England's quicks set up Ashes history
Chris Tremlett and James Anderson have a long association with Ashes cricket, even if for more years than they'd care to mention, their involvement was of little more than an observational variety. Tremlett was England's designated 12th man for four games out of five in the epic 2005 series, only to be sent back to Hampshire when the prospect of a debut loomed in the Oval decider. Anderson, meanwhile, was the forgotten man of that same summer, jettisoned from the squad with his form in tatters following a flawed attempt to remodel his action.
The careers of both men are too far advanced for them to be exempt from caveats in the final reckoning, but on Boxing Day 2010, the pair combined for a performance that will surely go on to be recognised as one of England's most formidable of recent times. At some point this week, barring bad weather or a turnaround of more extraordinary proportions than Headingley 1981 (or yes, even Adelaide ...), England will have retained the Ashes in Australia for the first time in a quarter of a century. And Anderson and Tremlett will have produced their defining hours.
England have been here before in Ashes cricket, of course. In the Boxing Day Test of 1986-87, Gladstone Small and a semi-fit Ian Botham combined to rout the Aussies with a display of swing bowling that was just subtle enough for a ham-fisted batting line-up, in which Allan Border was the sole established star. Botham, famously, was playing with a damaged rib that reduced him to barely three-quarters pace, but that didn't prevent him from claiming 5 for 41, the 27th and final such haul of his career.
Neither Tremlett nor Anderson managed to notch up a "Pfeiffer" in this innings, but both men performed with an aplomb that would have given grief to any batting line-up in the world. At Perth England's bowlers had been seduced both by the bounce on offer and by the speed of Australia's scoring, and responded by banging the ball in short in a bid to rush themselves into the ascendancy. In another game in which England had won the toss and bowled, their lack of discipline allowed the Aussies to recover from 5 for 69 to a decisive 268.
There was a lesson to be learnt from that performance, and England as a unit took careful heed. Out of the attack went the promising but raw Steven Finn, whose 14 wickets had come at an economy rate pushing five an over, and in came the sturdy Tim Bresnan, a walking cliché of an English stock bowler, but a man who is making a very fine career from being under-rated. When Australia weren't being dismissed they were being subdued. And the net result was an implosion that must surely rank as their darkest single day of the decade.
"I think looking back it was a great toss to win," said Anderson. "There's always a danger you'll get carried away when you're expected to get wickets, but I thought we stuck at our task and kept pressure on all day. We use [a rate of] three an over as a rule as a bowling unit, so 270 is the target in a day, and even though we put them in, we still used that template at the start of the day. At no point did we get carried away, even at six- or seven-down, we just kept on trying to create pressure."
The emphasis on run-rate is a comparatively new aspect of England's bowling planning, even though the merits of line and length have been extolled by men such as Statham, Cartwright and Fraser down the years, not to mention Australia's champion seamer, Glenn McGrath. But born-again devotees do tend to be the most zealous followers of any given creed, and since seeing the light (coincidentally or otherwise) in the aftermath of his omission from the World Twenty20, Anderson has only once been dispatched at significantly more than three an over, and that was in the second innings at Adelaide when his first-innings four-for had already set up the win.
While others may yet sweep in to overshadow Anderson's efforts, his contribution to the canon of Ashes cricket is becoming exceedingly noteworthy, in spite of the travails of his early years, which of course culminated in his five wickets at 82.60 on the whitewash tour four years ago. His ability to make the new ball sing was regarded before this series as an irrelevance, given the vagaries of the Kookaburra ball and the prospect of hot dry weather. But on the contrary, his penchant for striking hard and fast at the earliest opportunity is proving, just as was the case in 2009, to be the difference between the teams.
In the last Ashes series eighteen months ago, Anderson came up with two key performances - his 4 for 55 at Lord's as Australia tumbled to 215 and defeat, and his 5 for 80 at Edgbaston when they were saved from a final-day dogfight by too many rain interruptions. At Adelaide he took 4 for 51 in a first-day 245. It all adds up to a consistency that few ever imagined he'd achieve, and even at Perth, where he was some way off his best, he still managed 3 for 61 in what felt at the time like a very healthy performance.
The man whom England missed at Perth, however, was Stuart Broad - the attack's aggressor and the likeliest foil for Anderson, a bowler who loves nothing better than for crease-rooted opponents to line him up for ill-balanced drives. At first, when two early chances went down off his bowling, the man himself admitted he had wondered if it was going to be one of those days, but with the inexperienced Finn no longer present to allow the pressure to be released at one end, Tremlett and Bresnan restored order superbly.
"It doesn't matter who gets the wickets as long as you get ten of them," said Anderson. "I thought it was brilliant bowling. Throughout the series we've bowled really well. We've beat the bat a lot, we've had lbws turned down and created chances, and today was the day when all those bits of luck came together and we got the nicks. Hussey may have played and missed at that one in Perth, but it just one of those days when everything came off."
Bresnan showed in a dogged performance on a pudding of a pitch against Victoria last week that he would keep a check on batting ambition even if the conditions weren't in his favour, but Tremlett, whose natural length is a splice jangler, provided England with an X-factor, as he proved superbly with two snorters to extract Australia's second-most reliable batsman, Shane Watson, and their most respected, Ricky Ponting. The combined effect was intoxicating, for Australia's cricketers and England's supporters alike - especially after their respective expectations had been transformed by the result at the WACA.
It's becoming surprisingly commonplace for England as a team, however. For the fourth time in eight Tests since July 2010, they dismissed their opponents for less than 100, having rolled Pakistan aside for 80, 76 and 72 in their summer campaign back in Blighty - a campaign that also featured, lest we forget, Australia themselves being skittled by the Pakistanis for 88 at Headingley.
Again, it was assumed that the disciplines that England brought to bear in those contests would have no relevance in Australia, but Anderson and his colleagues proved that excellence is a currency that can be carried across borders. "It swung early on but afterwards it was just about hitting the seam," he said. "Straussy took the third slip out early on and put a cover in to encourage us to bowl a bit fuller, and that obviously worked really well."
In a very distant echo of that Botham performance 24 years ago, Anderson came into this match with some concerns about a side strain, but as he later admitted, he'd have "had to snap in half" before he ruled himself unfit for such a massive contest. "It's an amazing feeling," he said. "In an Ashes series to bowl Australia out for less than 100, and then be 150 for none at the end of play is just unheard of. We've been good at bouncing back strongly so we didn't expect anything less, but to do it so emphatically probably wasn't on the cards."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.