1 Aug 2013

Ashes: England’s new ruthlessness

It is in England’s grasp, but can they keep up the new ruthlessness which has seen them trouncing the tourists? Do we even want them to? Malcolm Boughen weighs up the third Test of the 2013 Ashes.

England take on Australia in the third Ashes test at Old Trafford

If you wanted to ensure a five-nil Test series whitewash you would wish for a summer like the one we’re enjoying. Glorious, sunny days that give the stronger team the best chance of forcing a result in every match.

You would probably not, however, take the risk of holding one of the games in Manchester – even in August.

Weather will favour the favourites

The good news, though, is that – despite Wednesday’s rain – the five-day forecast suggests that only Saturday’s play is at risk from the weather, with just a 20 per cent chance of rain on the other days. And given England’s current superiority, even four days of play – especially in overcast conditions conducive to swing bowling – could be enough to post another win over the dispirited Australians.

Because on any given day, on any given wicket, in any given conditions, this England side is undoubtedly superior to the tourists. Its batting line-up – with the sole exception of Aussie skipper Michael Clarke – is man-for-man better. Its bowlers – seam and spin – are more incisive and, on most days, Matt Prior is a better wicketkeeper-batsman than Brad Haddin. Oh, and the England fielding is sharper.

It is a national archetype, the Victorian idea of a sense of fair play and not kicking a man when he’s down. But England are better. Matthew Syed

Given that superiority, it’s perhaps understandable that the pitches we have seen so far in the series – and are likely to see at Old Trafford – have not been the sort of hard, flat tracks on which batsmen can fill their boots to their heart’s content, offering up the possibility of a high-scoring draw.

No, they’ve been dry, cracked and offering the bowlers a chance right from the outset. Those batsmen who have succeeded, notably Ian Bell and – in the Lord’s Test – Joe Root, have mostly been patient, ridden their luck and ground out their centuries.

Australia’s batsmen, by comparison, have gone for quick runs and – generally – failed. They’ve relied on late innings efforts like those from young Ashton Agar and Haddin in the first Test to give them illusory hope.

Aussie fightback?

After that Trent Bridge Test, when it seemed for a moment as if the Aussies could pull off an unlikely victory, it looked as if we might be set up for an intriguing Ashes series. But can they really come back from that 347-run thrashing at Lord’s?

There have been those – like the Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges after the first Test – who have argued that even English fans should hope for an Aussie fightback. He claimed that an England whitewash this summer – especially if followed by a similar result Down Under next winter – would devalue the Ashes as a contest – not an argument we heard when Australia were beating England 5-0 as recently as 2006-7.

Perhaps it’s something in the English psyche that recoils from the notion of such superiority. It’s unlikely that many England supporters will be going along to Old Trafford hoping for an Australian victory. They’ll want to see another Joe Root century or James Anderson and Graeme Swann bagging a hatful of wickets. But will there – niggling away in the back of their mind – be a small sense of regret, or even guilt?

Underdog now top dog

It shouldn’t be this easy. The British way is to overcome the odds – to be the underdog who has his day. It’s why we loved the Olympics – the surprise at all that success – and then there was Andy Murray finally overcoming the brilliant players ahead of him in the tennis rankings to win Wimbledon this year and the British and Irish Lions coming from behind to win in Australia.

But this Test series is different. England have gone in as favourites and – thus far at least – are more than justifying that favouritism. If they do win this Test, the series will effectively be over, with England left to play for the whitewash and the Aussies for their pride.

A new ruthlessness?

So is there a new ruthlessness about this England team – something that’s alien to the history of English cricket? No, says Matthew Syed – author of Bounce which explores why some succeed at sport and others fail.

He recalled in the Times last week how it was the English who masterminded bodyline – the tactic of bowling at the bodies of Don Bradman’s superior Australian team in an effort to stop them winning – how WG Grace was one of the first exponents of “sledging” and how players like Ian Botham, Geoffrey Boycott and Mike Gatting deferred to no-one on the cricket field.

“It is a national archetype,” he said this week. “The Victorian idea of a sense of fair play and not kicking a man when he’s down.

“But England are better. They are very professional in their cricket set-up. Central contracts came in a while ago and they have a very professional and forensic coach in Andy Flower. They are very disciplined and that is part of the reason why they are doing so well.”

So England supporters should enjoy the rest of this summer – and maybe next winter as well. England, for the moment, have the ability to keep on winning.

Before too long there’ll be another root and branch review of Australian cricket. They’ll unearth new cricketing gems and find the best way to nurture them to the top of their ability. Batsmen who’ll score runs for fun. Bowlers who’ll make England’s top order once more dive for cover.

Just not yet.