By Neil Robinson 06/04/05
The announcement by the Australian selectors of the 16-man Test squad to defend the Ashes in England this year contained few surprises. The predictability of the squad is a clear indication of the strength and stability Australian cricket currently possesses, and the continued presence of the likes of Warne, McGrath and Ponting will send shivers of recognition through English cricket fans.
The editor of this site has rightly pointed out that Englandís best chance of regaining the legendary little urn may come when the veteran powerhouses of Australian cricket finally retire. Indeed, it was one of the saddest aspects of West Indiesí decline throughout the 1990s that the very stability of their line-up made it impossible for their replacements to gain adequate experience of playing in a great side. The sudden departure of the likes of Richards, Greenidge and Haynes from the batting order left a gap far too wide to be filled.
A similar danger may face Australia in the next few years, especially with the likes of McGrath and Warne now firmly in their mid-thirties, while the younger Gillespieís injury record may prevent his career achieving such longevity. In recent years the Australian selectors have done a good job of rejuvenating the side periodically by bringing in new blood, thus sharply ending the careers of some celebrated older players with complete disregard for the kind of sentimentality which overtakes English cricket at such moments.
But the process is becoming slightly more difficult now as the deep pool of talent from which the side has been drawn begins to look a little shallower. The recent emergence of Michael Clarke as a young batsman to watch has seen the end of Darren Lehmannís career, but in seeking a further uncapped batsman to complete the squad, the Australians have turned to 30 year old Brad Hodge, a prolific scorer in first-class cricket with good experience of English conditions, but a player of more advanced age than would normally be considered in an uncapped Australian.
The emergence of Clarke, and the uncapped fast bowler Shaun Tait, gives hope for the future, however. Clarke at least will be familiar to followers of county cricket after his recent stint with Hampshire, where he struggled at first with English conditions (on one of the county circuitís most difficult pitches), but eventually progressed to show some dashing strokeplay and crack three impressive hundreds. The impression he has made in Test cricket in the last six months shows how big a force he could be in this series.
Tait is more of an unknown quantity in this country. Reports say that he is qenuinely quick, and his wicket -taking record in this seasonís Pura Cup makes impressive reading. But his brief stay at Durham last summer was not a notable success, he failed to take a single wicket in first-class cricket, and his inexperience of English conditions make it unlikely that he will feature in the series unless injury takes its toll of more senior bowlers.
The strength and experience of the Australian squad suggests, no, letís be honest, guarantees that Englandís resurgent young side faces a formidable struggle to regain the Ashes, but there is enough evidence that this series will be harder fought than most. This has been said often enough in the run-up to recent Ashes battles, and by me as much as anyone else. But the England side which will take the field this time is a very different animal.
In previous series there has been no shortage of talent in the England team. The likes of Atherton, Stewart, Gough, Thorpe, Hussain, Hick, Caddick were all players of high quality who should have been able to present more of a challenge to Australia than they did in the event. Especially during the early and mid nineties, when the Australian team, though formidable, was not quite the unstoppable force it has become under Waugh and Ponting. So often injuries played an important part in depriving England of key players, the last series down under was a laughably clear example of this, but more often than not England erred by putting up the same, mentally defeated group of players against an opposition which knew it could beat them and knew that it had grown yet stronger since their last meeting.
Why those of us in England who kept believing that victory was possible did so must be one of sportís great psychological mysteries. But now the old order has passed and a younger generation has taken its place which shows every sign of being tougher. Of the old timers only Thorpe, perhaps, remains and he was the English fighter who gained the Australiansí deepest respect. Alongside him will come batsmen like Michael Vaughan, who has shown he has nothing to fear from the Aussie bowlers, though he may not always score so fluently against them as he did last time, and a bowling attack which, while lacking the proven greatness of its Australian counterpart, knows it is good enough to keep the Australians on their toes.
Most crucially, there are young men like Flintoff and Pietersen, who believe to their core that nothing is beyond them and who will not be bullied, cowed or intimidated. With a much improved medical set-up under Dr Peter Gregory, Englandís improved form and hopes for success are built upon a more solid foundation of hard work and organisation this time.
Of course it is a young and largely untested side which will take the field for England, but if it were successful it would not be the first time that unproven youth has come along to upset the mighty champions. 75 years ago it was a strikingly young Australian side which set out to avenge a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Chapmanís England in 1928-29. The team of English legends which faced them, Hobbs, Hammond, Tate, Woolley, Hendren et al, was overwhelmed by the youth and confidence of its opponents. Similarly in 1958-59 not many people gave the young Australians a chance against the English team which had dominated the 1950s, a team which, it turned out, had its best days behind it.
There are not too many signs of decline in the Australian team which swept aside New Zealand so convincingly last month. But English fans will be hoping that the renewed vigour and confidence of their own team will be enough to start that decline. The dreams of a poor fool, perhaps! The last Ashes series was, after all, one of the most one sided of the lot. But whatever else it is, it is the Ashes, for me the most anticipated, compelling and not-to-be missed of all sporting contests. Bring it on!