How I Won The Ashes, 1 October 2010

1 October 2010

Hello and welcome back (finally) to How I Won the Ashes.  Apologies for the absence, but it’s been a busy year and there’s been no time to put fingers to keyboard. But, with another Ashes series around the corner, it’s time to get going again.

For those of you who have forgotten, the aim is to give cricket lovers a little something to enjoy as they head home for the weekend, with thoughts on what’s been happening on and off the pitch.

One of the problems I encountered, though, was finding the time to continue producing all that content.  Since I received several questions about my claim that I won the Ashes, I’m going to cheat by including instead a few paragraphs from the book that I’ve already written about it. 

The 2010 Test Matches

So, to open the batting, a brief review of the summer just gone.  I am assuming that everything on the pitch was legitimate; that every ball was bowled with maximum effort, every stroke played with full force and every piece of fielding conducted with the sole objective of saving runs, hitting the stumps or holding a catch.  We now know that this is not a safe assumption – more on that next time, because it’s a pretty extensive subject.

The summer saw two nations other than England playing test matches on these shores for the first time since 1912.  Pakistan were invited to use English venues for their series against Australia, because of safety concerns at home. I thought it was an absorbing series. Pakistan made a pretty decent fist of things against an Australian team which, on paper, appeared much the stronger and which had beaten them soundly six months earlier.  Their bowling was a revelation and if their batting line up had been even half as good as the one they had not so long ago, they could have quite easily won both matches.  In the first match at Lords, they were always likely to struggle in bowler friendly conditions; but they were not helped by their batsmen not just trying to score off every ball, but trying to hit virtually every one to or over the boundary.

No-one summed this up more than Shahid Afridi, who was rightly pilloried for his attitude.  If I had my way, he would never to be allowed to darken the Grace Gates again, in any form of the game, for the lack of respect he showed.  I cannot think of anyone who has done more to promote the suspicion held by some that everyone from the sub-continent is duplicitous and dishonourable: ball biting, wicket scouring and an inability to play for his team.  There is Shakhoor Rana, perhaps, and one or two wicket-keepers who claim catches when they know the ball has bounced. I would have included Ijaz Butt in the dishonourable category, until he redeemed himself this week by apologising for his appalling remarks about the English team.  Mind you, I suspect his hand was touching the back of his neck before he did so. 

And now Afridi has stated that he could see himself coming back to play in test matches, having apparently retired from the long form of the game after that single “appearance” at Lords.  Who the hell does he think he is? What arrogance, to think he can come and go into the test side as he pleases.  On the basis of how he played at Lords, they are far better off without him.  The coming and going of players generally has done nothing to promote stability for the Pakistan team.  Think of Younis Khan and Mohammed Yousuf.  So called “life” bans are suddenly lifted only a few months later.  Pakistan cricket is in such a mess, with so many forces pulling it in different directions, not least the betting industry, that it simply cannot function; nor can we take at face value any statement made by anyone associated with it.

Anyway, with Afridi out of the way, Pakistan then won at Headingley, although their batsmen made horribly heavy weather of what should have been a routine run chase.  They were massively helped by Ricky Ponting’s inexplicable decision to bat first.  He knew the Pakistan bowling was dangerous, because they had taken twenty Australian wickets at Lords and troubled all the batsmen; but he did exactly what he did at Edgbaston in 2005, which was to decide what he was going to do long before the toss, and not think about the current conditions, which played right into the hands of Pakistan’s bowlers.  Not even Australia in their pomp could have come back from 88 all out, although they did run Pakistan close.

As for England, they were equally troubled by Pakistan’s bowlers, but their own bowling attack had the measure of Bangladesh’s and Pakistan’s batsmen.  Tamim Iqbal scored a wonderful century at Lords and Mohammed Yousuf showed Pakistan what they’d missed when he returned at the Oval.  Generally, though, ball prevailed over bat on spicy pitches throughout the summer, which usually makes for more compelling cricket than the run fests that all too often occur on on dead ones on the sub-continent.  This was what made Jonathan Trott’s and Stuart Broad’s partnership in the final match of the series so impressive.  They really had to battle it out, but having done so, they reaped the rewards once the sun came out and the juice went out of the pitch, as so often happens at Lords.  I said earlier in the year that it would not be long before Stuart Broad notched a test century.  I had expected him to do it against Bangladesh, but the fact that he came in against a proper bowling attack when England were 102 for 7 and left after his team had passed 400 bodes very well for this winter and beyond. 

I’ll preview the forthcoming Ashes another time, including some thoughts on the four or five bowler conundrum, which Broad’s century has magnified.  I obviously have to spend some time on match fixing, or ball fixing.  I’ll talk about county cricket, whose final day of the season showed outside of test matches how wonderfully exciting the long form of the game can be.  And (yes, seriously), there’ll be a good word for my bête noir Giles Clarke, whom I think has been disgracefully let down by Pakistan and  its Cricket Board, notwithstanding Butt’s apology.

That’s it for now. Below are some extracts from the opening chapter of How I Won The Ashes.  If you keep following this, you’ll understand the whole story. I should point out that some of it was written a while ago, certainly before the England team’s recent resurgence.

HOW I WON THE ASHES

When England’s cricketers won the Ashes in the summer of 2005, the whole country went mad.  It was one of those once in a generation summers when the feats of eleven cricketers and the destiny of a small pot of charred wood assumed national importance.  Daily routines were ignored, usual priorities evaporated.  Faces were pressed up against shop windows, ears glued to radios, heads peered into pubs, just to check the score.  Once there, it was usually difficult to leave, so intense and gripping was the drama.  That summer, all that mattered was beating the Australians. 

Yes, Australians, who had taken a small period of inferiority in the 1980s so badly that they developed not one team, but a succession of them that took the art of winning to unprecedented levels.  They took particular delight in bullying England, resuming a trend that had begun in Victorian times and continued on the 2006/07 tour. Stung by the defeat of 2005, the bus to Trafalgar Square and the MBEs, they determined not just to regain the Ashes, but to grind the Poms into the dust.  Australians take their cricket generally, and beating the English specifically, extremely seriously.  They are to cricket what the Brazilians are to football.  Every now and then there is the occasional glitch, but they are and always have been the best at the sport.

The biggest glitch was that summer of 2005.  Previously, when Australia had lost to England, you could say that they were the weaker side, or that they were missing key players.  That was not the case when the 2005 series began.  Australia were as strong as they had ever been, hardly a weak link, strength in all areas.  Runs, wickets, catching, fielding – they excelled at everything and were virtually impossible to beat, so honed their skills, so strong their competitive spirit.

Since writing this, there has, of course, been another Ashes summer, in 2009, when England were again victorious. While we cannot ignore those events, and I will mention many of the things that happened that summer, most cricket followers would have to agree that it cannot compare with 2005.  For one thing, in 2005 England had failed in eight previous attempts going as far back as 1986/87 to even come close to winning an Ashes series.  Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart, two of the finest cricketers of our generation who each played over 100 tests, never tasted Ashes victory (and they will hate to be reminded of this). Compare that to Mark Taylor, Mark Waugh, Michael Slater and Ian Healey, who never experienced Ashes defeat.

Moreover, the Australian team of 2009, while still strong and competitive, failed to match its 2005 counterpart in terms of quality and experience.  Australia had lost Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Brett Lee and the incomparable Shane Warne.  All were world class and McGrath, Gilchrist and Warne would be automatic selections for an all time Australian XI, probably even an all time World XI. Nowhere was the Australian demise more obvious than in their defeat at Lords in 2009, a ground where they had only lost a Test match once in over 100 years, and that was back in 1934 through an extraordinary bowling performance by Hedley Verity. The Australians were nervous and subdued at Lords in 2009, characteristics which were as alien to their predecessors as snow to a desert. In short, the 2005 vintage was world class.  The 2009 team was not.

The other way in which the 2009 series differed from 2005 was, of course, that 2005 was the last year in which Test matches in England were broadcast on terrestrial television.  Since then, all Test matches have been the exclusive preserve of Sky TV as a result of the disgraceful deal signed by the ECB at the end of 2004 and repeated four years later.  Later on, I shall argue at length why removing cricket from free-to-air coverage is wrong for the game.  Suffice to say for now that it was for this reason that many fewer people watched the 2009 series than in 2005, when on several occasions the viewing figures exceeded 8 million.  This was, admittedly, partly because the 2009 series did not match the standard of cricket and sustained levels of excitement experienced in 2005; but this in itself shows why the summer of 2005 was a once in a generation experience, when the whole country became obsessed with cricket, and for this reason acquired much more significance in our history.

So how did Australia come to lose a series to us Poms in 2005?  Despite the heroics of Michael Vaughan, Freddie Flintoff, Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Marcus Trescothick, the marvellous Simon Jones and the rest of the team, something more was at work that summer. It had to have been, given the power, class and indomitable nature of their opponents.

As I said, the whole country was behind them; but it needed the whole country to do more than just support them.  The team couldn’t have won on its own. The collective will of the whole nation was winning with them. Think of Roberto Baggio’s missed penalty in the 1994 World Cup Final.  200 million Brazilians willed that ball over the crossbar. Or when Michael Owen chipped the ball past Peter Scmeicel in the last minute at Old Trafford to hand Liverpool their first win at Old Trafford in 10 years – except that 30,000 people in the Stretford End willed the ball past the post.  I know, because I was directly behind the ball.  It had to be going in; but there was something else at work.

The final series score was 2-1 to England, with Australia winning the first match at Lords, comfortably, by over 200 runs.  England’s two victories were by 2 runs and 3 wickets.  This shows how extraordinarily close it was.  The Australians, competitors that they are, fought every inch of the way. The loss by 2 runs at Edgbaston was when they had been 100 behind on the first innings and then over 100 short of their target with only 2 wickets left in the second; and then, having been 99-5 at the end of the second day in response to England’s 477 at Trent Bridge, two days later, after following on, they almost pulled off an astonishing turnaround when they had England 57-4 and then 116-7 when only 129 was needed to win.  Both games should have been easily won by England.  Yet it was that sort of summer.  The England team needed all of us to will them to win, to do stupid and outrageous things to haul them over the line, to help them win the key moments and get to that glorious final Monday afternoon at the Oval in September 2005.  Every English cricket fan could claim credit for the emotion they put in to that summer, for every chewed nail, paced floor, cigarette, glass of whisky, missed deadline, late arrival home, cancelled meeting or doctor’s note.

This is my story of how I helped.  It’s my account of the stupid, mad things I did that summer to see us through, to back up the claim that I won the Ashes.  As it happens, the only matches I actually attended in 2009 were at Lords, The Oval and the Riverside at Durham, which were the only matches we actually won that summer against Australia, so I could claim that maybe I won the 2009 Ashes as well!  However, my crazy actions in 2005, in a summer that was far more emotional on a personal and national level, were of an altogether different nature.

 In telling the story, I have attempted to analyse the game itself. I have tried to explain why the seemingly trivial doings of professional cricketers all around the world are so widely followed and why the drama of cricket reduces normal, sensible people to a state of irrationality, only interested in the next run or the next wicket.  Passionate followers of the game, especially English supporters, will, at the very least, appreciate the memories of that summer.  My hope, though, is that this book will convey the joy of the game and the pleasure it gives to a broader audience.  Through my own experiences, they will perhaps get a feel for some of the game’s history and idiosyncrasies, as well as the sense of fun that is never far from its surface.

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