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After the humiliation of Lord's, Australia refocused their game and, if it hadn't been for the weather, would probably have won in Manchester. That bodes well for the remainder of the Ashes
August 5, 2013
Features : Australia show their truer colours
Report : England retain Ashes on rainy day
Features : How England retained the Ashes
Features : Still reasons for Clarke to smile
Features : Underwhelming way to secure glorious prize
Matches: England v Australia at Manchester
Series/Tournaments: Australia tour of England and Scotland
The disappointment was writ large on everyone's face. Manchester's weather has behaved worse but rarely has it behaved so cynically. There was no joy for England, only relief. No joy for Australia, only a bitter taste. And there was no joy for the many media outlets that trade on tales of good and bad. There was just grey: damp and clinging grey.
The England players came to their dressing-room balcony and did a footbally thing, clapping their hands above their heads and smiling all cocksure. But there was barely a murmur in response because barely a person was left on the ground to respond. Just the workers and the anoraks and the anoraks don't even sing when they are winning. Damn the weather.
Joe Root and Johnny Bairstow will have dreamt for years of their Ashes moment: of easing a short ball past point or smashing a leg-break onto the second tier or simply playing forward defensively in the thou-shalt-not-pass mode that the first coach they ever knew insisted upon. Damn the weather. The match was a belter and deserved a conclusion. Damn the weather.
Yes, it had been a good toss to win last Thursday morning but then you must play well to take the advantage given and Australia did exactly that. Well enough to win, which they would pretty much certainly have done had the day run its course. Therefore we can say that, after the watershed at Lord's, a corner has been turned. Such defeats shock the system so deeply that the brain changes tack, subconsciously or otherwise. Nobody, and sportsmen lead the way here, likes to be humiliated. Thus, after wounds are licked, a better focus returns.
During the hour or so before play each day, the two big screens play highlights of the day before, volume and all. While the players warm up, they are subjected to the best and worst of the previous day and to the commentators' whim - thoughts and exclamations that fitted the moment of action. At 10 o'clock in the morning - coffee brewing, physio waiting, crowd queuing, coach hitting catches - the repeats look and sound out of context. The drama has lost its way and appears to point exaggerated fingers at both the worthy and unworthy in equal measure. The benefit is for the spectator, definitely not the player.
On the first day of the game, there are no highlights from the previous day so the screens show the previous match. As Shane Watson stretched his hamstrings and snaffled a few catches at 10.15am last Thursday morning, he got to see and hear again the two painful lbw dismissals from Lord's.
Hard as he must have worked to eradicate them from his memory for all time, the ground authority made sure they were shoved right back in his face. Forty five minutes later, he was taking guard once more to James Anderson. Indeed, Australia were at the wicket having just been shown an X-rated package of the worst match of their lives. This used to happen to England in Australia. Bill Lawry screaming blue murder at masterpieces created by Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne, just as Andrew Flintoff's browbeaten men were preparing to cross the divide.
It takes a certain type of person to truly ignore all this and not many of us are that person. You can't help but look and blush, or listen and cringe. Or just get angry at the injustice. This is the mind in the wringer. You could almost see it doing its worst to Watson, who near bursts out of his kit in desperation for success. 'Why me', he seems to say. 'I am better than this showreel suggests'. And the more tense he becomes, the harder it becomes, to be the cricketer he knows he can be. Few men look so condemned by unkind fate as Watson.
Thankfully, others responded a lighter sense of being and benefited from the release. Chris Rogers positively twinkled at the wicket, a hitherto unseen approach from an earnest cricketer. Michael Clarke simply played like he can, which is not so easy when the reponsibilty of humiliation is yours. Steven Smith played like the amazing dancing bear in the song of that ilk - though Simon is the fellow in the song, not Steve - and Brad Haddin gave it some 'umpty, which is the best way when you are an all or nothing sort of chap.
Later Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle ran in to make proud the people of the Great Southern Land: no airs and graces just sleeves-up stuff that keeps batsmen honest. It was this pair who would have seen their country home on the dry and worn pitch before turning to beer and meat pies in celebration. (A metaphorical assumption, for Siddle is vegan nowadays - more replacement fluid and bananas than beer and pie one imagines).
Nathan Lyon might have chipped in, Mitchell Starc and Smith too and off they could have gone to Durham on the team bus, singing about the jolly swagman and old Matilda, pride intact and with no fear of the replay screen on Friday morning.
But it wasn't to be. England were saved their own ingloriousness and are now the wounded cat with claws sharpening. Forget the million dollar smile, Alastair Cook is more ruthless than you might care to think. He hated the anti-climax and the fact that he, the England captain on the day the Ashes were retained, had to answer questions on how the rain had saved him, how the batsmen were vulnerable and how the balance of power had shifted. He hated it.
So be certain that England will watch that big screen come Friday and use it to further fire their ambition. Cook has dreamt of a whitewash, something so extreme that history would record and remember in full and glorious detail. He suffered such a thing in 2006-07 and wanted to hand it back on behalf of all those who were with him then and are with him now.
His desire and Australia's regeneration promises us real flavour in the two Tests to come. The urn may have had its home decided for now but the best, and perhaps most unforgiving, cricket might still to come.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UKFeeds: Mark Nicholas
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