Whitewash lessons guide England to glory
For nigh on two decades, ever since Australia broke away from the pack to become the undisputed masters of world cricket, the Australian way has been the only way forward for teams in search of success. After a defeat of staggering magnitude in the fourth Test at Melbourne, that may not be the case for much longer, but nevertheless, the seeds of England's triumph can still be traced back to the lessons they themselves were handed out on this same campaign four years ago.
The whitewash series of 2006-07 is not a topic that England have been keen to address publicly on this trip, and with some justification, given the range of humiliations they suffered in each of their five Test defeats. Privately, however, the memories of those matches and the methods that the Aussies used to stifle England's ambitions have been taken on board and turned back on their tormentors, with a considerable degree of success.
Tim Bresnan is no Glenn McGrath, and for all his confidence and trickery, Graeme Swann is not yet Shane Warne, but at Melbourne each produced a performance that would have graced the records of those two legends. Much the same could be said of James Anderson's first-innings incisions at Melbourne and Adelaide, or the fearsome discipline that Chris Tremlett has shown since his recall in Perth. England's mantra on this trip has been: "Do unto Australia as they've always done unto us." And with the Ashes secured for the third series out of four, that is exactly what they have achieved.
Andrew Strauss was one of six Englishmen in this Melbourne match who suffered at the hands of the Aussies in 2006-07; this time he will depart as one of only three English captains to successfully defend the Ashes in Australia. "It was the lowest point of my career and a lot of guys felt similarly," he said. "But in a lot of ways there were some important lessons learned. The one thing that struck me as an opening batsman in that series was the feeling of being suffocated from both ends all the time. I think that was the basis of our strategy out here, to make sure Australia never got away from us, and if we did that well and consistently it would bring us wickets."
That is precisely what transpired in the key first innings at both Adelaide and Melbourne, where Strauss's confidence in his team's planning was showcased by the decision to bowl first - a no-brainer in hindsight, but a bold move nonetheless. Speaking at the end of the first day, James Anderson admitted that England's only gameplan had been to go at less than three an over, for pressure is everything in Test match cricket. The magic balls tend to be the ones that beat the bat. Constant and unrelenting application, from first delivery to last, is how McGrath and his cohorts broke the spirit of their opponents.
"When you had Warne and McGrath and those guys in your side, that was something we were always able to do and maintain for long periods of time," said Ricky Ponting after the match. "As a batsman, having experienced it a few times in my career, it just makes batting so much more difficult. Some have got the skill and the patience to know how to be able to do that for long periods of time, which at different times of this series, England have been able to do particularly well."
While Strauss acknowledged that the absence of Australia's greats of yesteryear had been a factor in their success, it is one thing to take on a team whose stature had diminished, and another thing entirely to raise one's own standards to fill the vacuum created. "It's easy to say that Australia missed someone of Shane Warne's quality, but it's true," added Strauss. "He could attack and defend at the same time, and they had the likes of McGrath, and at that time, Stuart Clark and Brett Lee, who were doing an excellent job as well."
Where McGrath would once have reigned, England instead had the unlikely lad, Bresnan, who fittingly had Ben Hilfenhaus caught behind for a duck to complete his Test-best figures of 4 for 50, and the exemplary match analysis of 34.4-14-75-6. But his efforts would have been diminished without the diligence of Swann at the other end, whose 22 overs on the third afternoon went for 23 runs, before Peter Siddle and Brad Haddin cut loose in a lost cause on the fourth and final morning.
"Yesterday afternoon was a really good example of how they were able to do that," said Ponting, "with their quicks going at one end and Swann pretty much tying up the other end. That just creates pressure in Test match cricket. As a batter you want to score runs but if you're finding that difficult, the bowlers are generally creating chances somewhere. It's one thing to learn that. It's another to be able to do it as well as they have."
The pressure that England were able to generate was two-fold, however, because just as was the case in Australia's glory days, their sheer weight of runs created an extra set of circumstances for their under-pressure opponents. With that in mind, Strauss recalled the second innings at Brisbane as one of the most critical junctures of the tour, when England banished the memories of their nervy first innings at the Gabba with an unanswerably vast scoreline of 1 for 517.
"Getting big runs on the board suffocates you as well, so we were fortunate in that second innings in Brisbane that we got stuck in and proved that we could get big scores out here," Strauss added. "The confidence builds, you get guys in good form, and suddenly it's hard to keep those guys from scoring. It's always a number of very small factors that allows one team to get on top of the other, and it's important to say that we're only 2-1 up in the series so there's still a chance for Australia to square it. That's not something that we want to happen."
The likelihood of that happening - even allowing for the heroic amounts of celebrating that the squad can expect in the coming hours - is slim in the extreme, however. Australia may have bounced back to square the series at Perth, but they did so on a lively track that Strauss admitted had been "out of the ordinary", and in so doing had relied on a spell of fast bowling from Mitchell Johnson that was freakishly brilliant. The East Coast of Australia, on the other hand, has been much kinder to England, and with Swann in the right form for a star turn on the most spin-friendly track in the country, a 3-1 scoreline now seems the likeliest denouement.
"We were reasonably comfortable in the fact that we could say that Perth was a bit of an aberration for us," said Strauss. "It did knock us a little bit and Christmas Day was a little more nervy than it might otherwise have been, but we also knew that our formula had worked for us pretty much throughout the tour - not just the Test matches but the preparation phase. As long as we got back to that sort of formula I thought we'd do fine."
That is because England's planning for this campaign has been exemplary. David Saker, their Victorian bowling coach, not only knew the five Test venues with the intimacy that only a Sheffield Shield veteran could bring to the equation, he also instilled in his pace-bowling charges a discipline and determination to be ready for action at all times, and a trust in their own abilities that no bowling coach in England's history - not even the feted Troy Cooley - would have been able to match.
"The way David Saker has worked with them and made sure they are ready from ball one is exceptional," said Strauss. "Often when bowlers are not playing they lose rhythm, and the fact they are suddenly thrust into a Test match can affect them pretty badly, so credit to him and way they have worked as well. But there's no rocket science involved. We always look for secret formulas, but generally there is isn't one. It involves graft."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.