Ruthless Australia storm to Ashes

England in Australia 2002-03

Review by Scyld Berry




Nasser's costly error, sending Australia into bat at Brisbane in 2002-03 © Getty Images
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As in 1989 and the six subsequent Ashes series, so it was in 2002-03. The standard of Australia's cricket was so superior that England never came close, and lost for the eighth time running. When the series was alive, in the first three Tests, Australia won by mountainous margins - once by 384 runs, twice by an innings - and so swift was their despatch of England that only 11 days of play were necessary for the destiny of the Ashes to be decided.

After the first Test in Brisbane, the main debate centred not on the outcome of the series, which was taken for granted, but on whether this was the best Australian team of all time. There was plenty of support for the motion, so long as Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were fit. By the second Test, in Adelaide, Alec Stewart, who had played in seven of the eight disasters, said the gap between England and Australia was the largest he had known. Perhaps the most objective assessment came from Keith Miller, one of the 1948 Invincibles, the other main contenders for the all-time title; Miller accorded it to Steve Waugh's side. In full flight, Australia's cricketers were wondrous to behold, most particularly in the third Test, in Perth, when Brett Lee replaced Andy Bichel. After that match, England's captain Nasser Hussain said his team had played "poorly", but a fairer summary would have been that Australia had played superlatively. While the Ashes were still at stake, the only time England were in the game was the first day at Adelaide, when Michael Vaughan hit 177.

In only two respects were the Australians anything less than magnificent. Strangely enough, it was not one of their better fielding sides. Adam Gilchrist tired as a wicketkeeper as the series went on, although his batting remained phenomenal until the end (his strike-rate was 102 runs per 100 balls). Before the series, Mark Waugh was dropped and announced his retirement from Test cricket; Ricky Ponting filled the vacancy at second slip to the pace bowlers, but there was no adequate replacement when Warne was bowling. Damien Martyn, who tried his hand there, dropped more than he caught. Only when Martin Love was given his debut in the fourth Test, in Melbourne, did the slip fielding return to exalted standards.



Michael Vaughan was named Man-of-the-Series after smashing 633 runs including three centuries © Getty Images
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The second respect was behaviour. So long as Australia were winning, everything was fine, but as soon as England got on top in the final Test, in Sydney, the game got bad-tempered. Matthew Hayden, after a debated lbw, was fined 20% of his match fee for breaking the glass of a pavilion door, and Gilchrist received an official reprimand for swearing after his appeal for a catch was turned down. Throughout the series some of the sledging, led by Hayden and Justin Langer, was all too obvious. If Waugh's team generated the same admiration as the Invincibles, they did not prompt quite the same public affection.

For the rest, Australia were superlative. Either their top three batsmen, led by Hayden, captured the initiative, with strokes of demoralising power, or their attack did. It was either intimidating batting or intimidating bowling which took England apart. But if one statistic summarised the difference between the two sides, it was that Australia's bowlers earned 91 wickets in the series, England's 63. Hussain was widely criticised, not least by himself, for sending Australia in at Brisbane rather than playing to the relative strength of England's batting. But it was hard to see how his depleted attack could have dismissed the home line-up twice at any time while the series was alive.

When Australia fielded their first-string attack, however, there was no such thing as a free run. On the generally true pitches which prevailed - in spite of a drought - until the second half of the Sydney Test, their virtue was unrelenting accuracy. England's batsmen, as usual, tried to dominate, but they did not get on top until the first innings at Sydney, when Mark Butcher and Hussain did so only by means of accumulation. McGrath and Jason Gillespie set the tone with the new ball, rarely trying bouncers or experiments, just giving the batsmen six balls an over a fraction outside off stump. Gillespie bowled a fuller length than McGrath, and was considered by England's batsmen to be the pick of the opposing bowlers, but seldom had the figures to prove it. Hitting the pitch at greater pace, he beat the bat and was gone; McGrath "stayed in the pitch" a fraction longer and found the edge. After them came Lee with pace that was devastating on Perth's fast pitch but otherwise relatively straightforward until he was given the new ball in Sydney and swung it away. Warne was still the master until he dislocated his right shoulder in a one-day international between the third and fourth Tests. England's playing of spin was a huge improvement on their two previous performances in Australia, thanks to the coaching of Duncan Fletcher, but still Warne maintained control from one end, allowing Waugh to rotate his three pace bowlers from the other.



Glenn McGrath was a constant threat to the England batsmen with 19 wickets at 20 © Getty Images
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In the first three Tests, England were a rabble compared to Australia's sleek efficiency. If the eleven who took the field looked as though they had never played together before, this was usually true. The injury list was the longest on any England tour, disrupting planning and damaging morale. When the management should have been thinking about the game in hand, they had to select replacements and fly home casualties. When they should have been bringing the Test eleven to the boil, they had to give some players a game to see if they were match-fit or not. Serious questions were raised about the competence of England's medical set-up, and only partly answered by the appointment of a full-time medical officer, Dr Peter Gregory, after the tour had started. The chief question was whether injured players had been given proper rehabilitation after surgery: the only possible answer seemed to be no.

For England to have had any chance of extending Australia when it mattered, they had to hit the ground running, not stumbling as they did. On arrival in Perth in October, they found that instead of one player less than match-fit - Darren Gough - they had so many that their reputation was risibly undermined in the eyes of the Australian media and public. Mustering what players they could, England were beaten in their opening game by the ACB Chairman's side, by 58 runs. Their image as perennial losers to Australia - and perhaps their self-image - was thus reinforced from the outset.

Vaughan had had a simple knee operation after the Oval Test in September and was due to be fit from the start of the Australian tour, but he needed an injection in Perth, managed only one warm-up innings before the series, and could not bowl until the VB one-day series in mid-January. Simon Jones arrived with a rib injury, then warmed up to the extent that he was bowling flat out by the first day of the Brisbane Test, when he twisted his right knee while diving in the field and ruptured his cruciate ligaments.



Matthew Hayden knocked the stuffing out of England with two centuries in the opening Test in Brisbane © Getty Images
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At the start of the tour, Marcus Trescothick could not throw because of his right shoulder. Most unexpected of all, Andrew Flintoff could not even run. Medical opinion had said that he should recover from his double hernia operation in time, but he had to be sent straight off to Adelaide for rehabilitation at the ECB's National Academy. For months, the question of his fitness dragged on; he was sent home in mid-December, to return only for the second final of the VB Series.

Gough's case was exceptional in that medical opinion had never said his right knee would recover before the tour. But as he was the only bowler in the original party who had taken a Test wicket in Australia before, he was judged to be worth the risk. He bowled in the nets, and was due to play in a Brisbane grade match during the first Test, but broke down again before the game. He went home and, with him, went England's only hope of dismissing well-set batsmen with a soft ball on flat pitches, either in Australia or in the World Cup.

In addition to all these, there were injuries to: John Crawley (bruised hip and torn muscle which ruled him out of the second and third Tests); Stewart (bruised hand, which ruled him out of the fourth); Ashley Giles (left wrist broken in the nets by Steve Harmison before the second Test; sent home until January); Harmison himself (sore shins, which ruled him out of the first Test); and Andrew Caddick (sore back, which ruled him out of the third).

Then there were the injuries to the replacements, like Chris Silverwood who was called up to replace Jones; his ankle ligaments gave way after he had bowled four overs in the Perth Test. (If England had employed a larger pool of 20 or more players on central contracts, he might have been readier for match action.) Craig White, called up a week into the tour, bowled as well as anyone in the first three Tests and prompted England's revival with 85 not out in the fourth, but then suffered a rib strain and missed the Sydney victory. Alex Tudor, who replaced Gough, suffered one of the impact injuries which have to be budgeted for in Australia: a nasty blow to his left temple from a bouncer Brett Lee bowled with the second new ball in Perth. The reductio ad absurdum was reached when Jeremy Snape arrived with the one-day party and could not survive a single delivery in one piece: Lee, playing for New South Wales, broke his thumb first ball in a warm-up game.

The reductio ad absurdum was reached when Jeremy Snape arrived with the one-day party and could not survive a single delivery in one piece: Lee, playing for New South Wales, broke his thumb first ball in a warm-up game.

Given all the toings and froings, which required the astonishing total of 31 Test and one-day players combined, England could have fallen into complete chaos: it was thanks to the management that a veneer of organisation was maintained, which kept them in good enough shape to become the first visiting team to win a Test in Australia since they themselves had done so four years before. Nobody pretended that a fully fit England would have regained the Ashes but, as Hussain remarked, they might have lost the first three Tests in five full days apiece.

For certain, England went into the series undercooked, at least one if not two four-day matches short of readiness (the first-class games they did play were limited to three days). Their pace bowlers never did emulate McGrath and Gillespie by delivering six accurate balls an over. Their fielding on the opening day in Brisbane was beset with tension, but by the Sydney Test nine chances out of nine were caught in Australia's first innings. To make up for only nine days of cricket before the First Test - any more and they would have had no break at all after the English season and the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka - England held an extraordinarily long team meeting on the eve of it, and it was counter-productive. From the second ball, which Vaughan let trickle through his legs at gully, their confidence seemed to shatter; it was not only their supporters who sighed: "Here we go again."

In the Second Test at Adelaide came England's chance at least of holding the line. Had they survived an hour or so longer on the fourth day, they would have drawn: the final day would have been washed out. Some of Graham Thorpe's tenacity could have made the difference, but he had pulled out in September on the grounds that his private life was still in such turmoil that he could not have given the tour his full attention. In three Tests, Crawley occupied Thorpe's place and batted for considerable time, but solely in defensive style: he had cured his former weakness outside off stump by bringing his bat down straighter, but at the expense of missing out on legstump balls. At Adelaide, when neither Thorpe nor Crawley was available, Robert Key was introduced on the strength of a match-saving 174 not out against Australia A and scored a single in each innings. There was nothing England could have done about the Perth Test though, where, on the hard surface, they continued an even sorrier record than they have had post-war in Brisbane.

It was in Melbourne that England came into the series at last, a process that culminated at Sydney. Step by step, England improved as Australia passed their peak. First, White attacked Warne's replacement, Stuart MacGill, driving him for three sixes: it demonstrated that, in the master's absence, one end was open, a great relief after being tied down at both. MacGill had the same sort of career strike-rate as Warne but not the control and accuracy in between taking wickets. This was the difference between the great and the good. Steve Waugh then enforced the follow-on when the game was only halfway through its course in stifling heat. His decision allowed England to manoeuvre Australia into batting fourth, the position from which four of England's last six Ashes victories had come. Under the pressure of batting last in Melbourne, Australia wobbled and England, for a change, took regular wickets.



Andrew Caddick bowled England to a face-saving victory in the final Test at Sydney © Getty Images
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At Sydney, they continued to do so: it was the one ground where the ball swung for Matthew Hoggard (and Lee), while Caddick used the uneven bounce to the full in the second innings. But in the first three Tests, when it mattered, and at Melbourne in the first innings, England never looked like dismissing Australia for less than 450. How Australia would have played in the absence of McGrath and Warne if the Ashes had still been at stake can only be speculation. The goal of becoming only the second Australian side to win an Ashes series 5-0, after Warwick Armstrong's in 1920-21, proved to be insufficient motivation.

Vaughan was chosen as Man of the Series for his three large hundreds, following four in the English summer. Sooner than his opening partner, Trescothick, he learned to make a clear distinction between defence and attacking shots, rather than blurring the two with open-faced nudges which might have succeeded in England but not on pitches of Australian bounce. His driving all round the wicket was reminiscent of Peter May; his pulling was equally brilliant. Vaughan's footwork had always been outstanding in a generation of English batsmen who either played on the crease or pushed half-forward. Now he used it to move into position to pull the short ball, as perhaps no tall batsman has done better.

Earlier, though, Hayden was the dominant batsman. He set the tone for the series with his pair of hundreds in Brisbane, standing outside his crease to England's pace bowlers after their new-ball overs and sending them cowering into submission. On the first morning at Melbourne, he ran down the pitch to drive White for six. With Ponting in the first three Tests, and Langer in Melbourne, Hayden made sure Australia's top three scored most of the necessary runs, and at a rattling pace: his 496 runs came at a strike-rate of 70 per 100 balls. Martyn at No. 4 was passive by comparison with his predecessor, Mark Waugh. At No. 5, Steve Waugh played significant innings of 77 in Melbourne and 102 in Sydney, after the Australian selectors announced that he had to make runs to stay in the side. His hundred, reached off the last ball of the day, made one of the great moments in Ashes history - it was even called Australia's most famous innings - as a great cricketer fought for his place.



Steve Waugh ended his Ashes career in grand style with a century at the SCG © Getty Images
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Of England's batsmen apart from Vaughan, only Hussain maintained his reputation: no century, but his fifth good series in a row, in spite of the strain of captaining a losing and injured team. Trescothick and Butcher paid the price for minimalist footwork, while Trescothick was also troubled on the back foot by the steeper bounce as he had never been on pitches elsewhere. As the pace bowlers normally disposed of Trescothick, a superb player of spin, Warne had a far easier time against England's remaining batsmen. Key justified his selection ahead of an older player, like Mark Ramprakash, but did not cement his place. Stewart, after a pair in Brisbane, scored enough runs to edge his Test average back above 40, including a vital 71 in Sydney, but the best display of wicket-keeping from either side was considered to be James Foster's when he stood in for Stewart at Melbourne.

Hussain's decision to send Australia in to bat in Brisbane was not consistent with the logic of Test cricket or recent history at the Gabba, but it was consistent with the logic of England's tour: they never looked like bowling any side out without something in the pitch to help them. Browbeaten by Hayden, and unable to swing the ball, Hoggard faded before returning off a shorter run in Sydney. Caddick, who turned 34 on his first senior tour of Australia, was his usual enigmatic self: harmless when the batsmen came after him on flat pitches with the series at stake, yet as formidable as any of the Australians by the second innings in Sydney, when the bounce was uneven and the advantage had only to be rammed home. When the going was toughest, Harmison was the likeliest of the England pace bowlers to take a wicket, but never had the figures to show for his pace and bounce until the end. England had thought he was learning to eradicate the balls he speared down leg side until, after hitting a rollicking 20 not out in Sydney, his direction went haywire again.

In spite of the one-sided nature of the contest, the crowds were large enough for the Australian Cricket Board to announce that the Ashes would remain their only five-Test home series. Several thousand members of the "Barmy Army" - the best-behaved to date - were further swelled after Christmas, and helped to save the last two Tests from anticlimax. Nothing, however, could disguise the fact that, when it mattered, Australia were far superior to England - and, arguably, superior to all other cricket teams there have been save the West Indians of the early to mid-1980s.

Match reports for

ACB Chairman's XI v England XI at Perth (Lilac Hill), Oct 22, 2002
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Tour Match: Western Australia v England XI at Perth, Oct 24-25, 2002
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Tour Match: Western Australia v England XI at Perth, Oct 28-30, 2002
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Tour Match: Queensland v England XI at Brisbane, Nov 2-4, 2002
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1st Test: Australia v England at Brisbane, Nov 7-10, 2002
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Tour Match: Australia A v England XI at Hobart, Nov 15-17, 2002
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2nd Test: Australia v England at Adelaide, Nov 21-24, 2002
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3rd Test: Australia v England at Perth, Nov 29-Dec 1, 2002
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Tour Match: New South Wales v England XI at Sydney, Dec 6, 2002
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Tour Match: Australia A v England XI at Sydney, Dec 8, 2002
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Tour Match: Prime Minister's XI v England XI at Canberra, Dec 10, 2002
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1st Match: Australia v England at Sydney, Dec 13, 2002
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2nd Match: Australia v England at Melbourne, Dec 15, 2002
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3rd Match: England v Sri Lanka at Brisbane, Dec 17, 2002
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4th Match: England v Sri Lanka at Perth, Dec 20, 2002
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4th Test: Australia v England at Melbourne, Dec 26-30, 2002
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5th Test: Australia v England at Sydney, Jan 2-6, 2003
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Sir Donald Bradman XI v England XI at Bowral, Jan 8, 2003
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7th Match: Australia v England at Hobart, Jan 11, 2003
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8th Match: England v Sri Lanka at Sydney, Jan 13, 2003
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10th Match: England v Sri Lanka at Adelaide, Jan 17, 2003
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11th Match: Australia v England at Adelaide, Jan 19, 2003
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1st Final: Australia v England at Sydney, Jan 23, 2003
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2nd Final: Australia v England at Melbourne, Jan 25, 2003
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