The halcyon English summer days of my youth will be forever be marked by the cricket season and its unique assault on the senses. The equally inimitable smells of cut grass and linseed oil; the incessant sound of bats being “knocked in;” the glorious feel of leather striking the sweet spot of the willow blade; the image of a bygone era as the classic white kits blazoned across the hallowed turf; and of course the long sunny evenings spent enjoying the fruits of a sporting lifestyle like no other.
And yet within those rose-tinted memories a shadow prevailed, which no amount of good natured banter by the Test Match Special alumni could dispel – namely the Australian Cricket Team. So brash, so competitive, they mocked my traditionalist ideals and viewed our English cricket as weak and soft bellied. “We are the home of cricket; the purveyors of the games standard,” we raged, but the Aussies laughed at us the harder, cricket not even making their top three sports.
In terms of cricket I am a child of the 90s, weaned on the eternal losses that our cricket team suffered. “What is the definition of optimism? An English Batsman wearing sunscreen.” We were a joke. Occasionally a beacon would light; the ever intense Hussain scoring a double century against Australia; the ever gritty Atherton’s “Captain’s Innings” against South Africa; the ever willing Cork’s hat-trick against West Indies…but the reality was that England often provided the opposition to others great feats – not least Brian Lara and at a team level, Australia.
As much as I wish I could say that my abiding memory of my cricket watching youth is of the privilege of watching Lara and Tendulkar bat, or of the improving standards of Sri Lanka and New Zealand the reality is that my cricketing memory of those formative years is a black hole of demoralising Ashes losses. I could only look on in wonder as it seemed in any given moment that Australia had a world class player who could win the match for them from any given situation. I could only hang my head as another woeful English batting collapse was followed by abject bowling.
I admired the likes of Atherton, Stewart, Hussain, Gough, Caddick but for me only Graham Thorpe had the class to match the Aussies but who do you pick out from them – many people say that Shane Warne changed spin bowling – time has proven him to be a glorious anomaly. Glenn McGrath has the most test wickets for fast bowler, a monument to the “line and length” maxim. Adam Gilchrist actually did change the face of wicket-keeping – no test team can now afford a specialist and will overlook wicket-keeping inadequacy for batting ability. Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting will go down as two of the greatest batsmen ever. The supporting cast were not too shabby either – Taylor, Slater, Bevan, Langer, Hayden, Martyn, Mark Waugh, Gillespie, Healy, Reiffel et al were all world class players. A veritable production line of talented, competitive and obstinate cricketers.
Then 2005 came. A glorious summer with some of the most scintillating test matches in history as England triumphed 2-1, the first time in my memory England had a bowling unit to match Australia, led by a never better Flintoff or a batting unit able to score big runs, quickly led by the captain Michael Vaughan, a batsman of genuine class, backed by the belligerent talent of Pietersen.
This was a victory which made up for my personal years of hurt. It was not so much about winning the ashes as it was the team that we beat to win the ashes. A team that would then win 5-0 in the next series, a revenge that would see many of those great players retire. Since then England have won back to back series handsomely, particularly in Australia, and now they sit 2-0 up in the latest with many predicting our own 5-0 triumph, some even 10-0 considering the return series is this winter.
How lucky are we to witness such a great England period of dominance? I will look back on these days as the pinnacle of my cricket following, the period that dispelled the Aussie shadow over my youth – “oh clouds unfurl!” The cynic in me wants to laugh at the Australians, comprehensively beaten in rugby and cricket this summer, now they can experience the same humiliation they inflicted so joyfully on us.
As with most English Cricket Fans I am not a cynic, more optimist with a dash of realist. Watching this Australian rabble does not make me want to laugh, rather it makes me sad knowing that our victories are being devalued by quite how bad they really are. And there the realist in me pops out of his box. When we won in 2005 we beat the best team in the world, perhaps even ever. Now 8 years later we face a team not in transition but in disarray, a team not unlike England of the 90s – where will the runs come from? Where will the 20 wickets come from? The one world class player, Michael Clarke, has inherited the poisoned chalice of captaincy from Ricky Ponting and therefore is burndened moreso than Thorpe ever was. This great Australian team have fallen quicker and further than the West Indies team of the 80s did and with all due respect Clarke is no Lara.
Oh the procession of England Captains now commentating on Sky love to pontificate on how great we are, how great the Ashes is but they know that the rest of the world will see this series for what it is…an underperforming England against a very poor Australia – not the pinnacle of Test Cricket that the Ashes should be or was in 2005. South Africa knowingly and comfortably sitting on top of the tree at the moment will not be scared.
Underperforming? Yes – without doubt. Struggling to remove tail-enders, batsmen giving cheap wickets, yet to surpass 400 runs in an innings on good tracks. Even the infallible Cook, insatiable Trott and maverick (reintegrated) Pietersen have struggled. Anderson and Bell have glossed over the cracks, whilst in the second test Swann and Root added a touch of decoration. Is this a case of England being brought down to Australia’s level? A team whose top scorer (in an individual innings and cumulatively) started the first test, his debut, at No11…
I do wonder whether the Aussie fans felt much the same way pre 2005 watching their team dole out the ritual humiliation…but even if they enjoyed and revelled in it (as I believe they did)they did so in the knowledge that the players wearing the baggy green truly were the best in the world…maybe all those years of gallant losses (in all sports) have made me soft bellied, willing to be buoyed by a match well played rather than victory at all costs; perhaps it is that we were spoiled by the brilliance of 2005…I prefer to see it as a pursuit of excellence rather than celebrating minor victories
Let the optimist speak! We do get to indulge once more in this imperial purple patch of British sporting success, lauding again over one of our greatest foes (and former colonies) whilst retaining one of the most famous trophies in world sport…nope I can’t do it – damn Aussies ruin everything! The 90’s cricket child speaking.
Bring on South Africa and let the optimist in me really emerge.