How I Won The Ashes 23 December 2010

Welcome back to How I Won The Ashes.

The concept of How I Won The Ashes was conceived during the legendary 2005 Ashes series, when I did crazy things that helped the England team home.  All cricketers, and fans, are superstitious: lucky sofas, not moving during a long partnership, not walking on a certain side of the street, avoiding the cracks in the pavement; basically, anything that will help their team win. 

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I’ve also been contributing to podcasts for the Barmy Army Ashes website.  You can hear them on

Oh dear. My predictions of a 4-0 scoreline after Adelaide have been made to look pretty foolish and certainly premature.  I should have known better.  A proud, aggressive animal is at its most dangerous when it is cornered and they don’t come prouder or more aggressive than an Australian cricket team. A backlash was inevitable, especially at Perth, where we can never seem to win.  I don’t think the England team was so unprofessional as to take its foot off the accelerator – after all, it did pretty well on the first day at Perth – but it’s human nature to assume a mentality of superiority when you’ve had so convincing a win as England did in Adelaide. It’s also difficult to sustain such levels of excellence.  Conditions are different and the opposition can only get better, especially when stung by its own fans and media and by the knowledge that it has massively underperformed.

I don’t buy the theory that this England team only bats well on good wickets and that when we come up against a pitch that offers help to the bowlers, we do poorly.  People talk about Johannesburg on our last tour of South Africa, when we were bowled out cheaply.  While that was undeniably a bad performance, the batting collapse on the first day which lost us the match was mainly down to horrible shot selection and a freak catch by Amla off Strauss from the first ball of the match that on most other occasions would have sped to the boundary.  My point is that this could have happened anywhere.  At Headingley in 2009, our fate was sealed by a mistaken decision to bat first by Strauss.  His mind confused by the last minute injury to Matt Prior and the 5am hotel fire alarm, he was probably less focused on the toss than he might have been. We also batted badly. This, too, could have happened anywhere.  As for the Oval last year against Pakistan, the pitch was not especially fast or bouncy, certainly not as it was in Perth. Our batsmen again batted badly on a pitch where at least one of them could and should have made a big score to give their bowlers something to work with.  Even when we had one last chance to put on a few extra runs to extend our lead, Stuart Broad lollipopped a catch to mid on with a terrible stroke in the first over of the day, when he might have eked out an extra 20 or so runs. Even that could have made the difference, so nervy was the subsequent Pakistan run chase.

To be fair to Broad, he made amends at Lords when our batting again collapsed, in very difficult conditions against some impressive Pakistan bowling.  This time, though, one of our top batsmen was able to get support from the lower order, grit it out until conditions improved and then build a big score.  This is what Mike Hussey is doing for Australia, and when wickets start tumbling, we have to see more partnerships like Trott’s and Broad’s, if not quite on such a gargantuan scale. 

There’s no doubt that our collapses are being accentuated by the failure of our lower order to contribute.  The absence of Stuart Broad doesn’t help (although he himself was out first ball in his only innings of the series), but we need to see a better contribution with the bat from the likes of Tremlett, Swann and, especially, Prior.  It’s really important that we post a few decent stands for our 6th, 7th and 8th wickets. So far, our bottom five have contributed 72 runs in 3 full innings, excluding the partnership between Bell and Prior at Adelaide (when runs were easy to come by ahead of the declaration). That’s unacceptably low and it means that a batsman in as good form as Bell is only making fifties when, with a bit of support, he’d be making centuries. It’s also another case for promoting Bell up the order.  I’d even go as far as to move him to No. 4 above Pietersen, who is more vulnerable to the new ball than Bell because his defence isn’t as tight.  With such little support from the lower order, it’s hardly surprising that we persist with the 4 bowler policy and I can’t see them dropping Collingwood now, even though he looks like a walking wicket.  Mind you, that’s usually when he performs best, so expect him to get a score at Melbourne.  But our top order has shown that it is still prone to collapse and we have got to learn to maximise the time between the fall of each wicket. I know Johnson’s spell was as good as anything we have faced all series, but we must be ready for him next time. The next man to the crease has got to put all thought of run scoring out of his mind for his first 30 minutes. And he has got to exude calm, because nothing gives a bowler more encouragement than a batsman who is visibly unsettled. This is another reason to separate Trott and Pietersen, both nervy starters.

One thing I would like this England team to bury for ever is the night watchman.  Rather like going off for bad light even when you are on top of the bowling, it has become almost Pavlovian for a team to send in a lower order batsman when a wicket falls late in the day.  It achieves absolutely nothing except disrupt the batting order.  It often doesn’t work anyway.  Take the penultimate day at Perth.  Trott had got out with only 5 minutes left in the day.  The next man in was Ian Bell, at no. 6, already at least one place too low in the order.  But they send in Anderson to “protect” him.  In the event, he faces one ball from Mitchell Johnson.  Collingwood takes what turns out to be the last over of the day against Harris.  Off the 5th ball, there is an easy single on offer, which Anderson turns down: evidently he doesn’t fancy doing the job for which he was sent in, namely face the bowling.  Collingwood is then caught at slip off the last ball.  So the net result is that Anderson has been sent in, he faces only one ball and England still lose one of their frontline batsmen.  The next morning, England start with Anderson, who is hardly likely to help assemble a meaningful partnership, and Ian Bell, now batting at No. 7.  It’s a complete farce.  It didn’t really matter, the damage had already been done, but Ian Bell could surely have come in at the end of the day, face a couple of deliveries and then come back the next morning. Anyway, until our lower order batsmen start showing that they can hold a bat, what on earth is the point of sending them in higher up the order? As for Anderson, I think he is living off his reputation for going so many innings without a duck.  True, he batted well enough to secure an unlikely draw in Cardiff in 2009 and he has occasionally scored some runs; but he doesn’t like the short stuff and is not adept and handling it, which doesn’t really make him an ideal candidate for the night watchman role.  And his lack of technique increases the risk of him getting injured, which would be calamitous.

On the bowling front, I think generally we are not pitching the ball up as much we should.  Our bowlers should have learned from the performances of Siddle in Brisbane and Johnson in Perth. When we do have success, it tends to be when the ball is pitched up.  Look at Anderson’s dismissals of Ponting and Clarke at Adelaide, or Tremlett’s of Hughes at Perth. So why not do more of it? We have also got to find a way of working out Mike Hussey.  We seem to be slightly bereft of ideas, beyond our quick bowlers feeding his pull and hook shot in the hope that he will put one in the air and Swann bowling around the wicket in an attempt to catch his outside edge.  They have managed to do this, to be sure, but not before Hussey has scored enough runs to lend the innings respectability (1st innings at Adelaide and Perth), build a big lead (Brisbane and 2nd innings at Perth) or come close to avoiding defeat (2nd innings at Adelaide). Swann’s field has also allowed him to take an easy single to deep mid off every time he plays an off drive.  If that route were cut off, with the cover region offering a gap, he’d be playing slightly further away from his body every time he played the shot, increasing the chances of an edge. Also, Swann hasn’t tried bowling over the wicket at Hussey, to change the angle of attack.  Nor has he been introduced early in Hussey’s innings. Why not?  And why haven’t our fast bowlers been firing in the odd yorker, especially early in his innings or straight after an interval? It’s all started to become a bit predictable.

That’s why I would pick Shahzad instead of Finn for Melbourne.  Finn is tired and it’s showing.  He is taking wickets, but it tends to be one per spell: he is not running through the Australian batting order and his bowling style doesn’t lend itself to doing so.  The argument against Shahzad is that he could be expensive, but so has Finn been.  With Shahzad, you have 4 bowlers who are of very different styles, giving a 4 man attack as much variety as possible.  He is also unknown to the Australian batsmen, who have got quite used to tall men bowling back of a length: Broad, Finn and now Tremlett.  And he could just have that X factor if he gets the ball to reverse swing unexpectedly.  The balls he bowled to get his wickets last summer against Bangladesh were good enough to dismiss much better batsmen and if he gets on a roll, you could see him doing to Australia what Johnson and then Harris did to us.

There’s also been a lot of speculation about the pitch at Melbourne: that it will be prepared to suit the Australian fast bowling attack.  This is laughable.  It’s as if Australia think they have suddenly got Lillee, Thomson and McGrath back in their attack. Suddenly, they are the greatest team ever.  Let’s put this into some sort of perspective.  Adelaide didn’t make a good English team into a great one, however tempting it was to think so (and I admit I was guilty of that).  Nor did it make quite a good Australian team into a poor one.  By the same token, Perth didn’t turn England into a poor team overnight, nor have Australia suddenly become world beaters. Perth proved that momentum can change very quickly; but, having done so, is it safe to assume that the Australian bowlers will be able to do the same damage in Melbourne? Are the English batsmen as psychologically shot as their predecessors were after three matches against Warne and McGrath, or Holding, Roberts, Marshall and Garner?  I think not. 

It’s true, Australia’s best chance may lie in a battery of fast bowlers, but these are the same bowlers whom our batsmen flogged for over 1,000 runs for the loss of only 6 wickets.  They seem to have decided on omitting a spinner, because they haven’t got one good enough.  That doesn’t mean they will win; and they may yet regret not having a spinner in Melbourne. Melbourne is a new match on a new pitch.  And it won’t be like Perth, whatever anyone says.  That sort of talk is childish mind games.  It could even be a crude attempt at conning us into dropping Swann, because there is nothing in the pitch for him.  Basic horticulture, not to mention common sense, will tell you that soil where there has been a completely different climate cannot suddenly became the same as one more than 3,000 miles away.

The perceived wisdom is that Australia have all the momentum going into Melbourne.  So what?  England had all the momentum going into Perth and look what happened.  And after being comprehensively defeated in Durban last year, the momentum quickly shifted South Africa’s way in Cape Town and then Johannesburg. Australia had all the momentum after Headingley in 2009, nobody gave England a chance at the Oval, and yet they pulled off a resounding win. Or think of England in South Africa in 2004/2005.  They won the 1st Test, their eleventh out of twelve, and went to Durban full of confidence. They were bowled out for 139 before tea on the first day, conceded a first innings deficit of almost 200 and were staring defeat in the face.  Three days later, they had South Africa clinging on for a draw, having racked up a huge 2nd innings score quickly enough to declare before the end of the 4th day and force a victory. Only bad light and bad umpiring stopped them finishing the job.  On that basis, you would have thought South Africa would be the ones feeling low, having failed to secure victory from such a dominant position.  They promptly won in Cape Town a few days later. Each match is different.  And the fact is that for all our deficiencies at Perth, Australia have more to worry about: three of their top order are walking wickets, their bowling is ordinary except when Johnson finds his radar and if it weren’t for him, Hussey and, to a lesser extent, Watson and Haddin, they’d be 3-0 down by now. And Hussey has to fail sometime, surely. All of our team have made a positive contribution, even Prior with his wicket-keeping and Collingwood with his outstanding catching.

There, I’m sticking my neck out.  I still stand by my original series prediction of 3-1 to England.  Perth was always the one we were most likely to lose, which is how it transpired, although I’d originally hoped our one loss would be an Australian consolation at Sydney, when our boys were still hungover from celebrating. If I’m wrong, who cares?  More knowledgeable pundits than me have got it equally wrong.  That’s the beauty of cricket.  But this England team don’t tend to lose consecutive matches and I don’t expect them to do so this time around. They remain the stronger team.

I wish you all a very Happy Christmas.  If you have nothing better to do, if you want something to read over the turkey sandwich with mayonnaise as you wait for midnight on Christmas Day, take a look at another chapter from How I Won The Ashes.  This is the key point which gave rise to the concept: when all I could think about was how to remove Glenn McGrath from the scene. 

7.            2005: DISASTER AT LORDS

How we criticised the ECB for leaving it until late July before the 2005 Ashes series got under way.  After what England had achieved in Test matches since 2003, we couldn’t wait to get at the Australians and finally compete. An endless diet of one day matches was all very well, but any real cricket fan will agree that, ultimately, those one day matches seemed pretty meaningless at the time.  They made money for the game and that cannot be ignored; and, admittedly, they built up the level of expectation, offering portents of what was to come.  Simon Jones’ showdown with the ultimate Aussie bully, Matthew Hayden, put blood in the mouth of every England cricket supporter fed up of being trampled on.  Harmison yorking Ponting first ball of one innings seemed massively significant. Then, only a few balls later, Collingwood leaped and clutched a Hayden square cut that, previously, only Australians were entitled to hold onto.  And, after an inevitable Australian comeback to bring England’s batting to its knees, in came Kevin Pietersen to bat fearlessly and take England home to their target, treating the Australian bowlers like village journeymen. Now, we thought, we really can compete. In retrospect, those moments were a microcosm of what was to come.

And so began the great emotional roller-coaster ride of the summer of 2005.  Until now, all I have done is echo what every English cricket fan must have felt at the time:  beat Australia – basically, nothing else mattered. Now, though, the story becomes personal. 

I have one daughter.  She was born on 23 August 2002.  The labour was long and arduous.  All I could do was be there and feel as useful as a hairdryer in a thunderstorm.  Even on that afternoon, though, there was a cricket moment I remember. Cricket and childbirth was to become a recurring theme over the next couple of years, as you will see.

My wife was asleep; her energy was sapped and still the baby would not budge.  I sat in the room, unable to do anything.  At least I could watch the cricket on the television.  India were batting, at Headingly, one-nil down in the series, one match after this to play, so needing a result.  The Indian batsmen were rampant and had amassed a huge score.  It was now a question of when they would declare to give themselves enough time to take 20 English wickets to win the match.  Ganguly, the Indian captain, was at the crease, scoring freely.  He had a flash at a wide ball, nicked it and Robert Key, at slip, put down a sitter.

Key had just come into the English side.  He had shown some guts in Australia the previous winter and by all accounts had handed back some of the verbals to the Australians.  On this occasion, though, he was under pressure.  He had not scored runs during the series, he was due to open the batting and now he had spilled a sitter.  As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking that a really hard captain like Steve Waugh would have declared then and there, thinking:  “Okay mate, you’ve dropped a catch, you’re under pressure, you’re not in form, now bat.”  With over 500 on the board, it would have been an easy option and might have earned India a cheap wicket.  Ganguly chose to bat on, however.  As it happened, India bowled well enough, England’s batting was brittle and India won the match, easily; but it was an interesting psychological theory and an untried insight into mental strength.

My wife got pregnant in the summer of 2004 but at the end of August the scan showed no heartbeat and the foetus had to be removed.  She coped with it bravely, but you can’t really appreciate as a man what it must be like.  The following May, she became pregnant again.  A scan was booked for late July: Thursday 21 July, at 4.00 in the afternoon.  The 1st day of the 1st Ashes Test at Lord’s.  Well, it’d be easy.  The scan was in the West End, no distance from St John’s Wood.  Everything would check out fine and I’d go back to Lords.  Our second child would be on its way, England would have done well and the whole country would start getting excited. 

The build up to the 2005 Ashes series, and that First Test, was as exciting as any ever in my life.  The previous summer, we had won 7 matches in a row, followed by an 8th in Port Elizabeth.  Despite our usual loss in Cape Town, we had come back to win the series, with an unlikely and spectacular win in Johannesburg. We had a settled and balanced team, an outstanding captain, an all rounder at the peak of his powers, a fearsome bowling attack and a will to win that produced victories from even the toughest situations. I started to dream about winning the Ashes.  The first time was very vividly, the night England won that decisive match at the Wanderers.  I found myself in the Long Room with all the members breaking into Jerusalem as Gilchrist walked back, for a duck, to put England on the brink of victory at Lords: for the first time in over a hundred years and only the second time ever.  Variants of that dream would be experienced a fair few times in the build-up to Lords.  But always Jerusalem. 

Lords.  The home of cricket.  I will not even try to do justice to the majesty and tradition of the place.  It is the Holy of Holies of cricket and both inspires and intimidates.  The litany of great deeds performed there is long and illustrious.  I will chose two examples, which neatly encapsulate cricket in general and Lords’ central position within it.

The first will be well known to many.  The 2nd Test against the West Indies in 2000.  The West Indies arrived there, 1-0 up in the series. England won the toss and asked West Indies to bat first.  Always a slightly risky thing to do, but they took nine wickets in the day and completed the job of bowling West Indies out for 267 with the very first ball of the second day, Caddick pinning Walsh leg before wicket.  It was only the prelude to an extraordinary day.  England were quickly bowled out for 134, conceding a first innings lead of 133.  At that point, most observers felt that on a difficult pitch and with Ambrose and Walsh as their spearheads, it was difficult to see anything other than a West Indies win.  Then, in the last part of the day, England’s bowlers completely changed things around.  I was in the Tavern Stand and saw Sherwin Campbell top edge a slash off Caddick, the ball spiral up in the air to be caught inches from the turf and a few feet from the boundary, right in front of us, by a diving Darren Gough.  It set the tone and inspired both the team and the crowd.  England simply ran riot and in the next hour bowled West Indies out for 54, so quickly that there was time left in the day for England to face one over of their second innings, now needing a very gettable 188 runs to win the match, with 3 full days left.  It was the only time in the history of the game that some part of all four innings of a match had taken place in a single day, and I was lucky enough to have been there.  One old buffer in the row behind us slept through it all! Suddenly he jerked awake at the fall of the ninth wicket and chirped “Howzat”, as if he had been dreaming what was going on. Of course, Ambrose and Walsh did not make things easy and England ended up winning by 2 wickets, just about creeping over the line on an equally dramatic Saturday.  I remember listening on the radio to one of those amazing denouements to a game, where every run was cheered to the rooftops, as England inched their way home.

My second example of what Lords can mean to people will be known only to a few; and for one person in particular, it may haunt him for the rest of his life.  At my school, the key match of the season against our oldest and greatest rivals was played at Lords at the end of term.  It is now a 50 overs a side game, but when I was at school, it was a two innings match, played over two days.  For many of those lucky enough to be picked for the 1st XI, it was the only time they ever got to play at the home of cricket.  I was never good enough, to my regret.  I do remember, though, in my first year at school, seeing the scorecard of the previous summer’s game at Lords and noticing that our opening batsman, H.L.A. Hood, was out first ball of each innings, bowled Pigott both times.  A king pair at Lords. Remember Atherton’s description of being run out for 99?  Nightmare?  This must have been worse for poor Henry Hood.  His nemesis was Tony Pigott, who went on to play for Sussex and, indeed, won a cap for England. Years later, I met Pigott, appropriately enough in the Bowler’s Bar at Lords.  I immediately asked him whether he remembered Henry Hood.  Yes, he did indeed, vividly.  Not only that, but in the first innings, the very first ball of the match, the middle stump had cartwheeled “twenty yards past the wicket-keeper.”  Such is the power of Lords.

Back to 21 July 2005. I had not managed to get any tickets, which meant I would head for the Pavilion.    My plan was to get to the gate early.  I’d queue and as soon as it opened, I’d be into the Pavilion and onto the top balcony, behind the bowler’s arm and grab a seat for myself and my friend Rory who was coming along later.  There are no numbered seats in the Pavilion, nor are there any in the guests’ stands, which explains the queuing that goes on.  But it’s no hardship.  You take a cool box that you can sit on full of food and drink, plenty of coffee, the papers and a book, if you don’t feel like being sociable.  Or chat to other members in the queue, if you do. 

All the talk was of how long we’d waited, why did the first Test against Australia have to be as late as late July?  It would have been much better to get them going earlier, the wickets would be greener, they’d have had less practice.  In short, we’d have a better chance of winning.  That was what I picked up most of all.  We absolutely had to win.  It would ruin the summer, no, the whole year if we didn’t.  This was the first time in ages that we realistically had a chance.  Why reduce it by giving the Australians time to get their eyes in? 

The gates open and we file in.  The top of the Pavilion is empty when I get there and I find a seat exactly behind the line of the pitch.  It is looking like a decent day, although there is some cloud around.  As the time of the toss approaches, the prospect of Trescothick and Strauss fishing at Glenn McGrath becomes more likely and the feeling is that this might be a good toss to lose, which Vaughan promptly does.  Australia are batting.  England supporters are anticipating our bowlers getting stuck in to them. 

And they do so from the very start.  The first ball whistles past Langer’s outside edge, very fast and the third, even faster, hits him painfully on the arm.  Hayden is then hit trying to hook and there is literally a taste of blood.  The England team got a bit of a hard time about their lack of sportsmanship during that passage of play, and a lack of apparent concern for the wounded players; but we were having none of it.  The Australians were on the back foot and if the only thing they could respond with were accusations of poor sportsmanship, they were clearly rattled.

The physical blows set the tempo but they also set up the first two wickets.  First Hayden, his ears still ringing, missed an inswinger from Hoggard; and then Ponting was also struck in the face by Harmison, a blow which drew blood.  A few balls later, he couldn’t keep another Harmison snorter down and was caught by Strauss at 3rd slip.  Imagine watching all of that live from above and behind Harmison’s arm.  Then Flintoff and Jones get in on the act.  In his first ever over in an Ashes test, Flintoff persuades Langer, who has looked solid until then, to pull one which isn’t short enough and he skies a sitter to square leg; next over, Martyn flashes at Jones’ first ball, but it’s too close to him and he edges behind. 

The Martyn dismissal is great cricket.  They’ve decided to feed his favourite shot, reasoning that he may well try to attack before he is properly set.  This is exactly what happens, so it is a well thought out dismissal.  Credit to Jones for getting it in exactly the right place.  But then, it is less than surprising: in the bowlers’ warm-up before the start of play, I remember noticing Jones ping the last ball of the practice session at a single stump and hit it bang on, on a length.  He clearly has good control.  Soon he has another one fast and straight, which does a bit and beats Clarke’s crooked defence to have him lbw.  Australia are now 5 down for under a hundred.  In strides Gilchrist.  This was what we wanted:  Gilchrist, under real pressure, in before lunch on the first session of the first day of the series.  He would often get his team out of trouble, very quickly; but England would be happier bowling at him when his team had less than 100 on the board.  It’s a real chance. Gilchrist quickly gets into his stride with some thumping drives and flaying cuts but there is a hint of desperation.  His game, which is inherently high risk, became a little too high risk.  Shortly after lunch, he had a go at one a bit too close to him and nicked it behind.

Steve Harmison then cleaned up the tail and England had taken ten Australian wickets in less than two sessions.  It has happened before, to be fair, in recent memory: Edgbaston 1997, Melbourne 1986, and, of course, Headingley 1981.  But to do it on what seemed like a decent track at Lord’s was unthinkable.  To be behind the bowler’s arm and watch every second was schoolboy dream territory.  And Lords just wasn’t stuffy that day.  Even among the members, as the Australian batsmen got hit and got out, there was none of the “Oh bad luck, old boy!” It was clenched fist in the palm and roars of “Come on!”, which got louder and louder as each wicket fell. Such was the intensity of the desire to pay the Aussies back for all the bullying of the previous sixteen years.

It was time to leave, to meet my wife for the scan.  As Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss set off down the stairs to the Long Room, I ran into them.  Stepping aside, I loudly wished them the best:  “Good luck, boys”.  As they walked into the Long Room, there was a great cheer.  This was it.  A decent partnership from these two and the match is ours for the taking.  Especially now that we know they’re scared of our bowlers.  Trescothick and Strauss have to face a few awkward overs before tea, which they negotiate safely and the opportunity becomes imperceptibly more attainable.

 And then it all went wrong.  I met my wife for the scan.  She was nervous, I was upbeat.  “Don’t worry about a thing.  It’ll be fine.”  Admittedly, I’d had a few drinks and was in a buoyant mood from seeing England rampant over the Aussie batsmen. We walk in to the room.  Our daughter was with us.  My wife lies down and bares her stomach.  The gel gets smeared on and the grainy ultrasound scan gets into focus. There’s the familiar shape of a foetus and I’m zeroing in on the pulse from the heart; except there isn’t one and I’m starting to wonder why there isn’t one and then the man says “I’m sorry” and you know straight away it hasn’t made it.  And you’re crushed and you know how crushed she is and the whole happy day has been turned on its head – and you burst into tears.  You soon have to compose yourself.  Your daughter is there and she’s not yet three.  Anyway, it’s far worse for my wife. She, though, is solid as a rock.  Come on, she says.  Let’s go.  I don’t think she even cried then.  I don’t think she cried till much later.  Right now, she just wanted to get it sorted.

Which meant hospital the next day to have the foetus removed.  She was booked into hospital at 8 am the next morning.  A charming doctor called her from his mobile as we were in the car, driving around, not really knowing where we were going.  He made all the arrangements.  It turned out he was at Lords! Then it dawned on me.  I’d left all my things at the Pavilion and I had tickets for the next day which I would need to give away to friends, as I clearly would have more important things to worry about.  I’d have to go back to Lords now to collect everything.  Anyway, my wife wanted to be with girlfriends who would understand, not a pissed bloke who wouldn’t know how she really felt. In that situation, a man is not in a position to make things better – even if he is sober!  We agreed to meet at home later.  So I returned to Lords, hoping at least to find England taking the initiative and putting some sort of gloss to the day. 

I walk in.  We are 5 wickets down. FIVE WICKETS.  For 27, at one point.  By the time I arrive, Pietersen and Jones are staging a mini-recovery.  But the damage is done.  McGrath has taken all five wickets, bowling straight and fast, with that tall, metronomic action that gives away nothing and takes wickets by the bucketful.  On this occasion, he’d found two outside edges and hit three stumps in less than 5 overs.  Few sides recover from 27 for 5 and the match was gone.  So in a matter of minutes I’d seen my Ashes dream – and our child – evaporate. 

Completely irrationally, I blamed it entirely on Glenn McGrath.  It was all his fault.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I’d been at Lords eight years earlier when he took 8 wickets in an innings and bowled England out for 84.  Yet here he was again, somehow even better and even more obnoxious.  Like saying England would lose the series 5-0.  The really frightening thing was that when he bowled like that, it was difficult to see why he’d be wrong.  He’d ruined the day and it looked like he would ruin the summer, not just for me but for the whole country. 

In a very drunken state, I have to confess to thinking that he had killed our child.  Those deliveries that skewered the stumps of Michael Vaughan, Ian Bell and Freddie Flintoff literally stopped our baby’s heart.  I cursed him again and again. Another example of how obsessed I had become.  And in the further depths of an emotional cauldron, I thought, “What can they do?” and I came up with “The England captain needs to be like Douglas Jardine.  It’s Bodyline time.  We have to take out their best player.  With Glenn McGrath in their team, we’ll never win. We’ve got to eliminate him. How do we do that?  We can’t seem to do it when he bowls at us, so we’ll have to do it when we bowl at him.” I wrote a letter to the England captain, intending to deliver it to the players’ dressing room, urging him to target McGrath when he batted. Then I went completely mad: I constructed an effigy from my daughter’s play-dough, pretended it was Glenn McGrath and stuck pins in it. 

I never got to deliver the letter to Michael Vaughan, but what I was suggesting nearly happened.  By Saturday morning, the game was out of reach.  Michael Clarke and Damien Martyn had seen to that the previous afternoon, with a stand that batted England out of the game.  It was all looking horribly familiar – expectation, only for stark reality to set in.  Of course, we didn’t help ourselves by dropping catches.  One, by Pietersen off Clarke when he hadn’t scored many, was especially costly.  Australia were 376 ahead by the time Glenn McGrath came in at No. 11.  He faced Simon Jones and got a brute of a ball that hit him on his right hand and ballooned up in the air.  Had Michael Vaughan read my mind, even if he hadn’t got my letter?  Geraint Jones ran forward and spilled the catch, which, to be honest, didn’t matter too much at that point, except that it seemed to sum up the gap in quality between the sides.  But was McGrath hurt?  We’d probably lose this match, but if his hand – his bowling hand – was broken and he couldn’t play, there was some hope for the rest of the series.  No, he was OK.  My curse hadn’t worked. England were set 420 to win and although McGrath was this time seen off in his opening spell, he polished off the innings on the next afternoon and England were comfortably beaten.

Early on the Friday, I took my wife to the hospital.  Her operation was due at 10.00, but the doctor was coming to see her at 9.30 and I wanted to be there.  I dropped our daughter at her nursery school at 9.00 and then drove back to the hospital.  The traffic was awful and I was running out of time.  A dust cart was turning right in front of me, but it was blocking the road, only about 100 yards from the hospital.  I lost patience and drove up onto the pavement in an attempt to get around it.  The kerb was very high and it was immediately obvious that I’d burst a tyre.  I managed to limp to the hospital, park the car and was in time to see the doctor. 

She went into theatre at 10.00.  I was told she’d be back in her room at 11.00.  That would give me time to sort out the car.  I went down to the car park, jacked up the car, took the wheel off and replaced it with the spare tyre; but it took longer than I had planned and for some reason, I couldn’t get the wheel nuts back on.  They were very stiff; and by 11.00 I still didn’t have the job done.  I went back to the room to wait for my wife.  But she was already there, awake. She looked at me accusingly, wanting to know where I’d been and why I hadn’t been there earlier.  I told her about the tyre and she was furious.  I explained it had only been because I’d wanted to get back in time to see the doctor and this bloody truck had got in the way, and, and, it wasn’t my fault, it really wasn’t my fault.  “There you go again.  You’re so impatient.  Why couldn’t you have kept calm?  Now you’ve wasted a whole lot of money.”  She was right, I had.  Anyway, all I could do now was get it fixed.  The telly was on.  A man had been shot by police on the tube.  It all seemed very dramatic, following bomb scares the previous day. To be honest, I wanted to know whether Pietersen was still in.  We’d heard enough about bombs and shootings.  I flicked to Channel 4. 

England were struggling to get close to Australia’s score and Pietersen, having launched a mini-assault on McGrath, including a booming six into the Pavilion, was out.  Caught – inevitably brilliantly – on the boundary by Damien Martyn.  My wife went mad.  “For f**k’s sake, all you can think about is cricket.  What about me?  How d’you think I’m feeling?  You don’t give a s**t.”  She had a point. I tried to persuade her that I did care, I knew it was horrible, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it and checking the score in the Test match wasn’t going to hurt her.  She was distinctly unimpressed, to put it mildly.  But that was how I felt.  I was gutted that this had happened to her – again – but all I could do was be there for her, which I was, and look after her, which I was doing.  I suppose I should have forgotten about the cricket, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t, I was obsessed with this series, now it was all going wrong, my wife had lost a baby and it was all down to that f***er Glenn McGrath.  I cursed him again.  If he didn’t exist, none of this would have happened.  After the temperature in the room had fallen a few degrees, I excused myself, explaining that I hadn’t finished putting on the spare wheel.  I’d need to pick up our daughter from school and time was pressing.  I went back to the car park and finally managed to get the nuts on the spare wheel tightened up.

I spent that afternoon at home, looking after my wife and daughter, feeling sorry for myself and then reproaching myself that no matter how bad I felt, she was feeling a whole lot worse.  I occasionally sneaked glances at the telly.  It was not good.  Clarke and Martyn had their stand and although there was a heartening last half hour when England took 4 wickets, including Freddie Flintoff sending Gilchrist’s off stump flying for a low score, one couldn’t help thinking that it was too late.  

I took the car to Kwik-Fit early on the Saturday morning to get a new tyre.  We had planned to drive down to Devon for a week in a seaside cottage with my family.  I had been looking forward to it for a while.  The scan was going to have checked out fine, England were going to win at Lords, I would set the Pavilion off singing Jerusalem and we’d then have a lovely holiday in Devon.  Originally the plan was that if England were in with a chance of winning, we’d wait until the match was over before going, or I’d come down later.  Glenn McGrath changed all of that. Things had not gone to plan.  At least we’d still have the nice holiday in Devon.  My wife insisted that despite what had happened, she was still up for going. It would be good to get away from London and our daughter would enjoy it.  All I needed to do was sort out this tyre and we’d be ready to leave for Devon on Sunday. 

Then the Kwik Fit man told me there was a problem.  I’d used the wrong nuts to fit the spare wheel.  Well, it would make sense.  The spare tyre was half the width of a normal tyre; so it was reasonable that the bolts to fit it would be smaller as well.  It explained why the nuts had been so difficult to screw in. All very logical, except that I stupidly hadn’t noticed that there were separate nuts for the spare wheel.  The result: a damaged wheel hub that needed replacing.  A specialist job.  Car not driveable until it’s sorted.  Chances of getting it fixed on a Saturday in time for Sunday?  Minimal, it seemed.

I phoned home to deliver the news.  It went down like a bucket of warm sick.  “Great.  So now we’re going to have to pay for a new wheel hub as well. Well done.  More money tossed down the drain.  I don’t know why I don’t just take a whole lot of ten pound notes and flush them down the loo.” Etc. etc.  I suggested hiring a car, to get us to Devon.  “No f***ing way.  You’ve wasted enough money already. You either get this sorted or we don’t go.”

I got it sorted.  It meant three hours in the morning on the phone trying to find someone in London who could do the job; then sitting in a café in Perivale for three hours on Saturday afternoon, waiting for the car to be fixed, when I should have been at home looking after my wife and daughter, which was quickly and forcibly pointed out, with some justification.  The cricket was no consolation.  Although Trescothick and Strauss briefly threatened a miracle in England’s second innings, Brett Lee and Shane Warne soon restored normality.  Vaughan’s off stump went cartwheeling again and Ian Bell was caught like a rabbit in Warne’s headlights. By Saturday evening, the only thing that could save us was the weather.

It was dark and rainy on Sunday.  We set off for Devon in the middle of the afternoon.  I was listening to the radio as Glenn McGrath took less than an hour to bowl England out.  I cursed him roundly again.  “Glenn McGrath, may you rot in hell.  You are ruining my life,” I thought to myself.  Play had only started at 4 o’clock, but it was more than enough for McGrath. In reality, of course, it was pathetic of England.  The weather was offering us a lifeline. A bit of grit and determination and we might have seen it through into the last day. Who knows, it could have rained all of Monday and we would have escaped with a draw.  Massively undeserved, but we’d go to the 2nd Test all square, knowing that while our batting was as fragile as ever, at least we could take 20 Australian wickets inside three days. With McGrath lurking, though, that would not be enough.  I cursed him again.  He was the single difference between glory and disaster.

When we arrived in Devon, the weather was awful.  It was windy, raining, cold and damp.  There was no heating in the cottage.  My wife was hating every minute.  The nightmare was continuing.  In retrospect, we should never have gone to Devon.  I should have put my foot down, but hindsight, as ever, teaches more than you can ever know when you need to.  At the time, it seemed right.  I wouldn’t be at work, I’d be with my family.  We would be in a quiet, pretty spot.  To be fair, it was pretty; but, in England, so much depends upon the weather.  And English weather is rather like its cricket team: when it’s good, it’s very good, but it doesn’t happen very often; and when it’s bad, it makes everyone miserable.  When you have to put up with both, it’s a nightmare.


One Response to “How I Won The Ashes 23 December 2010”

  1. How I Won The Ashes 7 January 2011 « How I Won The Ashes Blog Says:

    […] How I Won The Ashes Blog Just another weblog « How I Won The Ashes 23 December 2010 […]

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