The furore surrounding Australia’s whistle stop tour of the United Kingdom is certainly justifiable. Think of the greatest sporting spectacles – an Olympic Games, for instance; maybe a football World Cup or a British and Irish Lions tour. Each one is special because of its rarity and the agonising anticipation that precedes them. Anglo-Antipodean cricket deserves the same treatment. The rivalry is special enough to command centre stage – a three-month epic across all three formats far preferable to a fortnight of fifty-over scraps designed as stepping stones towards 2015.
Cast your mind back seven years. A spark that was lit in the NatWest series as Paul Collingwood embodied the bulldog spirit and squared up to the colossal Matthew Hayden started a fire that burned throughout the summer of 2005. True giants of the sport – Shane Warne, Andrew Flintoff, Glenn McGrath and Kevin Pietersen among others – enacted an enthralling battle which ended when Michael Vaughan, drenched in champagne with tears in his eyes, held The Ashes aloft.
By then, everyone was drained. After feasting on such a sensational series, spectators could happily fast for another year and a half before meeting the Aussies again on their turf. Unfortunately, cricket fans these days are rather spoilt.
Comprehensive television coverage, encompassing on-field microphones, Hawkeye, Hot-Spot and Snicko amount to a coach potato’s fantasy. Follow rugby by installing changing room cameras and the intrusion will be complete. Fixtures-wise, a manic calendar leaves little time for breath, while the circus of the IPL now throws the elite together for a couple of months each year. Why wait patiently for an intriguing contest between the world’s best players? You don’t have to.
Though this conveyor-belt culture has disillusioned the purists and dulled the traditions, England are thriving. Australia’s aura has smashed. They seem human again. After the hosts’ success in the first two one-day internationals, calls for Michael Clarke’s cohort to stay away are slightly quieter. Funny that.
Now a cohesive unit with an acute awareness of their individual roles, England are an imposing one-day outfit that has won nine of their last 11 series stretching back to the beginning of 2010 in South Africa. Pietersen’s recent retirement has been mellowed (and almost forgotten) by the form of Ian Bell, Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara, not to mention new skipper Alastair Cook, who has scored 1093 runs at an average of 52 since taking the reins 13 months ago. The bowling department has maintained the momentum from the Test arena too, hungry seamers complementing Graeme Swann’s guile nicely.
In both matches so far, England have performed with decisiveness and positivity without ever straying into the realms of recklessness. Only as the mercurial David Warner got his howitzer pull shot going on Friday afternoon has there been a modicum of doubt over victory. Such confidence is a far cry from the dark ages of Warne, McGrath and Adam Gilchrist, when matches were lost long before the toss because of overwhelming intimidation.
Familiarity must be a factor. Although Morgan was involved in precisely zero matches over the Kolkata Knight Riders’ successful IPL campaign earlier this year, the talented Irishman will have spent a great deal of training time with Brett Lee. As such, any mystique that the Aussie strike-bowler may have possessed has miraculously evaporated – the two consecutive maximums that Morgan scythed over the legside off his erstwhile squad-mate on the way to 89 not out at The Oval could have been the climax of a nonchalant net session.
Of course, there is more to the reversal of fortunes. England are a settled group under Andy Flower, whereas Australia are in the middle of a turbulent transition, evidenced starkly in the 3-1 Ashes drubbing of 18 months ago. Moreover, Micky Arthur has only been at the helm since November and perhaps does not know his best side – the presence of George Bailey and Peter Forrest in the top order, despite dubious credentials, would certainly suggest as much.
More worryingly, Pat Howard subtly admitted the state of flux last week with his curious targeting of New Zealand’s dominance of international rugby. What was a pretty unimaginative statement – Cricket Australia’s newly appointed Performance Director is a former rugby player himself – carried very defeatist implications. Between the mid-nineties and 2005, men like Steve Waugh manufactured an immortal atmosphere akin to the All Blacks, if not more impregnable. Howard only highlighted how far his country has fallen.
There is no more striking symbol of ailing Australia than the plight of Phillip Hughes. The diminutive opener, precocious enough to score twin centuries in his second Test against South Africa at Kingsmead, was terrorised on these shores in 2009 and has scrambled for sparse appearances ever since. This season, he can be found at New Road representing Worcestershire. Just across the Midlands, New South Wales tyro Usman Khawaja has joined Derbyshire for the Twenty20 Cup. These are palpable ironies.
Clarke is correct in telling his charges to forget about the Ashes – the personnel, places and perspectives will all have altered in twelve months’ time. Even so, lose the next three and Australia will have conceded not only their ICC top ranking, but significant psychological sway. Besides, a whitewash would leave England on top of the pile in every format. Imagine that.
As Cook said at the curtain-raising press conference, there is something special about facing Australia. If this happy winning habit continues, he won’t mind doing so as much as possible.