Saturday, January 1, 2011

Random thoughts on the Ashes: Melbourne

When England last retained the Ashes as they just have, by winning the penultimate Test thereby ensuring that the series could not be lost, the fact was noted only in passing. It was 29 July 1972 and I watched it on Grandstand on our new colour TV. The game finished mid-afternoon on the third day, Kent's own Derek Underwood routing the Aussies with ten wickets on a sickly Headingley pitch about which Australians mutter dark conspiracy theories to this day.

There were few celebrations and no post-match presentation ceremony (there was nothing to present). England's captain, Ray Illingworth, might have had time for a quick beer before going back to Leicestershire to lead the team in the Sunday League the next day. Tony Greig played for Sussex at Arundel, a 350-mile drive away (John Snow's name is conspicuous in its absence from that day's Sussex teamlist; he was never the county game's most enthusiastic devotee).

I suppose that in 1972 we were a bit too Celia Johnson for our own good, but in 2010 we have surely moved too far in the direction of Lady Gaga. David Cameron was effusive in his congratulations and invited the team (or the “group” as it is fashionably known) to No 10. BBC World News led with the Ashes for many hours on Wednesday, which even during the slowest news period of the year is getting things seriously out of proportion (Afghanistan anybody?). It wouldn't have been so bad if reporter James Pearce had not been so ignorant of cricket history, referring to England v Australia as “cricket's oldest contest” when USA v Canada beats it by 18 years. He also speculated that Ponting would be replaced as Australia's captain “as soon as the series ends”, which he certainly will not, as captain of the No 1 ranked ODI team and the World Cup only a few weeks away. The change will take place after that.

Hopelessly uptight as we were in the seventies, our reluctance to throw street parties across the country was at least informed by the knowledge that the series had not been decided. The fifth Test of the '72 series was outstanding, and ended with Australia winning on the sixth day (the extra day was added as the series was still undetermined, which was exactly the point). The stories that have proliferated in both hemispheres explaining why the English are so much better than the Australians are going to look pretty silly if Australia wins in Sydney.

That is not the most likely outcome, but twice already in this series a badly beaten team has come back to win the following Test and it could happen again, if Mitch Johnson rediscovers his inner Dr Strangelove and resists The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu, if Michael Clarke finds his form... I was going to add, if the Australian selectors see sense and drop Hughes and Smith, and include Nathan Hauritz, but that moment has already passed. Usman Khawaja comes in for the injured Ponting, but will bat at three, giving the hapless Hughes another chance as opener (I don't recall an Aussie opener as vulnerable since Andrew “Hooking” Hilditch, the current chairman of the Australian selectors, which may explain something), the richly promising but under-ripe Smith remains too, and they're sticking with Michael Beer, the good form that led to his original selection no doubt lost in the three weeks that he's been trailling the team around Australia.

While the Australian selectors have made and compounded mistakes galore, England's have got everything right. Winning the Ashes with a four-man attack including Bresnan? Can't see a problem there.

Jonathan Agnew described the first day's play at Melbourne as the most one-sided he'd ever seen in Tests, including those involving Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. There might be a few that can be dragged up from New Zealand's recent past that would contend. I immediately thought of the first day of the fifth Test of the 1989 Ashes, where openers Mark Taylor and Geoff Marsh batted all day.

And then there was Ponting. It's difficult to engender the appropriate degree of outrage at his outburst over the third umpire's correct decision to rule Pietersen not out for two reasons. The first is that during the Test Channel 9 replayed the Dennis Lillee aluminium bat incident at Perth in 1979, which culminated the Australian captain Greg Chappell coming on to the field with a replacement and Lillee hurling the offending piece of metal 30 metres across the Waca. In comparison the Ponting incident looks tame. Also, Ponting got it so wrong that the effect was comical rather than provoking. His expression of incomprehension as Aleem Dar used his forearm to explain that the “hotspot” seen on the screen could not have been produced by the ball could not have been bettered by either Laurel or Hardy.

I hope that Ponting has not played his last Test. He has been the great batsman of the past decade and deserves to go out with a century.

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