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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 8, 2013, 20:22 GMT

    Personally, I have never rated Clarke as a player, and I still don't like him, as a player. BUT he has taken his play to a higher level since taking on the captaincy...

  • Android on December 6, 2013, 21:27 GMT

    Brilliant article. I'm absolutely loving the intensity of this series. Any Australian or Englishman who has grown up watching The Ashes knows that the rivalry here is the fiercest in international cricket (Though I'm sure alot of Indians and Pakistanis disagree with me). I feel the telling difference in this series is the mindset of the sides. A line has firmly been drawn in the sand in Brisbane, and the sledging is part of it. Anyone who has played sport understands this, and it's great that the players no longer care if the stump mikes are on. I've always struggled to respect Clarke as a captain as I felt he was too PR concious and interested in being likeable. Pup is dead, and Australian Captain Michael Clarke has been born.

  • Dummy4 on December 6, 2013, 2:25 GMT

    Once again, a well thought out and reasoned article, I thoroughly enjoy Mark's articles here. You don't need to give an opinion to write a great article, in fact, its almost preferable not to.

  • Siddhant on December 5, 2013, 3:50 GMT

    Talking about excitement, perhaps that (sledging) is the only thing that keeps the Ashes going. I do not believe that the quality of the contest in Ashes is out-standing. It seems like a marketing gimmick to keep the Ashes floating. In the World War era, the animosity was genuine, but now it is more premeditated and staged. It is in interest of both countries to keep that 'idea' of animosity alive - to reinstate the meaning in the contest. But in today's world, it is in bad taste - more to do with personal egos than a national honor. We have on one hand a team that is losing dominance and its players are ageing - which is England. And on the other hand we have a team that is just discovering its potential. so their are no comparisons that can be drawn. Leaving aside 4 - 5 players, not many have played opposite to each other in more than 20 tests. So they cant be hating each other so badly. And sledging does not give a good taste to any game, because its not only about winning.

  • Graham on December 4, 2013, 22:26 GMT

    History is full of these type of incidents on the field. Dennis Lillee/Javed Miandad, Curtly Ambrose/Steve Waugh and Curtly Ambrose/Dean Jones are incidents that I remember off the top of my head that at the time were all also called very ugly and didn't show the true cricket temperament but as now there was history for them to point to similar incidents earlier. It would be very interesting to track down all these previous "nasty incidents" to see if there was always a fast bowler involved. Exciting and accurate article about an incident that demonstrates how cricket has always been played.

  • anton on December 4, 2013, 19:44 GMT

    I agree with Mark on this. It shows players are passionate about winning. If you curb sledging then you may as well play on mute, without intensity.

  • Dummy4 on December 4, 2013, 16:37 GMT

    Mark walks a well-centered line here on the issue of heated banter/sledging. He does not opine but puts it out there for the reader. He does include the word controversy and then stays clear of it. Comm'n Mark... tell us what you think of sledging. Please respond to chitti_cricket and all dads like him (and myself). I hold your writing in high regard because you speak your mind. Hope you do that on this 'controversial' issue. Do we really need the lip service when the ball and bat are doing so much talking? Tell us Mark.

  • X on December 4, 2013, 16:13 GMT

    Excellent artcile. I may hazard that England are not as good a team as it has been suggested by their own press. The previous series in England was much closer than the scoreline reflected and now that the Aus side is not completely under siege, we have a more accurate idea of the relative strengths of each side. One thing is certain, Anderson has proven he cannot be mentioned in the same league as the truly world class players such as Steyn.

  • Gopalakrishna on December 4, 2013, 14:33 GMT

    Mark, you being such a seasoned campaigner I did not expect you saying sledging kind of silly things excite in cricket. Cricket is not a sport with intense physical involvement of opposition players and thus has been played gently for years. Just yesterday I watched 1974-75 ashes on you tube and saw Thomson going to English players and inquiring their well being after they were hit by his super fast balls. May be it was just a gesture and by no means showed any good emotion to his opposition, but that was gamesmanship friend. May be great Ian Chappell prevailed on Aussies then..! After Ian and Amiss all Ashes captains except cook..make it except cook, instigated and involved in verbal spats that were truly uglier,unwanted and uncalled for. I encourage my kids to watch cricket and explain them the finer points of it and one of them is gamesmanship in it, and how the hell I'm going to tell them this verbal spats are part of the game mate and they are exciting...!

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