How I Won The Ashes 12 November 2010


12 November 2010

 Hello and welcome back to How I Won the Ashes.  You can view this, and previous editions, on

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First up, I owe an apology to my friend Norman, the criminal barrister.  You may remember last time, I told the story of how he avoided trouble at Stamford Bridge, because he had kept a Chelsea fan who stabbed a Liverpool fan out of jail.  I’d been under the impression that the charge was GBH.  It seems I was wrong.  Norman rang me immediately to point out that his client had actually killed the Liverpool supporter – it was manslaughter, not GBH.  He was concerned that his client’s street credibility might suffer amongst his fellow Chelsea fans if the wrong facts were being disseminated.  I am happy to set the record straight.

The other development has been the dramatic arrival in London of Zulquarnain Haider, the Pakistan wicket-keeper, who claims he has received threats from betting go-betweens.  This only confirms what I said last time: these people are not just using money to achieve their objectives.  It is no different to the mafia and it is very dangerous.

Build up to Brisbane

It’s getting close and I can hardly wait – less than a fortnight to go.  As usual, that first session will be absolutely key.  England have a pretty poor record with the toss at Brisbane, which is only partly responsible for our dismal record there.  There is an extract below from How I Won The Ashes (the book) which documents this in more detail.  But we can’t legislate for the toss.  If we find ourselves in the field, we have to have the same mentality as at Lords in 2005: in their faces, straight at them from the very first ball.  If we win the toss, it has to be an absolute green top, a bowler’s paradise, before Andrew Strauss should even consider fielding first.  Runs on the board are usually the first step towards winning a match. I’m sure the groundsman at the Gabba won’t be cute enough to sprinkle grass cuttings on a flat pitch to lure Strauss into fielding first and if he is, I’m sure Strauss and the rest of the team will be savvy enough not to fall for it.

We have been laying a few ghosts to rest of late: beating Australia at Lords, avoiding defeat at Cape Town (just) and winning the first match of a series (Bangladesh don’t count, but Pakistan do).  We have just added winning the opening match of an Ashes tour to that list, with an impressive win over Western Australia. It would be nice to add winning in Brisbane to that list.  Last week’s win in Perth was a big fillip.  Not only did most of the England team get a good work out and enjoy some success, it was clear that they really wanted to win the game rather than simply practice. The latest match in Adelaide looks like going the same way.  Encouragingly, everyone is chipping in with runs and wickets. I’m hoping to wake up tomorrow morning and find that we have forced another win.  Ricky Ponting has started the psychological warfare already by suggesting that England will find the Brisbane wicket too hot to handle, and that is another good sign, because it shows they are worried.  It’s ill advised, too.  I’m sure Stuart Broad and Stephen Finn are quite happy at the prospect of getting at the Australian batsmen on that sort of pitch.  My only concern is that we are peaking too soon.  Remember that England’s last victory in Brisbane came after it was reported that there were only three things wrong with the team: they couldn’t bat, couldn’t bowl and couldn’t field.  So we must not get ahead of ourselves.  

I don’t think England will make that mistake, though. The preparation has been very good.  Proper three day matches against state teams have been missing from recent tours, so to play three of them before the first test is a change in a direction, and a welcome one.  It looks like a thoroughly professional set up that England have adopted.  They are playing well together and they have a settled team. They are also looking to win sessions at a time, which is what the great Australian teams of ten years ago used to do. Almost every member of the eleven is sure of his place and there is good back up. The only one who might suffer is Bell, if the management change their minds and decide to go with five bowlers, which would mean dropping a batsman.  They have shown little inclination to do so and it would be a major surprise.  It basically revolves around their confidence in Stuart Broad as a batsman and Tim Bresnan as a bowler and a batsman.  Broad is almost good enough to bat at No. 7, but not quite; and Bresnan, while competent at both skills, also fits in the “not quite” category.  If only Adil Rashid had trained on.  His outburst on twitter did not help him, he has clearly alienated the England high command and it may be some time before we see him in the international frame again.

If Rashid could be relied upon to bowl 20 overs in a day and take one or two wickets for less than 70 runs on a flat pitch, it would be a no brainer.  You could play Broad, Rashid and Swann at 7, 8 and 9 and be reasonably confident of getting 100 runs between them per innings, especially if one of the top six were well set. In the field, it would give Strauss many more options. Rashid’s only consolation is that ten years ago, another young spinner went to South Africa, pissed off the management with his attitude, didn’t play on the tour and was discarded.   His name: Graeme Swann.

In two years, Swann has catapulted himself to become one of the world’s best spinners, now that Muralitharan has retired.  He has lovely variation, spins the ball prodigiously and has the habit of bowling magic balls that take wickets, rather than spin past the bat and stumps and produce nothing more than a frustrated grimace from the bowler and fielders. He also has a lot of left handers at whom to bowl.  Above all, a high proportion of his deliveries hit the stumps, which is why he gets so many lbws.   Here he is helped by the review system and it is this, more than anything else, that has persuaded the England management to go with only four bowlers. They reckon that Swann bowls accurately enough not only to keep an end tight, but also to bowl enough straight balls that he is almost bound to get at least one wicket per spell, especially when he has the back up of the third umpire.  He also has the uncanny ability to strike in the first over of a spell, which has become so well known that it has the affect of putting even more pressure on the batsman when he comes on to bowl. One word of caution about the review system: England do need to be astute with their use of the third umpire, because it is effectively their fifth bowler and they need it at hand for as long as possible during their opponents’ innings.

I do think how the respective 7, 8 and 9s perform on each side will have a major bearing on the series. Certainly Prior, Broad and Swann mean we bat pretty deep and provide some insurance against the top order collapses that have started to become a bit of a concern.  For Australia, runs from the lower middle and bottom order have long been a mantra.  Like England, their top order has started to look less solid.

Therefore, I think the key players for England will be Strauss, Trott, Pietersen, Broad and Swann.  If all five have good series, and if Broad and Swann also chip in with runs, England will win; and if they receive better than average support from the others, they will win convincingly.  By good series, I mean batsmen averaging fifty plus and bowlers taking twenty five wickets.  The players whom Australia will rely on most to stop this happening will be Watson, Ponting, Clarke, Hussey and Johnson. Of these, Clarke and Hussey look the most vulnerable, which in turn puts more pressure on Ponting in the batting stakes.  Marcus North is an enigma: England must not give him scoring opportunities at the start of his innings, as he seems as difficult to get out when he is over 20 as it is easy to get him when he has scored less than 10. As for their bowling, Johnson is the key.  If he bowls at his best, things will be very close; but he will need support from the other Australian bowlers and there England have the edge, although I do think England’s batsmen will underestimate Shane Watson at their peril.

So, assuming Swann and Broad do not break down and play the entire series, I am going to stick my neck out and go for England to win 3-1, with a draw at Adelaide.  And my Australian friends reading this can think what they like!

Now, to finish off, and set the mood, here are more extracts from How I Won The Ashes (the book). I am going to explain why the 2005 series meant so much to us Poms: after all the beatings, the bullying, the false dawns and the mental frailty, it was pay back time.

Wherever you are, I hope you have a great weekend.



Anyone who watched the endless Ashes pastings during the 1990s and early 2000s endured them as torture.  For those of us whose formative cricket years were immortalised by the likes of Botham, Gower, Brearley, Willis, Gooch and Boycott, it was worse.  Younger fans were only used to defeat.  Losing all the time, when we remembered beating Australia, was a nightmare that recurred every two years.

I was too young to remember Ray Illingworth winning the Ashes for England in Sydney in early 1971, for the first time in over 15 years; my very first memory of Test cricket is Doug Walters pulling Bob Willis over midwicket for 6 off the last ball of the day at Perth, three years later.  It was to reach his century, his first ever against England: early evidence of the huge collective mental strength that permeates Australian sport.

Almost 30 years later, Steve Waugh would do something similar.  In Sydney, under pressure and his place in the side being openly questioned, he came to the crease with Australia in trouble on the first day.  As he did so often, he dug his side out of a hole and found himself on 98 facing the last ball of the day, bowled by the off-spinner Richard Dawson: flat, straight and on a length.  Most batsmen would have played it back to the bowler, walked off and started out again the next morning.  Not Waugh.  His desire to win the psychological battle ensured that his eyes, hands and most importantly his brain, were up to the task. He rocked back and pinged the ball through the covers for four to reach his century.  The Australians always seemed to prevail during those moments.

The 1970s, of course, were when Lillee and Thomson were at their peak.  I saw for myself how strong Australian cricket has always been.  My first two days at a Test Match were at the Oval, where I saw Australia clock up a score of over 500 on a sunny Friday and then bowl England out for under 200 on a cloudy Saturday.  Lillee, Thomson and the ludicrous Max Walker were almost unplayable. 

Three things became immediately obvious to me that day: watching Test cricket ball by ball is captivating, even when you don’t play the game; Australian batsmen, bowlers and fielders are generally the best in the world; and following England, until recently at least, usually meant supporting the team on the back foot.  Or with its back to the wall.

During my teens and early twenties, fate worked in England’s favour.  We were never able to beat the amazing West Indian team of that era in a single test match, let alone a series.  Nevertheless, England produced a crop of cricketers that saw off Australia more often than not between 1977 and 1987. Some of them often needed to be at their best and most inspired and we were also obvious beneficiaries of the Packer Revolution.  Too much has been written about the summer of 1981 for me to do it justice, but it remained the greatest summer of English cricket until 2005 matched it, possibly bettered it.

Maybe the feats of Sir Ian Botham and the rest took our luck away once they faded from the game; it was as if we’d had our fun in the sun and now there was to be a period of famine. There may have been pressure on the next generation of English players to match those achievements against Australia.  Unfortunately, those same achievements inspired the Australians – addicted to Ashes dominance – to ensure that such a Pom resurgence could never again be contemplated. 

What really took Australia light years ahead of everyone else was their system and a culture that places sport and the national team at the very top of its priorities. Having already produced Bradman, Benaud, Lillee, Marsh and the Chappells over 50 years, it then proceeded to deliver Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath, Healy and the Waughs in virtually the same team, certainly the same generation! And the common link between those two separate groups was one of the toughest competitors of all, Alan Border.

It was Border who began Australia’s recovery in 1989.  Remembering that four years previously, he had not only brought a fairly ordinary team over, they had also adopted an unusually friendly and social approach with their English opponents, who won the series pretty convincingly.  Border batted brilliantly, but he had little support.  In 1989, he returned, determined not to make the same mistakes.  He and his team adopted a much more aggressive, hard nosed approach.  There were fewer beers in the opponents’ dressing room, and fewer opponents in his. He told a thirsty Robin Smith in no uncertain terms that he could not have a glass of water but could wait until the interval like everyone else. He was also blessed with a much stronger team: there were some new players, such as Mark Taylor and Ian Healey, who quickly became major headaches for England; and Steve Waugh suddenly blossomed into the great batsman he would be for more than a decade.  It took England until the third match of the series to take his wicket, by which time he had amassed nearly 400 runs, including two big centuries.  Border also had much more penetrative bowling at his disposal. In a generally damp summer, Terry Alderman mesmerised England’s batsmen with his swing and accuracy, taking 41 wickets; and Geoff Lawson, another veteran, also enjoyed a revival with 29 wickets.

This set the tone.  The best part of the 1990 / 91 visit to Australia was the sight of David Gower and John Morris pretending to be Biggles and Algy and buzzing their team-mates in a pair of Tiger Moths.  Apparently Gower simply pulled out a wad of notes when he was fined for his actions by the pompous and humourless tour committee and paid up on the spot.  There was little else on the cricket pitch to remember, apart, possibly, from Mike Atherton’s century, the only one he would ever score in an Ashes test. It was an unhappy tour, and there would be plenty more.

Yet we hoped.  Each series would come around with a wave of anticipation. Sooner or later, usually sooner, it became clear that we didn’t have a prayer. Sometimes the gulf between the sides was evident immediately.  Michael Slater slammed the first ball of the 1994/95 series – a Philip de Freitas long hop – into the cover fence.  Eight years later, Nasser Hussain went one better by handing over the initiative before a ball was even bowled. He won the toss, got spooked about his best asset – the Trescothick / Vaughan opening partnership – being immediately asked to perform; and elected to field. Apparently he could “smell the panic” in the dressing room. (All the more reason, I would have thought, to have only two players on the pitch instead of all eleven!) Both times, Australia piled on the runs and in both series, we ended up losing the first two Test matches. In terms of playing ability, we were second best. In terms of mental strength, we were nowhere. Regrettably, after 2005, we reverted to type.  The first ball of the 2006/07 Ashes series at Brisbane was bowled by Steve Harmison.  It was too wide to be slammed to the cover boundary.  It was so wide that it ended up in Freddie Flintoff’s hands at second slip.  One friend of mine was there.  He was sitting at such an angle as to think that Justin Langer had edged the ball.  How else could it have ended up in the slips?  He stood up excitedly and cheered, a sole voice amongst a crowd of laughing Aussies. Australia went on to win the series 5-0.

That lack of mental strength meant that the key moments would invariably go against us.  Everyone remembers Gatting, our best player of spin, being done by THAT Shane Warne ball in England’s first innings of the 1st Test of 1993 at Old Trafford; but do they also remember the last ball of the 4th day of that same match?  England, having been asked to bat 4 sessions to save the match, have lost early wickets.  Gooch and Gatting are in, sticking it out.  If they can be there at the close, a draw is still a possibility.  Merv Hughes to Gatting, last ball of the day.  Full length ball and he is just … late on it. Awful shot. Jack Bannister in the commentary box:  “Bowled him!”  (to state what’s happened);  and then again “Bowled him!”  (in sudden, awful resignation, as if that signals the end for England, which, a day later, it inevitably does.)

Two weeks later at Lords, England are again having to bat resolutely to save the match. We watch as poor Mike Atherton, on 97, clips the ball to deep mid wicket. He runs 1, he runs 2, he desperately wants 3, the shot deserves more than 2, maybe it’ll go for 4. But the fielder, being Australian and therefore athletic, hauls in the ball and, in a flash, it is in the air back to the stumps. Gatting, his partner, suddenly remembers how short a boundary it is, shouts “No”. Atherton stops, skids, gets up, slips again and is run out, on 99.  It’s the nearest he’ll ever get to a Test century at Lords.  As he says in his own book: “Run out at Lords for 99: nightmare.”

Four years later, we win the first match at Edgbaston convincingly and are then bowled out by Glenn McGrath for under 100  in the first innings of the 2nd Test, at Lords.  We end up being saved by rain, thus dodging the usual Lords defeat, and go into the third match of the series one up.  3rd Test, Old Trafford, on a pitch that has result written all over it. Could this be the chance? We get among Australia early on and Steve Waugh comes in, Australia 4 down for not many.  First ball, he gets a yorker from Caddick, it has to be hitting, it has to be hitting, if he’s out we’re surely on to go 2 up in the series… but the man who matters thinks it’s missing leg stump and that’s the nearest we get.  Waugh goes on to make not just one but two centuries, Warne and McGrath are also at their best and we lose.

In the next match, at Headingly, we take early first innings wickets again, but then Matthew Elliot is dropped at slip and goes on to score 199. Warne and McGrath make it impossible for us to be competitive, we’re 2-1 down with 2 to play and that’s the series.  Four years later, it happens again.  With England already one down in the series, thanks mainly to a brilliant 152 by Adam Gilchrist, and bowled out cheaply in their 1st innings in the second match at Lords, Australia are this time struggling to gain a significant lead.  But Gilchrist, arguably the second best ever Australian batsman, is dropped three times, scores 90-odd and again marshalls the Australian tail to yet another big lead.  England crumble in their second innings and the game is over by lunch on the 4th day.

Even then, we have a chance.  In the third match of that 2001 series, we bat first, get bowled out cheaply, but take early wickets and the series is still alive; again Gilchrist bats powerfully and Australia draw level to turn it into a single innings game, with more than 3 days of the match left.  Atherton is solid and we are over 100 ahead with 8 wickets in hand and an opportunity to set a decent target.   It’s close to 6 o’clock and we need to keep wickets in hand for the next day.  On comes Warne: first he bullies the umpire into triggering Atherton on a defensive push where there is clear air between the ball and the edge.  Then Stewart chops a long hop into his stumps; and finally Warne gets inside Ramprakash’s head, he decides to pretend to be an Australian, except that he isn’t one, comes charging down the pitch on a mad counter-attack and is stumped by a mile. We are left with Ian Ward and Alex Tudor to put together a partnership.  Predictably, they can’t and the game, and series, is wrapped up by Saturday afternoon.

There were, of course, a few flashes of hope.  Hussain’s 207 and his massive stand with Thorpe, which put England more than 300 ahead in the 1st match of the 1997 series, after bowling out Australia cheaply.  Gough’s hat-trick in Sydney, when a drawn series was still on the cards in the last match of the series.  Goughy again in 1994/95, with bat and ball.  Big Gus Fraser and Phil de Freitas amazingly giving us the chance to level that series after such a dreadful start.  Dean Headley making Steve Waugh, for once, look foolish in Melbourne in 1998/99. And Michael Vaughan’s batting and the win, albeit yet another consolation, in Sydney in early 2003.

I can’t write about cricket, and Australian cricketers, without touching upon sledging – or “mental disintegration”, as Steve Waugh called it.  Some of it is humorous, sometimes it is out of order.  A line exists and cricketers all around the world, throughout the history of the game, have chosen to cross it in an effort to make a batsman feel uncomfortable and gain an advantage. 

We all have our favourite ones, and there are plenty of examples that are well documented, so I won’t go through them all.  They mostly feature Australians, as you would expect, and I think I can demonstrate where that tenuous line of legitimacy runs.

Think of Ian Healey, skippering Queensland against England.  Nasser Hussain comes to the crease, who could be fairly described as nasally superior.  Healey, behind the stumps, signals to extra cover, asking him to come in close, “Right under Nasser’s nose.”  When extra cover is about 5 yards away, Healey holds up his hand and says “That’ll do, mate.” Cue purple Hussain rage and a less than calm batsman facing his first ball. Is that legitimate?  Definitely.  Is it amusing?  Of course.   Did it achieve its objective?  It must have wound Nasser up.  If he took a sightless heave at his first delivery, then, clearly yes, which was the intention.

One of the best I heard was told to me by Ian Chappell.  I attended a lunch where he was interviewed by Sir Michael Parkinson.  They got onto the subject of sledging and Parkinson asked him the best example which he’d ever heard. He said that if the purpose of a choice comment to a batsman was to change his mindset and persuade him to make a mistake, then they came no better than Shane Warne’s dig at Sourav Ganguly.  Ganguly was batting with the great Tendulkar and was leaving a lot of balls.  Warne, aware of the rivalry between the two players, stood with his hands on his hips after yet another leave and complained; “Come on, mate.  They haven’t come here to watch you leaving the ball. They’ve come here to watch this fella play some proper shots,” jerking a thumb at Tendulkar.  It worked perfectly. A few balls later, down the wicket came Ganguly for the big heave, he missed and was stumped by a mile.

I encountered something similar on the cricket pitch myself, obviously at nowhere near those rarefied standards.  Skippering a team for a match I run every year in London, we found ourselves pushing hard for a victory against opponents determined to hold out for a draw and showing no ambition to attack and chase down the target.  Our off spinner was lobbing up invitations to “have a go” but one batsman, in particular, was resisting all temptation and studiously blocked every ball.  My friend Ron, a serious cricketer who once saw off Courtney Walsh in his prime, was fielding at first slip and enquired, less than politely, whether we had to watch this guy practice his forward defensive “for the next fucking hour.”  I was behind the stumps and could sense immediately that he had got to the batsman, not least because the back of his neck had darkened somewhat.  The very next ball was lobbed up, the batsman went for the boundary, missed and was bowled.  I have to confess, Ron and I collapsed in fits of giggles.  It’s terrific when it works.

Or when, in a village match, and I found myself facing a serious “pro” who was clearly several notches better than the rest of his team-mates and his opponents.  He bowled reasonably quick and was coming back for his final spell as we tried to put on quick runs in the last few overs of our innings.  I had my eye in and several runs to my name. I had been cunning enough to arrive late and therefore avoid batting up the order when I would have to have faced his opening spell, in which he removed three of our top order batsmen. The first ball was well pitched up outside off stump.  I went for a booming drive, got an edge and it flew over the slips for four.  The bowler growled “How about moving your fucking feet”.  That annoyed me, because I thought I had done so, even if I hadn’t middled it.  My blood up, I decided to advance at least three yards down the pitch to the next ball, which I was able to push through the covers for a couple.  I did enjoy enquiring whether that was enough foot movement for him.  The next ball was clearly going to be short.  It was, but I got a top edge and that was that.  I was seen off with a triumphant “Keep those feet moving” as I walked off the pitch.  Good sledging and I had fallen victim.

Of course, if a sledge is met by a counter-sledge delivered immediately and eloquently, it can be equally entertaining.  Jimmy Ormond was unable to apply the “actions speaking louder than words” maxim, but his response to Mark Waugh (allegedly the biggest sledger of them all) will go down as a classic for its quick thinking.  Ormond appears at the crease in an Ashes Test and Waugh pipes up from the slips “Mate, what are you doing here, you’re nowhere near good enough to play for England?”  Ormond replies “At least I’m the best player in my family.”  They must have chuckled at that, especially Mark Waugh’s twin brother.

The classic example of actions speaking louder than words, but accompanied by a counter sledge as well, was Merv Hughes.  Described by Javed Miandad as a fat bus conductor, Hughes had the great joy of dismissing Miandad himself not long afterwards.  As he rushed passed the departing batsman to celebrate with his team-mates, he shouted “Tickets, please.”

So sledging clearly has its place in the game, it can produce results on the pitch and provides plenty of good material for banter in the bar afterwards. It can go too far, though. And to return to the theme of bullying Australians – because, after all, they are the villains in this book – I think everyone will agree that they were out of order when Chris Cairns came in to bat for New Zealand.  He had recently lost his sister tragically in a train crash.  As he took guard, the Australians are alleged to have been making “choo-choo” noises. 

It was Chris Cairns who battered England to their lowest point in 1999.  A brilliant innings in the final test at the Oval consigned England to defeat.  The series was lost and England’s new captain, Nasser Hussain, was booed by the crowd. England had become so bad that we were now the lowest ranked test-playing nation.  But Hussain had some steel, and passion to go with it.  Aided by coach Duncan Fletcher, he brought in new blood and a new attitude.  Within the next year, the likes of Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick had been selected and, although we lost to South Africa the following winter, the West Indies were beaten at home in 2000, for the first time in over 30 years.  The famous victory in the Karachi twilight followed, and then Sri Lanka were beaten in their own back yard, a notoriously hard team for visiting teams to defeat.  Australia were still too strong in 2002/03; but the foundations had been laid.


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