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Seldom has such high expectation before an Ashes series ended in such summary demolition. Peter May's 1958-59 England team, which had a truly formidable look about it, was crushed 4-0 by Richie Benaud's eager combination, yet it was 63 days into the series before the Ashes were relinquished. In 2001, with its compressed schedule (five Tests within 54 days), Steve Waugh's Australians made sure of retention in only 31, framing a mere 11 days of combat; Benaud's needed 22. After emphatic defeat in seven successive Ashes series, will deflated England ever be equiped to challenge the Baggy Green brigade seriously? Contrariwise, will Australia be capable of introducing reliable talent after the likes of the Waughs, Glenn McGrath and even Shane Warne (whom Heaven protect) are gone? This side's average age was 30, Australia's ripest since 1948.
They arrived in England as outstanding favourites, notwithstanding their reversals at Kolkata and Chennai and the revival in England's performances under Nasser Hussain and coach Duncan Fletcher. England had crushed Zimbabwe and West Indies the previous summer, and their winter tour had returned notable successes in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. They had then won at Lord's against Pakistan, before slipping up at Old Trafford. At the outset, Steve Waugh knew England were stronger than in recent years, and acknowledged that forecasting was fraught with difficulties. But he did add ominously, "If we can get on top early, we can open up some old scars."
English optimists felt that the rubber might be decided by whoever benefited more from the luck that forever swirls about cricket. The toss, the weather, injuries, umpiring errors? As it transpired, these factors nearly all went against England from the start, the most serious being the absence through injury of three first-choice batsmen in Graham Thorpe (for four Tests), captain Hussain (two) and Michael Vaughan (all five), as well as leftarm spinner Ashley Giles (four). When this ill-fortune was overtaken by some dismal cricket from England, particularly the inept catching at Lord's, the outcome was inescapable.
It remained for us to try to assess whether we had been watching the best cricket team of all time. Wasted though the exercise may be, the man in the traffic jam or the halted railway carriage was eager for debate about the relative qualities of the 1902, 1921, 1948 and 1975 Australians, the 1950s England sides, South Africa 1969-70, the West Indies combination of 1984.
None of these teams had thought to start a tour with a side-trip deep into emotional territory, as Steve Waugh and his men did by their visit to Gallipoli, the battleground where thousands of Anzacs (many British-born, let it be remembered) fought a hopeless contest in 1915 against the Turks. Unselfconsciously, the cricketers donned Diggers' slouch hats, and acknowledged how deeply touching and inspirational the excursion had been. Days later, they were singing Waltzing Matilda with gusto and surprising euphony on stage at an official Australia House reception, where Waugh spoke of his desire for the team not to be one-dimensional but, instead, men whose understanding of real war broadened their vision, enhanced them as people, bonded them and toughened them. Waugh was to become a walking - or limping - materialisation of all this when he batted for five hours with a gammy leg in the final Test.
The first stage of the campaign embraced the NatWest one-day series, for which the tourists called on the limited-overs skills of Michael Bevan, Ian Harvey and Andrew Symonds; later, Simon Katich, Justin Langer, Colin Miller and Michael Slater replaced them in the Test squad. Brett Lee had been chosen only for the Tests but was brought into the one-day reckoning when Nathan Bracken injured a shoulder. Bracken's replacement, Ashley Noffke, was himself soon repatriated after damaging ankle ligaments at practice.
The Worcester fixture was happily restored as the three-day tour opener and saw Damien Martyn make a hundred that presaged a stream of runs from his cultured bat. His sound technique would show up starkly the flawed, angled-batted efforts of some home batsmen throughout the summer. But the day after England lost the Old Trafford Test to Pakistan, the Australians managed to lose against a young Middlesex side in a one-day match, the county's first victory over an Australian touring team and one that gave some encouragement to the bar-room pundits. Two days later, the visitors tied with Northamptonshire, and the optimism swelled further. None of it was of the slightest significance.
Australia cruised to the one-day trophy, playing excellently according to the specialist requirements, stunning England - particularly at Old Trafford, where they bowled them out for 86 - with aggressive field placings more usually identified with Test cricket, and losing only one of their six preliminaries, to Pakistan at Trent Bridge. Here, Waugh took his team off the field for 20 minutes after a firecracker was thrown near to Lee in the outfield. There had already been crowd disorder and stampeding on to the field by Pakistani spectators at Edgbaston and Headingley, and the Australians were puzzled and disgusted that such incursions apparently could not be prevented. The ultimate blot on the tournament came at Lord's following their victory in the final: objects were thrown at the Pavilion balcony during the presentation ceremony, and a full beer can struck Bevan on the jaw.
Australia's nine-wicket win, with 23.3 overs to spare, was as emphatic as their victory over Pakistan in the World Cup final here two years earlier. With Adam Gilchrist, the Waughs, Ricky Ponting and Martyn all finely tuned, and the bowlers on song, the sense of Australian insuperability was firmly in place.
As June faded, Katich announced his presence by hitting a strong century at Arundel against a multinational MCC attack, but Langer and Slater struggled. At Chelmsford, Martyn and Gilchrist foreshadowed their momentous deeds in the First Test with a blistering unbeaten 251 for the sixth wicket, Jason Gillespie showed his sharp teeth with five wickets, and then the Australians batted again - on and on, well past 500 on the last day, to cries of frustration from the Essex supporters, some of it on behalf of Hussain, who would have relished a second innings with the Test coming up.
Hussain had crafted a double-century at Edgbaston in 1997, when England won the opening encounter by nine wickets. But Australia were not being caught cold this time. Rather it was England who were in disarray, summoning 17 players to Birmingham at some stage or other as injuries carved a swathe through their ranks. Still, they began well after losing the statuesque Marcus Trescothick for a duck, only to subside before Alec Stewart and Andrew Caddick compiled a riotous century for the tenth wicket. Matthew Hayden and Slater pulled back the initiative with 98 that evening - 16 from Slater's sizzling bat off Darren Gough's opening over - and thereafter the match ran away from England. Four hours of Steve Waugh preceded hundreds from Martyn and Gilchrist. At the precise moment Waugh was out, having made his 26th Test century and passed 9,000 runs, Joe Roff in Melbourne levelled the score against the British Lions with a try for the Wallabies, who went on to win. It seemed then that Australian sports ruled the world.
Gilchrist's nervousness with the gloves on the opening day had surprised his team-mates, but now he batted with his usual destructive power, lashing five sixes to equal Sam Loxton's Australian Ashes record, and taking 22 off a Mark Butcher over. He and Martyn increased the number of centuries scored by Australians in their first Test against England to 21 (against England's 16 in reply), and it was a further measure of Australia's recent domination that nine of their batsmen had done it since 1981 - against only Tim Robinson and Thorpe for England. Trescothick warmed English hearts with his 76, but the innings defeat was deeply demoralising.
So, too, was Hussain's second fracture of the summer, his little finger broken by Gillespie. When one of Trescothick's sixes was pouched by a spectator, a suggestion that the catcher be enlisted by England was nullified by the thought that he was probably one of the numerous Australian visitors. A letter in The Times proposed that a more interesting contest might be staged between England's men and the Australian women, also in England and currently thrashing their counterparts.
Somerset omitted some key players and recruited two Pakistani guests, raising fresh cries for regional selections to play touring teams. But it didn't bother the Australians. They cruised to victory, while wondering what had happened to the John Bull spirit as several England players stated that they had no desire to captain their country in Hussain's absence. Atherton reluctantly took the reins for the next two Tests, which Australia won with ease.
McGrath, Gillespie, Lee and Warne had gelled as the established attack for the series, and were to finish with all but two of the 93 English wickets which fell. At Lord's they rolled England over again for under 200. Mark Waugh made an enchanting century before overtaking Mark Taylor's record tally of Test catches, Gilchrist a robust 90, while the tinkle of England's dropped catches echoed. In contrast, Australia swallowed just about everything going behind the stumps, seemingly willing edge after edge to come. And Thorpe, having missed the NatWest Series and the First Test through a calf-muscle strain, now had his hand broken by Lee. It was wondered if the pressure on the National Health Service was chiefly attributable to England's walking wounded.
Hampshire's two-wicket victory on the eve of the Third Test worried the tourists not in the least; as if handing over a wartime food parcel, it suited them to field an under-strength batting side. During the match, however, the distribution of coach John Buchanan's battle dossier to the wrong rooms at the team's Southampton hotel was seen as psychological warfare. Buchanan ("I am not a devious person") denied the error was deliberate, but his quotations from ancient Chinese warlord Sun Tzu, and his assertion that England were "hanging on to excuses", received wide publicity.
England won the first day at Trent Bridge, their fast attack, Alex Tudor prominent, slightly outdoing McGrath and company on a sporty pitch. Significantly, the catches were held. But Australia's tail wagged, and then Warne, the peroxide blond whose best days were said to be behind him, spun six out, leaving Australia to make 158 to retain the Ashes. A Caddick noball - yet another symbol of poor English professional standards through the series - signalled the moment at four o'clock on the third day. Australia's ecstasy was diminished only by their captain's ruptured calf - suffered in a freak injury. Gilchrist, the deputy, politely acknowledged that England had repeatedly put them under pressure, but they had stood up to it. He said he had been standing at the toilet when, through a window, he saw his captain on a crutch, hobbling to a car to take him to hospital: "I can't wait to give him a big hug" - a further expression of the side's solidarity.
There remained the prospect of a 5-0 "greenwash" and, after Sussex had amassed a lot of runs, only to be shown who was boss, and a rain-ruined visit to Belfast, Australia went to Headingley set on writing more history. This time, the weather upset the strategy. Ponting's attractive 144 and 72 dominated the Australian scorecard in this 300th England-Australia Test, and England were always running behind - until rain halted Australia's progress towards setting an unattainable target. Keen to win, Gilchrist made what still seemed a fairly one-sided declaration and, after half an hour of the fifth day, victory seemed assured as McGrath and Gillespie removed the openers and bowled many nasty deliveries. Then, against the tide, Butcher, back in the colours because of the pre-Edgbaston withdrawals, put on a memorable 181 with Hussain and smashed his way to a match-winning 173 not out, lodging his name in the Hall of Fame with an innings Gilchrist generously acknowledged as "one of the great Ashes knocks of all time". Having secured their second-highest target ever to beat Australia, England caused the land to be awash with "if onlys".
That reaction was just one huge red rag to the Australian bull. Conspicuously sporting in their reaction to England's astounding Leeds victory, within a week they had smothered local euphoria. Slater, averaging 24 and with personal problems, was dropped for The Oval; Langer, after a poor tour, came in as opener and sweated his way to a hundred before taking a sickening blow to the head; the Waughs made glorious centuries, Steve limping most of the way (to finish the series with an average of 107.00); and Warne bagged 11 wickets in 72.2 overs, including his 400th. Four years earlier, it had been 11 wickets to Phil Tufnell, who now managed only one.
It was a decisive note on which to finish, for England had been close to full strength. Indeed, Ramprakash, his 133 poignantly impressive, a treat to the eye, might not have been playing had Thorpe and Vaughan been fit.
All was triumph for the Australians, whose image had been enhanced by their demeanour. McGrath had passed Dennis Lillee's 355 Test wickets, Gilchrist had his 100th dismissal in a record 22 Tests, the Waughs now stood with 47 Test centuries between them, and Australia had won 20 of their last 23 Tests, all of which had had positive conclusions, another record. And still their captain claimed they were a team without stars. They were responsible, too, for yet another innovation: a bowler, on taking his fifth wicket, held the ball high in response to the applause. How could it have taken such a natural gesture so long to be adopted? McGrath, Warne and Gillespie performed it eight times between them; Gough and Caddick, such an incisive pair against West Indies the year before, and Tudor could manage only one five-wicket return apiece for England.
But if the final measure of supremacy came with the appointment of an Aussie battler, Rod Marsh, to head England's new cricket academy, the touring team went home with one sore point unresolved. What did they have to do to get Lord's to return the little 1883 Ashes urn to Melbourne, its place of origin?
SR Waugh (New South Wales, captain), AC Gilchrist (Western Australia, vice-capt), MG Bevan (New South Wales), NW Bracken (New South Wales), DW Fleming (Victoria), JN Gillespie (South Australia), IJ Harvey (Victoria), ML Hayden (Queensland), SM Katich (Western Australia), JL Langer (Western Australia), B Lee (New South Wales), GD McGrath (New South Wales), DR Martyn (Western Australia), CR Miller (Victoria), RT Ponting (Tasmania), WA Seccombe (Queensland), MJ Slater (New South Wales), A Symonds (Queensland), SK Warne (Victoria), ME Waugh (New South Wales).
Match reports for
Worcestershire v Australians at Worcester, Jun 1-3, 2001
Middlesex v Australians at Lord's, Jun 5, 2001
Northamptonshire v Australians at Northampton, Jun 7, 2001
6th Match: Australia v Pakistan at Chester-le-Street, Jun 16, 2001
Marylebone Cricket Club v Australians at Arundel, Jun 25-27, 2001
Tour Match: Essex v Australians at Chelmsford, Jun 29-Jul 1, 2001
Somerset v Australians at Taunton, Jul 13-16, 2001
Tour Match: Hampshire v Australians at Southampton, Jul 28-30, 2001
Sussex v Australians at Hove, Aug 8-10, 2001
Ireland v Australians at Belfast, Aug 12, 2001