9 Jul 2013

Six things to know before the Ashes starts tomorrow

Tomorrow cricket’s oldest and most intense rivalry, between England and Australia, resumes in a battle that began back in 1882. Here are six things you should know before it starts.

First few balls can set the tone for series

Recent years have shown it is the very first minute that can set the tone for the series. Michael Slater’s withering square cut against Phillip DeFreitas at the Gabba in 1994 was the perfect prelude to a hideous tour that saw England decimated 3-1.

In 2002 Nasser Hussain won the toss and, in one of the worst decisions ever made in an Ashes series, put Australia into bat. With an England misfield on the second ball, Australia smelt the fear. They went on to bat all day and eventually to crush England 4-1.

In November 2006 Steve Harmison opened the series with a shocking wide ball that was caught by second slip (Australia won 5-0) but in 2005 he met Justin Langer with a snorting lifter that climbed past his nose and then hit him on the elbow on the second ball. “These blokes mean business,” Langer allegedly said as he received treatment for his bruised arm. England went on to win 2-1.

Australia has lost its aura of invincibility

The late 1990s saw Australia not just dominate the Ashes but world cricket, taking the mantle from the West Indies and consistently beating every Test side at home. Their line-up was impregnable: names such as Mark Slater, Ricky Ponting and Mark and Steve Waugh who would bully with the bat, later followed by the metronomic-precision of Glenn McGrath and the mystifying turn of Shane Warne.

Former England bowler Angus Fraser told Channel 4 News: “Sometimes there is no science to it – it’s just the perfect combination of raw talent and athleticism that comes together at the right time. Australia of the 90s had all those elements firing on all cylinders. When you’re all mates, working together and pushing each other, all of a sudden things fall into place and you have the ability to produce something spectacular.”

It was an onslaught that would only be halted by the inevitable retirement of a generation of great players. By 2010 (a year before England became the number one test team) Warne, McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden and Jason Gillespie had all retired in close succession, leaving few in any doubt. The era of defiant Australian dominance was over.

Sledging still cuts

Sledging, the practise of “chirping” in the field with the aim of psychologically undermining the opposition, may not occur as frequently as in times past. But make no mistake, the fervour of an Ashes series unlocks a vehement passion in players. Like this.

Some of the sledging tales in Ashes history are exemplary. In his final series Shane Warne informed Paul Collingwood, awarded an MBE for playing one innings of the 2005 Ashes series, just what he thought of that accolade. “You got an MBE, right? For scoring seven at the Oval? That’s embarrassing.”

In 2001, Mark Waugh, brother of former captain Steve Waugh, said to James Ormond: “What are you doing out here? There’s no way you’re good enough to play for England.” Ormond replied: “Maybe not, but at least I’m the best player in my family”.

And in 2005, when England captain Michael Vaughan arrived at the wicket to a volley of abuse from Ponting, he responded: “Get back to the slips, Ponting. Who do you think you are, Steve Waugh?”

Bowlers win matches

Test matches can only be won by taking 20 wickets, and, despite the criticism thrown at them, Australia in this regard are showing plenty of threat.

James Pattinson is a snarling quick who already has 40 wickets in just 10 tests. The younger brother of Darren, who played one test for England against South Africa at Headingley in 2008, is edgy and aggressive, and alongside explosive left-arm seamer Mitchell Starc, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris, Australia have a strong assembly of pace bowlers.

They may not be the quintessential 90s line-up, but expect them to test England, whose batting looked shaky against New Zealand in the winter and against South Africa last year. Meanwhile England’s seam and spin strength means this series could be decided by whichever bowling side has the edge.

Complacency kills

Australia have had a wretched start to the tour, first suspending David Warner after punching England batsman Joe Root during a 2am bar brawl, then sacking their coach, Mickey Arthur, 16 days before the start of the Ashes.

Beware, though: complacency kills. In 1989 an Australian team led by Alan Border arrived in England to ridicule. They subsequently hammered the home side 4-0.

And in 1986, after one journalist declared England a side that “can’t bat, can’t bowl and can’t field”, England went on to win the first test and the series.

Could history be about to repeat itself? Certainly batsmen Shane Watson and Michael Clarke have looked at ease in Australia’s final Ashes warm-up matches. And after the early difficulties, many see signs of an Australian side coming together again under their new coach. England may be favourites, but they should not be complacent.

Anything can happen

Ashes history is peppered with unforgettable clashes that become news stories and turn history on its head. In 1933 Douglas Jardine’s bodyline tactic drew such criticism it strained Anglo-Australian diplomatic relations.

In 1981 Ian Botham and Bob Willis decimated Australia in one afternoon in a performance so compelling it stopped the stock exchange, and, 20 years ago, Shane Warne bowled his first ball in England, the so called “ball of the century” which would revive leg-spin bowling and catapult him into history as one of the greatest bowlers ever.

No-one will be more aware of the ability of the Ashes to harness something deeper in players than Australian coach Darren Lehmann. It is something he will have instilled into the team from the moment they take to the field tomorrow morning. Expect fireworks.