most daring yet sagacious tactical stroke of his career.

Fearing exposure to what Cardus called "the worst wicket seen even at Melbourne in a lifetime", the Don copied Jackie Grant and Bob Wyatt's strategy in soggy Bridgetown in January 1935, reversing the order. When "Chuck" Fleetwood-Smith wondered why he had been instructed to open with Bill O'Reilly, his skipper's logic was impeccable. On that pitch, so long as you didn't try and actually hit the ball, you could survive. "You can't hit the ball on a good wicket," he assured the fretful spinner, "so you've got no chance of hitting it out there." The upshot of that shuffle was a stand of 346 between Bradman and Jack Fingleton that flung the balance violently in the opposite direction and would endure for no fewer than 72 years as a Test peak for the sixth wicket.

Up to that juncture, Bradman's personal input, by his own inhuman standards, had been flitting between the moderate and the downright rotten: 83, 38 and two ducks. At the Gabba, he had gone second ball, reported Cardus, a great admirer of his genius if not his method; unsettled by a rising ball from Allen, he'd reacted with an instinctive stab "as purposeless as a man flicking at the gyrations of a wasp or mosquito". At the SCG, he'd even aroused Cardus' infrequently glimpsed talent for the harsh put-down, departing playing a shot "not fit for public view", one speaking of "little hope, little resource". Naturally, he was on his game when it mattered most: his contribution of 270 to that near-holy alliance with Fingleton would win perhaps the highest accolade of all: Wisden's vote as the best Test knock of them all.

Naturally, the counter-factual possibilities remain endlessly intriguing. What if those rains had stayed in their cloudy home? The closest we can get to reasonable certainty is that the greatest prolonged fightback in Test annals would have died before it had been conceived (in the interests of fairness, a combination of injuries - particularly to the rampant Allen and Bill Voce - and meek, fluffy batting would so deplete England that Hedley Verity was promoted to open in Adelaide).

Consider the microcosmic question: having led Australia with conspicuous success in South Africa the previous winter, winning three consecutive Tests by an innings, would Vic Richardson have been recalled to lead the Ashes tour of 1938? Now consider the positively cosmic question. To adapt a line inspired by another Don, the maddest of the Madison Avenue Mad Men, WWTDHDN? What Would The Don Have Done Next?

What if he had not defied just about every ounce of received wisdom by telling Fleetwood-Smith to pad up first? What, more pertinently, if his barely born son had not died on the eve of the series, imbuing a sudden determination to shed all caution, to live for the moment? On the night his son's life was hanging by that brittle thread, he had asked Cardus to spend the evening with him, and during its course assured him he only intended to score two centuries in the rubber but would attack the bowling as never before: the intention, he had said, was to "enjoy himself". A few hours later, his son was dead.

Naturally, the stricken Bradman focused on the one thing he felt he could control: that permanently thirsty bat. That 270 begat another match-winning 212, in Adelaide, then a catalytic, climactic 169 back at the MCG. Given the brewing dressing-room discontent over his leadership - ironically, the ringleader, or so he was convinced, was Fingleton - he needed every last one of those runs. The ripples would be felt for an exceedingly long time, almost all of them in an unequivocally good way.


Publicly at least, Clarke sounds bullish but calm, refusing to write off his side's prospects - but what else can he say?

Many have come close to matching Australia's renaissance in the 76 years since that iconic Melbourne encounter; none have gone the whole nine yards. At Sabina Park in 1954, Len Hutton and Trevor Bailey sealed England's recovery from two down. In successive series against England, in 1955 then 1956-57, South Africa equalised after surrendering the first two Tests. India, conversely, twice ran out of steam, losing the decider against West Indies in 1974-75 and against Australia three winters later.

And these days of course, with the five-Test series - the full Monty of the species - more or less extinct beyond the Ashes, opportunity so rarely knocks. But now it has. Do Michael Clarke's beleaguered combo have it in their loins, hearts, or capabilities to grasp it? To call it a big ask is akin to saying their last prime minister would have won a second term had she not fallen foul of a couple of slightly non-PC types. But hey, let's think big out there. At the risk of being hauled off to the tower for a swift beheading, let's dream that impossible dream.

First, though, let's isolate where the pear-shaping started. At the WACA eight months ago, lest we forget, Australia bowled out South Africa for 225: thwarted by a comatose track in Brisbane, stonewalled by Francois Du Plessis's astonishingly gritty debut in Adelaide, now, surely, they would make that superiority tell, soar to the top of the Test rankings, and give Ricky Ponting the send-off he so richly deserved. By the end of the second day, with savage abruptness, it had all gone horribly Pete Tong.

Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and - damningly - Robin Peterson harried and hurried out the raggedly undisciplined homeboys for 163, whereupon Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, and AB de Villiers took turns to brutalise and caress the Mitchell boys into shoulder-shrugging impotence. Shane Warne said he felt like "jumping off the couch, grabbing the ball and having a bowl", though he would surely have regretted it. Smith and Amla did the lion's share of the slaughtering, roaring their way to a stand of 178 off 153 balls; by stumps, 199 had gushed from 31 overs: game over. Sri Lanka would feel the backlash, but so deep were the scars left by having gone so close to outplaying and out-manoeuvring the brand leaders, the tour of India became another, more complete, humiliation waiting to happen.

Seven of those shell-shocked in Perth are now in England. Publicly at least, Clarke sounds bullish but calm, refusing to write off his side's prospects - but what else can he say? As he addresses his battered troops at Old Trafford tomorrow, he will need no reminding that it will be time to drag out the trusty post-modern cliché that never strays far from any captain's lips:

Look, guys, let's accentuate the positives. Let's forget all that bloody nonsense about Mickey and David and Shane (sorry mate, forgot you were still with us). Let's concentrate on what we did right in those first two-and-a-bit Tests against the bloody Saffers. Let's give those bloody Poms a few more reasons to whinge.

Look, sure, we've lost Punter and Mr Cricket. Sure, Duncan's kid brother has gone home. But look at how productive the reinforcements have been. Brad and Peter returned with loudish bangs. Steve is becoming the all-round influence we knew he could be long before the selectors plucked him out of thinnish air in 2010. Phil has dropped some pretty heavy hints that he can be as adept at knuckling down as introducing bowlers to his little friend the knuckle-duster. Usman looked fabulous at Lord's. And look at Ashton bloody Agar. Wasn't even supposed to be here but he's already murdered a couple of ancient records.

Look, I know you think I left my mojo in that restaurant in Mohali - remember, the day before that smart-arse bloke with the stupid moustache had me stumped first ball? But look, here it is, safe and sound in my back pocket, along with some radical field placements you won't believe.

Look, let's put it this way. Let's pretend it's Melbourne 1937. If you lot promise not to do anything daft like begging the selectors to dump me for Shane (sorry, mate, forgot you were still here), I'll play The Don. Jump on my back.

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