December 4, 2013

Role reversal and ugliness add to the excitement

Australia are on top, Johnson is firing, Cook and Flower are struggling, Clarke and Lehmann are clicking. We can't wait for Adelaide

Such is the nature of cricket that the main plot is often no more riveting than the subplots surrounding it. We are excited by the cricket to come in Adelaide, but the anticipation is further heightened by the issues of sledging, depression and fast bowling that have occupied us since Brisbane.

There has been some exceptional writing - not least on these pages, where Martin Crowe unlocked the door to many outsiders - and hours of television and radio time given to the protagonists, who have caught our ear and eye. It is revealing that the modern player regards all things on the field as fair game but anything off it as out of order. Sledging - as against heated banter - is defended as a part of the sport, a notion that makes many a cricket person squirm. One captain has spoken of breaking bones and the other of war; the troops have indicated a free for all. It is as if any other approach is for sissies.

Reference to a golden age, where chivalry ruled the attitudes of opponents, is exaggerated but certainly the game has avoided anarchy through the respect in which it is held by the players and the respect they have had for one another. That is the true spirit of cricket. The colourful history of the Ashes includes great waves of controversy, but only Bodyline threatened to derail it. The players would do worse than remember the story they are continuing and the legacy they leave for others.

Sickened by previous defeat, Michael Clarke has morphed into the second coming of Allan Border - the 1989 straight-faced, uncompromising and, to a degree, unfriendly version of a generally delightful man. As Crowe pointed out, the Australian captain is wearing his mask. Ironically, by departing from character and fashioning a win with his team, Clarke has endeared himself to more Australians than ever before. It is a brave move, one that he will look back on with a touch of both embarrassment and amusement. He was unlucky to be picked up by the stump microphone when telling James Anderson his fate, but at least the world that watches has been given a feel for what goes on out there. It would be good to think that Clarke and Anderson will one day share a less bitter taste. By his own admission Anderson is no shrinking violet, and, in general, England have an edge about them that others find hard to stomach. Apparently the Australians had been awaiting their moment and Mitchell Johnson provided it.

Startled by a series of jabs and then a crunching knockout blow in Brisbane, Alastair Cook has chosen not to take the moral high ground. By a stroke of luck, the tour schedule immediately took England away from the city lights to a rock, at a time where just about anywhere else would have been a hard place. Cook's team has suffered a spate of shocks and the healing process will have been given perspective by the spiritual environment at Ayers Rock.

In another fine article here last week, David Hopps related the words of an unnamed recent England cricketer who became suffocated by the way in which the team was micro-managed. "It can feel as if there is no escape," he said. This is a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't. Hugh Morris and Andy Flower have done all they can to ensure that England are pitch-perfect. The problem with a highly detailed approach is the lack of room for manoeuvre. Time off should mean time away - from nets, from the gym, from the diet, from each other - but shorter tours mean more cramming and less chilling. Michael Vaughan had many gifts as England captain but the greatest was the one that allowed, encouraged in fact, the players to be themselves. At a guess, some deregulation is needed now. A throwback to the idea that you play for the craik.

Both Flower and Cook will be reminding the players how good they are and how convincing they have been for the past year. Paramount will be a sense of both humour and humility so that the tension they must surely feel right now is dissipated a little

It is impossible to judge what drove Jonathan Trott from the arena he so relishes. Perhaps he is like a boxer, punch-drunk from a fight that surprised him with its intensity and power. It is harder to recover a wounded mind than a wounded body. Perhaps the constant expectation became too much. The spotlight is unnerving, hovering as it does above your every breath and step. Or perhaps, as indicated by the team management, his reaction has been a long time coming, though this seemed odd, given he made a hundred in the first tour match in Perth and appeared to be in good health and demeanour during the weeks leading up to the first Test. Things are not necessarily what you see.

If England are to find their best form in Adelaide and level the series, they will need to go back to the root of why they play the game in the first place and what made them successful. The temptation will be to take on Australia in word and deed, but that could rebound if it diverts them from their own strengths. The key will be to get the culture right, to ensure that everyone is in it together and not for themselves. Both Flower and Cook will be reminding the players how good they are and how convincing they have been for the past year. Paramount will be a sense of both humour and humility so that the tension they must surely feel right now is dissipated a little.

It is a remarkable reversal that the Cook-Flower partnership is the one with the work and that the Clarke-Lehmann pairing can smell the flowers. Lehmann has brought some joy to the dressing room, while Clarke has unilateral support for his game face. Luck has played its part in the form of Johnson, who found his best imaginable performance when the stakes were so high. Three years ago he waited until the third Test, in Perth, which was too late. Truly fast bowling brings a thrill factor to the game like nothing else, and the adrenaline that comes with it runs through the veins of everybody, playing or watching.

Almost certainly Australia will be unchanged. There is no confidence in a second specialist spinner: not Ashton Agar, nor Fawad Ahmed, Michael Beer, or Steve O'Keefe for that matter. England must surely switch Joe Root to No. 3 and bring in Tim Bresnan for Chris Tremlett. The really gutsy move would be finding a spot for Monty Panesar. Were Matt Prior in nick, he could bat at six and Bresnan at seven, thus creating a space for Monty, but history and a hunch says Jonny Bairstow will return in the hope that the trusted parade of bowlers are given enough runs to work their oracle.

First Ashes blood counts for a great deal, so right now you would rather be in green and gold than red, white and blue. The succour for Cook is that we thought the same in July 2005. The rest of that story has become legend.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK