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Test matches (5): Australia 5, England 0
For just over 14 months, since England seized the Ashes from Australia at The Oval, two great cricketing nations had been keyed up for a humdinger of a return contest - an epic page-turner, it was assumed, with all the plot twists and somersaults of 2005. But from the moment Steve Harmison opened the series with a wild embarrassing wide that went straight into the hands of Andrew Flintoff at second slip, reality took hold.
This time there were to be no twists, at least not during the Test series. The story of the first ball would essentially be the story right through to the last. If England won the 2005 series by a nose, they lost the rematch by the length of the Nullarbor Plain. They were defeated in every one of the five Tests - a fate previously reserved for one team in Ashes history. And J. W. H. T. Douglas's 1920-21 side represented a country still devastated by the effects of the Great War. Andrew Flintoff 's 2006-07 team had no such excuse.
The team did not go home in shame, however. Having limped into February, seemingly desperate for the plane, they suddenly crackled into life, and beat Australia three times running to win the one-day contest, the Commonwealth Bank Series.
That was not the object of the exercise, though. And in the Ashes, the nearest England came to a winning - or even drawing - position was in the Second Test at Adelaide, where they declared at 551 for six and would have had Australia 78 for four if Ashley Giles had not dropped a straightforward chance. Although Australia regrouped from there, the match was heading towards stalemate until England caved in against Shane Warne on the final morning. The bewilderment that overcame England that day never left them. From then on, they rarely competed for more than a session at a time.
On December 18, England lost the Perth Test, and the Ashes formally changed hands. (This remained a figure of speech. Though the urn was at the time in the Western Australian Museum on tour, MCC again rejected the growing clamour for it to stay with the winners.) Nonetheless, the huge number of English tourists due to arrive for the Melbourne and Sydney Tests came out on schedule, and maintained their zest rather better than the players. They were able to see another great Australian team performing at the top of their ability. They saw three members of it - Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer - make an elaborate farewell at Sydney. They did not see England redeem themselves.
It was a bad time for them to fail so badly. The palaver surrounding this series was unprecedented. An estimated 40,000 England supporters attended at least one Test or another. Crowds everywhere threatened the records; in Perth, there were even 17,000 to watch a Legends match between Ashes alumni. And the chief topic of conversation for every Pom in Australia was "Why?"
The England party did everything they could to deflect unnecessary attention, especially from the huge media contingent. There was rarely any wit or insight at their press conferences, and Flintoff proved himself a leaden public speaker (a commentary job on Sky TV surely awaits). But it made no difference to the scale of the coverage. Even after the series had been decided, the imminent retirements and the threat of a whitewash provided new fuel for the Ashes industry to burn.
Both on and off the field, Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, outclassed Flintoff and won the Compton-Miller Medal for player of the series. Asked at Sydney whether he had been motivated by revenge, Ponting claimed: "I have never mentioned that word once, not even to myself." But such was his intensity, both at the crease and in the field, that it was hard to believe him. He fashioned a flawless hundred on the first day of the series, and went on to lead the run-scoring with 576 at 82.28. While the 2005 Ashes series had left him with a scar on his cheek, this one was a feather in his baggy green cap.
During the interminable build-up to the First Test, no one but McGrath was predicting a whitewash. In fact, much of the pre-publicity consisted of jibes about Australia's "Dad's Army". Starting out with an average age of 33, this was the oldest Test side they had fielded since 1931 (though a similar age to Warwick Armstrong's 1920-21 heroes). The contrast with England's young hopefuls could hardly have been more marked. Once Marcus Trescothick had pulled out, again suffering the effects of stress, only Giles, Harmison and Matthew Hoggard had played a Test in Australia before. From first ball to last, it was experience that carried the day.
The two old bowling soldiers, McGrath and Warne, were among Ponting's greatest assets. After an eight-month break, McGrath proved that age (he was 36) had not wearied him, wrecking England's first innings at Brisbane with six for 50. Then, on the final day at Adelaide, came Warne's devastating spell. He bowled 27 overs off the reel and, though he took only four wickets, his psychological hold was such that batsmen kept self-destructing at the other end.
Warne now had little left to achieve in cricket. A few days after the Ashes were secured at Perth, he announced he would be leaving the international game after the Sydney Test. "Getting the Ashes back was my mission, and I couldn't have worked the script better," he told a reverential press conference in Melbourne. Too true: five days later, he claimed his 700th Test wicket in front of an Ashes record crowd at the MCG, his home ground.
But it was not a lone farewell. Damien Martyn did not even wait for the series to be won. After the Adelaide Test, where he was demoted below Mike Hussey in Australia's second-innings run-chase, he suddenly quit and fled to a friend's ranch for privacy. ("I just couldn't go on. I was letting down my team-mates," he explained in a TV interview after the series was over.) It was a rare crack in Australia's unity, but Martyn's replacement, Andrew Symonds, gave them extra ballast in every department of the game.
By the time Sydney came around, after both McGrath and Langer had announced that they were also playing their final Test, the match took on a curious atmosphere, part sporting occasion and part memorial service. In not so lucky this time. Instead, the thought of sending the big three off with a whitewash seemed to act as a spur for the whole team.
When it was all over, and while the one-day series was heaping further humiliation on them, England found themselves right back on the canvas, where they had spent the 1990s. It was February 2, 89 days after their arrival in the country, before they finally beat Australia, at the tenth attempt. This proved the prelude to two extraordinary wins in the final, which left England suddenly talking about winning the World Cup. However, they had come here craving one trophy alone, and their failure to achieve that represents one of the greatest comedowns in sporting history.
The cycle of hubris and nemesis is a familiar theme in sport, but this was a harsh comeuppance indeed. England had basked in popular acclaim after their 2005 Ashes victory, parading in front of thousands in Trafalgar Square and collecting their MBEs from the Queen. No one could have begrudged them their celebrations, but perhaps they allowed themselves to feel too triumphant, too satisfied. Coach Duncan Fletcher almost admitted as much when he spoke of a change in the dressing-room mood during the 2-0 defeat in Pakistan the following autumn.
By the time the Ashes rematch came around, England had lost personnel as well as purpose. Bowling coach Troy Cooley had returned to his native Australia, and the equivalent job there, after his request for a two-year contract extension was refused. It may have been sheer happenstance that Cooley's exit coincided with a decline in Harmison's performance. Yet it was equally noticeable that Australia's seamers flourished under his green- fingered guidance. Such was their relentless discipline that they bowled fewer bad balls in the average day than England did in a session.
England also suffered from a punitive injury list. Some of these problems, such as the knee cartilage injuries that kept both Michael Vaughan and Simon the past, such retirement parades have distracted Australia, but England were Jones out of the Test series, can only be considered Acts of God. Others were largely self-inflicted. Just as in 2002-03, England chose a squad containing several players who were still recuperating from surgery. Even more boldly - or, perhaps, foolishly - they made one of them captain. Flintoff had undergone another operation on his left ankle since the previous Ashes series, telling one interviewer that "they'll put a zip on it next time". He had also missed the whole of England's home Test series against Pakistan. But he made it known that he wanted the captaincy, and the fear of upsetting their star player helped persuade the selectors to give him the job ahead of Andrew Strauss.
Opinion was split over the decision. Some felt that Flintoff was the right man to lead from the front, to inspire the players, and to get the best out of himself and his close friend Harmison. Others foresaw an excessive workload for a man whose fitness had yet to be established beyond doubt. Flintoff was magnificent with the ball at Brisbane, a tall poppy among shrinking violets, but his old symptoms began to recur at Adelaide. With the game hanging in the balance on the fourth day, he sent down just four overs and later went off for treatment. "Maybe I was a bit naive in thinking I would get off scot-free and everything would be fine," he admitted. If so, his naivety had been shared by the selectors.
Harmison's decline forced Flintoff to take the new ball, but he could bowl only short spells, and Australia usually saw him off with comfort. At Perth, a ground where big fast bowlers have traditionally dominated, he went wicketless for the first time in 43 Tests. Flintoff 's fragility also upset the balance of the side. England played a fourth seamer in every Test, but the position was little more than a walking insurance clause. Often it seemed that James Anderson and Sajid Mahmood were taking turns to function as specialist boundary fielders, occasionally whistled up for the odd wayward over.
Flintoff 's struggles with the bat were even more pronounced, and did much to trigger England's recurring tail-end collapses - a familiar feature of almost every Ashes series for the last two decades. In the past, it has usually been a case of "six out, all out", yet this team offered even less resistance: no one below Kevin Pietersen made much of an impact. Take out the Adelaide declaration, and England's last five wickets went down for an average of 44.
Flintoff, like Ian Botham 25 years earlier, kept denying that his poor form had anything to do with the captaincy. "When I go out to bat, I am only thinking about that little red ball," he would say. But the evidence suggested otherwise. When Vaughan came back for the one-day series, briefly releasing him from the cares of leadership, Flintoff immediately reeled off 119 undefeated runs in two innings, including a steely 72 against New Zealand to bring up England's first win of the tour, before another injury to Vaughan required him to take the job back. Not that he objected; indeed, fear of Flintoff 's response seems to have been the main reason for the selectors not to make Strauss vice-captain to Vaughan in the one-dayers.
Flintoff 's appointment was one of the sticks used by disgruntled England fans to bash the team management. Another was the selection of Giles for the first two Tests rather than Monty Panesar. In some ways this was a conservative decision, based around Giles's superior fielding and run-scoring potential at No. 8. Viewed from another angle, it was a major gamble to pick a man whose chronic hip problems had caused him to spend more time on operating tables than cricket grounds in 2006.
Giles was ineffectual at Brisbane, which put him in line with the rest of the team. But when England got to Adelaide his flaws were cruelly exposed. First came the vital chance at deep square leg, which might have been forgiven if Giles had performed his designated tail-stiffening role. But when disaster loomed on the final day, he pushed forward clumsily at Warne and fell for a duck. The case against was now proven: Panesar could not have batted or fielded any worse, and would surely have bowled better. Finally given his chance at Perth, he sliced through Australia's first innings with five for 92. The following day, Giles returned home to support his wife through an illness.
The Giles fiasco became such a cause célèbre that the newspapers spent days arguing over who had picked him at Adelaide. Fletcher was the chief suspect, owing to his pathological distrust of spinners who cannot also knit, juggle and tap-dance. But after the match, he was quick to remind reporters that Flintoff had also had a vote. In the end, the distinction was academic. England's whole strategy was too backward-looking. Despite all the injuries, breakdowns and form slumps, their first instinct was to get as near as possible to the team of 2005, and wait for the same mysterious alchemy to kick in. Instead, the gold reverted to lead.
Fletcher and/or Flintoff also reversed the summertime thinking to make Geraint Jones the wicketkeeper instead of Chris Read. After Perth, where Jones got a pair, they were forced to change their minds. But Read's return made little difference either to keeping or, more alarmingly, to the black hole at No. 7.
The Australians, in contrast, seemed to leave nothing to chance; they had too many scores to settle. During the 14 months between Ashes series, they had posted a superb set of mid-term results - 11 Test wins and one dominant draw, none of which meant a great deal to their cricketing public. The only thing that mattered was seizing back the urn.
Ponting developed a new motto - "Become a better player every day" - and promoted two model professionals from the fringes to replace the batsman Simon Katich and the various third seamers of 2005. This time around, Mike Hussey and Stuart Clark topped the averages with their oldfashioned virtues of judgment, perseverance and control. Both 31, they slotted perfectly into Australia's seasoned dressing-room. In his first three innings, Hussey shared stands of 209, 192 and 83 with Ponting, while Clark's unflagging accuracy made him the ideal complement to Warne.
If a team is as strong as its weakest link, it was hard to see where this one could be broken. Every one of the four main bowlers - McGrath, Clark, Warne and Brett Lee - reached the 20-wicket mark, while every member of the top seven (except the elusive Martyn) scored at least one century. At the end of it all, England had to live with the knowledge that they had had opportunities, but never taken them. The First Test was the only one in which England never had a chance. Harmison's tone-setting wide was symptomatic of a team paralysed by nerves. On that first evening, Giles virtually admitted that England had been overawed by the occasion, saying: "The bus was a quiet place this morning."
England recovered a little on the fourth day, when Pietersen and Paul Collingwood came close to scoring hundreds, but the last five wickets evaporated next morning. Thousands of travelling fans were cast down by the result, and doubly piqued by the ejection of Bill Cooper, the Barmy Army's trumpeter, who had fallen foul of Brisbane's bossy methods of policing sporting events.
Adelaide was England's big chance. After winning the toss on a pitch dead enough to negate bowlers of any kind, they ground their way through the first day and dominated the second. Scenting a contest, and a possible reprise of England's 2005 comeback, one Australian newspaper ran the headline "That losing feeling".
The age difference was threatening to make itself felt. When a miscued Pietersen pull-shot looped just over the head of a stiff-legged McGrath at mid-on, it drew mocking laughter from the English fans. These were the kind of cracks - and creaks - that England needed to exploit. But Warne's doodlebugs put a stop to that.
England should have gone to Perth with a foothold in the series. Instead, as Scyld Berry noted in the Sunday Telegraph, they limped into town "more crushed and crestfallen than any England team I have seen in 30 years". Their mood was lifted briefly by the irrepressible Panesar, who derived a certain shock value from the fact that he actually spun the ball. Panesar was instrumental in bundling Australia out for 244 - their lowest all-out total of the series. But England's batting folded again, despite 70 more runs from Pietersen, who ended up slogging a catch as he tried to conjure something from the tail. (The decision to play Pietersen at No. 5 was rescinded halfway through the Melbourne Test after he found himself partnering Harmison in three successive innings.)
After two days of near parity, Australia switched on the afterburners and pulled away. This was Adam Gilchrist's finest hour (and a half) in Ashes cricket: he struck a 57-ball century, one ball slower than Viv Richards's Test record. It is true that Gilchrist was savaging a tired attack, after Ponting and Hussey had piled up yet more runs in 42°C heat. But it is doubtful that anyone else in world cricket could have maintained such a frenetic pace, or struck Panesar for 24 (including three sixes) off one over.
The party was over for England, who went down by 206 runs just after lunch on the final day. The result brought their reign as Ashes-holders to a close after just 462 days - the shortest tenure in history. Now their only goal was to avoid a whitewash, a threat that had loomed large since Adelaide, and so save themselves from ridicule. But the Melbourne Test produced more slapstick: even as Symonds was lashing a maiden Test century, an information sheet containing England's bowling plans was being read out on ABC national radio.
It never became clear how the briefing document - which featured entries such as "Dot Balls (Ego)" next to Matthew Hayden's name, "Throat Bouncer (Surprise)" for Warne and, to press-box sniggers, a superfluous k in front of "nicks" - had found its way out of the dressing-room. England complained of a breach of security, a charge that the Melbourne Cricket Club denied.
Either way, it was a godsend for the commentators on a day when England blatantly lost the plot. They conceded almost four an over by bowling short on an awkward, seaming pitch, and fully deserved to go down to their heaviest defeat of the series. The game finished inside three days.
All through the tour, Warne kept talking about his scriptwriter. At Sydney, the narrative for the exit of Australia's three amigos almost seemed a little too pat. Warne gave Australia a first-innings lead with a breezy 71, McGrath claimed a wicket with his final ball in Test cricket, and Langer was at the crease when Hayden brought up the winning run. At the presentation ceremony, Cricket Australia's chairman Creagh O'Connor spoke of "one of the most memorable Test series ever". It will certainly be remembered, but more for the rarity value of the 5-0 scoreline than for the excellence of the contest.
The ECB did not even wait for the end of the series before commissioning a special review, to be chaired by the retired golf administrator (and cricket fan) Ken Schofield. One of the key questions surrounded the preparation, which consisted of just three matches, one of them a disposable one-dayer against the Prime Minister's XI. Harmison came into the First Test with just 25 overs under his belt, after pulling out of the final warm-up with "tightness" in his side, and it showed. Another recurring theme in the post-mortem was the presence of many players' families for the bulk of the tour, rather than just Christmas and New Year. Some pundits claimed that the entourage had been a distraction.
But even with more warm-up games, better selection and some sympathetic umpiring, it was hard to see how England could have got the better of this Australian side. Too many important figures were missing; too many others had lost form; the opposition kept finding theirs. For England, things fell apart; the centre could not hold. It might not have been revenge, but this was payback time.
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