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Douglas Jardine, Len Hutton, Ray Illingworth, Mike Brearley, Mike Gatting... Andrew Strauss. In almost 80 years of Ashes combat, only six England captains have been able to win in Australia
December 29, 2010
Douglas Jardine, Len Hutton, Ray Illingworth, Mike Brearley, Mike Gatting... Andrew Strauss. In almost 80 years of Anglo-Australian combat, only six England captains have been able to pack their bags at the end of a trip to Australia, and include in their mental baggage all of the triumph and joy that, almost since the dawn of the sporting age, has been invested in the legend of Ivo Bligh's little urn. Almost every other campaigner of the 20th and 21st Centuries has endured a return journey accompanied by despair, regret, recrimination and anger. Such is the hold of the Ashes, arguably the most storied trophy of them all.
For that reason, the achievement of Strauss's men is one that not only deserves to stand the test of time, but is already ensured of doing so - no matter that Australia still have the chance to square the series at 2-2 and restore a modicum of pride. As Shane Watson conceded on the third evening of this contest, possession of the urn is the only thing that counts, and the manner in which that prospect was shredded as early as the first afternoon at Melbourne was formidable to behold. Regardless of what happens at Sydney, Australia have been beaten by the better side; thrashed by an innings in half of the matches of the series.
It might be claimed in mitigation that the Aussies are not what they used to be - what team could be, given the losses of such champions as Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer? - but to tar the series with any such caveats would do a gross disservice to the ruthless, meticulous nature of England's preparations. Not since Illingworth was chaired off the field at Sydney in 1970-71 has a campaign been more brilliantly orchestrated, and not since Jardine made a mortal of Bradman in 1932-33 has a strategy been more perfectly conceived and carried out.
Australians right now will doubtless feel all the more wistful for the days of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne - in the 24 Tests in which both men were at his disposal, Ricky Ponting never lost a match and averaged 78.73; since their retirements he's lost 13 out of 42, and his average has plummeted to 41.03. But as Ponting himself conceded after the match, sport is cyclical - it is the seizing of opportunities as and when they arise that defines the greatness of a team or a player.
History has demonstrated that an Ashes victory in Australia is a once-in-a-generation achievement, and the general perception in the build-up to the 2010-11 Ashes was that this was England's moment - because if not now, then when? That in itself created a burden arguably greater than anything felt by Graham Gooch, Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain and Andrew Flintoff, the five most recent England captains to try their luck in Australia and depart with ambitions crushed.
With the exception of Gooch in 1990-91, who arrived in the batting form of his life and with the memories still burning of the exceptional challenge that his team had posed to the great West Indians the previous winter, each of those squads were written off almost before they had unpacked. Injuries and ineptitude undermined them from the off - the loss of key bowlers such as Devon Malcolm in 1994-95 or Darren Gough eight years later; the loss of respect through dreadful performances either in the bear-pit of Lilac Hill, or thrashings at the hands of the Australian Academy.
No such pitfalls were permitted on this trip, or rather, the pitfalls that did exist were not allowed to consume the campaign. The loss of Stuart Broad after two-and-a-half innings, for instance, was not only budgeted for, but actively anticipated, with each of the three reserve seamers earmarked a specific Test match in which their skills would come to the fore. Chris Tremlett's height was duly unleashed at the WACA, Tim Bresnan's stamina was set loose at the MCG, and by all accounts, Ajmal Shahzad would have featured on the reverse-swing-friendly Adelaide Oval, had it not been for Steven Finn's six wickets at the hit-the-deck Gabba.
And likewise, losses of the result variety were also expected, because this is Australia, and Australians can never be discounted, no matter how lowly their expectations may be. The Gabba, as it happens, was the venue where the England management had initially anticipated defeat, because of the fearsome reputation of the venue, and because of the danger of stage-fright at the start of such a hyped campaign (which, as they proved on that fretful first day, was a very real factor indeed), while the WACA had been earmarked for victory. But either way, the likelihood of resistance was encoded in England's planning, and with it the challenge and expectation of a weeble-like response to adversity.
Andy Flower's unparalleled record as a player who triumphed over adversity provided the squad with a director who demanded absolute respect, while David Saker's knowledge of Australia's venues armed his bowlers with intimate insights that enabled them to make the best possible use of their warm-up matches, in particular their reconnaissance trips to Adelaide and Melbourne, the scenes of England's two crushing victories.
The influence of Richard Halsall, the fielding coach, was seen in any number of galvanising moments - from Monty Panesar's flying catch in Hobart to the direct-hit run-out that Jonathan Trott pulled off in Adelaide - and he was deemed sufficiently integral to the squad to take over as head coach when Flower's skin cancer scare briefly took him out of the dressing-room in Brisbane. And then there was Graham Gooch, attached to the team only in a consultant role, but whose personal protégé, Alastair Cook, is now on the brink of 600 series runs. Kudos is due in every department, because it's not often that England get it this right.
The net result was that Strauss and his cohorts arrived in Australia with an intent that was the equivalent of Allan Border's invasion of England in 1989. Then as now, Border sensed the changing of an epoch - Ian Botham, the Warne of the 1980s, still endured as a personality, but his last hurrah had been at Melbourne two-and-a-half years earlier - and the challenge he put to his squad was to confound expectations. They did so with a ruthlessness that went on to establish a dynasty, which in itself is the challenge that now confronts England.
Strauss and Flower have said on many occasions that their true goal is to be the No. 1 team in the world. It's an ambition that is very much there for the taking, if the team can maintain its focus and drive on to the next level with the singlemindedness that eluded Michael Vaughan's men in 2005, when the sheer emotional overload of ending Australia's hold on the Ashes proved too much to kick on from.
The first clue that things can and will be different this time came back in 2009, when England's reaction to their home Ashes victory was a quiet night of revelry and an early flight to Belfast for a one-day international. The circumstances of that itinerary were far from ideal, of course, but they nipped in the bud any prospect of over-indulgence. England's celebrations were instead kept to a 6-1 ODI trouncing at the hands of the vengeful Aussies, an instant reality check which reminded the players of that old sporting truism, you're only as good as your last result.
Those are the mantras that keep the great teams grounded. "I think while you're still involved in the England side, if you're not still looking to keep pushing forward, there's something wrong there," said Strauss. Throughout history, for England to triumph Down Under has indeed been a once-in-a-generation achievement, but this squad is so well drilled, they actually believe they can make it a habit. Starting at Sydney in the New Year, of course.
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