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How a team meeting in Taunton, and an unsuccessful tour of England, set Australia on the path to their 5-0 sweep at home
January 7, 2014
Sydney crowd celebrate Ashes triumph
In the history of Australian cricket, almost as many pivotal moments have taken place in hotels and meeting rooms as on cricket grounds. Thrilling play on the field has often evolved from moments of clarity and direction off it, from the Chennai hotel celebrations of Allan Border's team following a one-run win over India in the opening match of the 1987 World Cup to the poolside summit called in Barbados by Mark Taylor ahead of the 1995 triumph in the Caribbean.
For the current group, basking in the glory of a 5-0 Ashes sweep over an England team favoured to defeat them scarcely two months ago, one such moment arrived at the Castle Hotel in Taunton on June 24 last year. That morning in Bristol, the shocked tourists had been informed of Mickey Arthur's sacking as coach, and that Darren Lehmann had been drafted in to replace him.
By the time the team bus arrived in Somerset, Lehmann was ready to address the 17-man squad plus support staff, and in doing so offered a simple message about playing aggressive, Australian cricket, and keeping the game in balance with life. Most of all, he reminded the players that this was all meant to be fun. "This should be the time of your lives," he told them. Minutes afterwards, Brad Haddin spoke. His words are worth recounting.
"I'm pretty confident we'll go in the right direction over the next two weeks," he said at the time. "The bottom line is we've got to perform and I'm comfortable with where this group's at. We've got the best cricketers in Australia here and I'm comfortable we can move forward with that. We as a group have to be accountable for where we want to take this team, and we'll see how successful that is."
Success was not immediate, of course. A narrow defeat at Trent Bridge was followed by a vast one at Lord's, the first of two series surrendered in the space of two matches. But critically, the team's attitude had changed, a previously insular, cliquey and put-upon group of players working increasingly towards team-oriented goals while the coaches and backroom team planned and cajoled in equal measure. Enthusiasm for the task grew quickly, even if aptitude for it took longer.
To witness England's disintegration in Australia was to appreciate how critical it was that Australia had not done the same in the northern summer, returning home with a feeling of unity and gathering strength they would back-up with decisive action from Brisbane onwards. Looking back on the two campaigns, the captain Michael Clarke was adamant that victory at home would not have been possible without the regrouping that took place on the road.
"I think it turned around in England," he said. "Our attitude certainly changed, our work ethic I couldn't fault the players in the UK, our preparation was outstanding, it was just unfortunate we couldn't get over the line for a number of reasons. There was a bit of bad luck at times, a little bit of rain around, but we knew as a team we were heading in the right direction, so our preparation and hard work are the reasons we sit here with success today."
For Lehmann, the change in the team's arc was driven by his efforts to give direction to players who had been training intently but without a sense of wider purpose. The direction he imparted included the fostering of an aggressive attitude on the pitch but a balanced one off it. Time to let off steam away from the game was encouraged, while team activities brought levity. The introduction of a joke of the day has been well-documented, but quiz nights orchestrated by the team doctor Peter Brukner also helped.
"I just think direction was missing," Lehmann said. "Direction is all they needed, as a playing group and support staff needed some direction for where we wanted to go and how we wanted to go about it. I was very pleased with the work ethic, they certainly would have worked hard under Mickey and all those things ... it was how we wanted to go about the quality of training and who we were playing against.
"I still say that's one of the best tours I've ever been on, so from our point of view it was a learning tour if you like. You don't want to lose 3-0, every game we play we're trying to win, so that was disappointing. But in essence where we wanted to get to as a playing group on and off the ground it was an exceptional tour for us."
Though Brisbane was the signal instant on the field, as the team rumbled to a first Test victory since the first week of 2013, Lehmann and the players sensed the fruits of their new direction in Manchester, Durham and at The Oval. England may have been victorious at Chester-le-Street, but they were cornered in the other two matches, rain intervening at convenient times. Australia did not come home with a winning feeling, but they had been close enough to touch it.
"I felt that dressing room feeling was there at Old Trafford and The Oval for the way we played there," Lehmann said. "Even Durham, I know we harked back on it was a great learning curve to be 2 for 140 and not get the runs. The pleasing thing last week in Melbourne was chasing those runs and getting them two down. From our point of view learning to win was the big thing, and now it becomes a lot easier to do that, but obviously you've got to go forward as a Test team and we have to win away from home."
The last word on how Australia turned around their Ashes fortunes should probably go to Ryan Harris. While it was Mitchell Johnson who crashed through the visitors in Australia, it was Harris who more than anyone epitomised the determination of this team not to end the two series empty-handed. His skill and heart were never to be questioned, but no-one was more delighted to see something unified and lasting grow around him.
"The group we've got, not just the players but the staff and everyone around us, is just amazing," Harris said. "I've said that many times that I want to be a part of this team as long as I can. It's an unbelievable team. We knew we were close in England. We just had things that didn't go our way, other times we didn't play well enough. I said when we got back from England that we've got to learn from what we do wrong, and we did that.
"We had a couple of sessions even in this series where it didn't go to plan. But we had players, like Hadds and the way he played in partnerships with Mitch and various other batsmen got us out of it. We play for each other. That's the main thing. There's no individuals in this team. That's what we do. There's no surprise we got the results we did."
It is cold and dank in Taunton right now, cricket packed up for some months yet in the dark recesses of a northern winter. But at the Castle Hotel, a few staff members can afford themselves a moment of reflection, for it was within their walls that the vital first seeds of Australia's Ashes success were sown.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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