On the morning of Day One of the First Test in Brisbane, my brother made the confident prediction that Australia would comfortably win the Ashes. I didn’t believe him; partly because he is 15 but mostly because nobody in the world can polish a turd like my brother.
Apparently, our 3-0 loss just months earlier was misleading to the point of insignificant. Australia’s batsmen made more hundreds, an otherwise inevitable victory was stolen by rain at Old Trafford, Aleem Dar’s infamous howler saved England at Trent Bridge and we were very near to snatching victory there anyway.
To which I replied, “You know what ‘almost winning’ is? Losing.”
I expected the margin to be closer and the overall, important result to be the same. The following is a summary of how I was – delightedly and hugely – wrong.
The first scoring shot of the series will take on a historical symbolism comparable to Steve Harmison’s second-slip wide in 2006. David Warner cracked Stuart Broad to the square leg boundary.
I want to mention Warner because his achievements may be buried under the praise for Johnson, Haddin, Harris and Rogers and the criticism for England.
Warner came into this series uncertain of both his position as an opener and as a Test batsman. Had he failed, he would have become a just-in-case, fifth-drop slogger. At the end of the series, it is genuinely difficult to remember the limited novelty that Warner once was. Simply put: he arrived. His drives still scorched, now supported by supple placement and a precise timing that, once going, made him very difficult to stop (in innings in which Warner passed 30, he averaged 85.6). Dismissing Warner was no longer simply a matter of pitching the ball up and waiting for the inevitable. This was one of the many developments that Alistair Cook was unhappy to realise.
Meanwhile, Warner’s partner Chris Rogers became the heroic underdog who won through. I’ll admit, I was prepared to put a line through Rogers’ name when he showed all of his thirty six years in making 1 and 16 in Brisbane. An opener cannot merely hold an end.
Again, I was happily wrong. By the end of the series, Rogers would be setting the tempo for Australia’s innings. He may become defined as “gritty” and “no-frills” (you heard it here first) but both adjectives would be unfair. His ability to knock off-drives and cut shots for neat boundaries denied England the chance for early ascendancy. He guided Australia to victory at Melbourne and crushed England in Sydney.
The First Test was a catalyst for all to come. Brad Haddin’s 94 in the first innings was one of his most crucial performances. He came in at 5/100. His failure would’ve meant a continuation of the collapses that plagued Australia in England. Instead, he, along with Johnson (64), guided his side to the comparative comfort of 295 all out. Clearly, this Australian side was not unhealthily dependent on an undependable top order. Indeed, Australia’s tail made 113 more runs than England’s bottom four.
Australia won the First Test by 281 runs. By the end of the Adelaide Test, which Australia won by 218 runs, even the most cynical observer must have come to the realisation that Clarke and Lehmann had masterminded a total annihilation. Mitchell Johnson had been resurrected to beyond anyone’s wildest nightmares. Brought into a strong, disciplined bowling line-up as the X-Factor, he became the Four Horsemen of the Bowling Apocalypse, all rolled into one. Pace, bounce, movement and accuracy. He took nine wickets at eleven runs in Brisbane with ease: bowling at 145 km/h, he simply hammered short balls at flailing English batsmen and let Clarke’s shrewd on-side field placements do the rest. I incurred the wrath of the Christmas lunch table in being (loudly) hesitant to laud Johnson as he seemed so dependent on Clarke’s captaincy. I certainly wasn’t one of the media figures who hailed Johnson as “the fastest Australian bowler since Jeff Thomson” (obviously, Brett Lee and Shaun Tait have been easily forgotten). Surely, if he was succeeding under the element of surprise, he could not sustain a full series of dominance. Oh, happy days – I was wrong again.
There was never any denying Johnson’s psychological impact but, as the series rolled on, Johnson was not merely a nasty bowler – he was the bowler who took matches by the throat in a single spell. England collapsed under Johnson in Adelaide and Melbourne under relentless body blows of high-octane fast bowling. He took 37 wickets at less than 14 runs, making him the most successful Ashes bowler since Shane Warne in 2005.
The other highly prophetic factor to come out of Brisbane was the way in which Australia were aiming to cut England off at the head. In previous series, four names have swirled around Australia like chronic nightmares: Cook, Bell, Anderson and Swann. In Brisbane, Bell made 37 runs and finished the series with an average of 26.1, a shadow of the man who averaged 62 with three centuries in England months earlier. All tour, Anderson was obviously exhausted and possibly injured. The memory of him building up to an explosion on delivery and sending down jagged outswingers is still strong, but he had none of his potency. Previously, Swann had been just as destructive as Anderson. For years, as he patiently and gradually wore down the patience and confidence of batsmen to a nub, Australia knew something of the torture that Warne had been to England. But Swann bowled poorly for three Tests, taking seven expensive wickets, and then retired. Out of nowhere. He left his team high and dry in a crisis situation. From that moment onwards, England’s tour was an irredeemable disaster. They had lost their best (and, as Monty Panesar replaced him, seemingly only) Test spinner and been forced to realise a complacent culture. Cook was superbly outmanoeuvred. He had just one Test defeat going into this series. He now has six and, more worryingly, seemingly no idea of how to deal with them. Furthermore, he averaged just 24.1 and had a miserable time against Ryan Harris. There was nowhere for him to turn to escape. His uncertainty on the final day of the Boxing Day Test will hurt him more than anything else. He bowled part-time spinner Joe Root ahead of Monty Panesar – twice. Australia reached their target of 230 with eight wickets in hand, on a pitch whose top score was 255. Had Cook not softly dropped Chris Rogers on 19, he might have been spared. Had Rogers not then gone on to make 116, the blame might have been thinner spread. Instead, by all account from the English media, Cook’s position is now untenable. Too soft, too nice, too indecisive; the accusations were remorseless.
At any rate, England’s destroyers were destroyed. Not that there was much to come out of the rest. Collapses would start and then just keep going. Kevin Pietersen is surely on borrowed time. His continued excuse for rash shots and soft dismissals – “That’s how I play” – is weak. He batted for nearly a day in Melbourne and threw his wicket away. England promptly went from 7/231 to 255 all out. Matt Prior was bullied out of the side by Harris’ relentless pressure. Monty Panesar became the new Phil Tufnell. England was revealed to have virtually no Plan B in their reserves. Jonny Bairstow, Tim Bresnan, Gary Ballance, Scott Borthwick and Boyd Rankin are very clearly not even close to Test ready. England can only take the performances of Michael Carberry and Ben Stokes out of this campaign. Carberry does at least have a defence and a game plan, if not yet the ability to take control of a bowling attack. Stokes, on the other hand, will be absolutely indispensable in the English rebuild. He made a century in Perth and took 15 wickets in four matches. He has the guts and grit of so few of his teammates (probably because he isn’t actually English). Ironically, Stuart Broad was the only specialist bowler to earn any respect from the Australians, despite being targeted as the Anti-Christ for, uh, being given not out.
But enough about the English. The undeniable fact is that Australia has put in the blood, sweat and toil to become a very, very good Test team. I absolutely cannot wait for our clash with South Africa. We have a top order that can build formidable scores. Steve Smith’s fantastic series, which included a century that took his side from 3/78 to 326, means our middle order is now one of the tightest in the world, particularly with the strength of Haddin the Brave. Our bowling attack has no weak link. Johnson could well rival that cold-eyed assassin Dale Steyn. We have Harris and Siddle, the relentless, disciplined Grim Reapers to Johnson’s Four Horsemen, and Lyon the Happy Druid, now the most dangerous spinner Australia has fielded in the six years of trying to fill the void left by Warne. Arguably, the only area for improvement is at first drop. Shane Watson has been excused for his injuries for long enough. Instead of being an unfulfilled potential, perhaps this is the cricketer he is: a capable batsman and a steady bowler.
We were putting away the last Christmas decorations as the final English batting collapse ended. Australia celebrated, England were devastated and faced a long rebuild that is bound to include realising that complacency has been a silent killer. In his own Ashes summary, Geoff Boycott’s well-chosen description of English players going about their business “as if it were their office jobs” struck the issue to the heart. Cricketers need the threat of demise to stir the impulse of performance and victory.
All that my brother said – and, indeed, all he had to say – was “You were so wrong.”