England no longer hapless Ashes fodder

“There is something called the spirit of cricket, which cannot be defined.”—Alfred Lord Tennyson

“You are a damned lot of sneaks.”—WG Grace to Billy Midwinter, The Oval, 1877

The ferocious competitiveness that was once the hallmark of Australian cricket looks in danger of being eroded by a recent directive from the Australian Cricket Board intended to promote more gentlemanly player conduct.

The noble art of sledging, so beloved of wearers of the baggy green, is to be neutered—and perhaps with it, some of the fierce will to win that for so long has been synonymous with Australian sport.

What lay behind the directive is a mystery, as by earlier standards this group—Peter Siddle aside—are as clean-cut and well-mannered as any from the Famous Five.
Compare the genial demeanour of Mitchell Johnson, Hussey and co with the snarling venom of past captains such as Ian Chappell and Alan Border.

“A form of gang warfare” was how England skipper Mike Brearley once described Chappell’s tactics. You would be unlikely to hear any of the current Australian pacemen admitting to a taste for “blood on the pitch”, as Jeff Thompson once did.

It is starting to seem that for once, England have the harder edge in this area. For many years during the bleak 1990s, Australians regarded the Poms as hapless fodder to be chewed up and expectorated with barely concealed contempt.

Some of England’s more sensitive souls were visibly traumatised by the mental assault, and some, like Graham Hick, seemed indelibly scarred.

“No more Mr Punchbag” seems to be the watchword of Andrew Strauss, who has been vilified by the Australian media for his time-wasting at Cardiff, which helped save the match, and his contentious “catch” at Lord’s to dismiss dangerous opener Phillip Hughes, which on replay clearly bounced.

While Strauss has yet to achieve the status of a modern-day Douglas Jardine, the feeling is that of the two captains, he is the more ruthless. Indeed, some Australian commentators are suggesting that Ricky Ponting and his men are far too nice for their own good.

There are parallels with the early stages of Allan Border’s captaincy, where his good relations with David Gower’s England team were largely blamed for Australia’s loss of the Ashes in 1985.

Deeply wounded by the criticism, Border fashioned one of the most relentlessly competitive machines to have played the game. His grim-faced mauling of England in the 1989 series marked the beginning of 15 years of Australian dominance that is only now beginning to wane.

Strauss’s sharp tactics no doubt reflect the extremely delicate balance of power in 2009, with neither side likely to gain the upper hand for long.

In the Edgbaston encounter that starts on Thursday, England’s more potent bowling attack may hold the edge—particularly when the ball is new.

Mitchell Johnson’s inability to control the swinging new ball has been one of the principle differences between the teams and he has clearly been targeted as a weak link. The fall from grace of this sensitive young man has been startling, and his poor performance in the warm-up game against Northamptonshire has put his place in jeopardy.

Kevin Pietersen’s troublesome Achilles tendon has given Australia the more assured batting line-up, and with Ian Bell replacing him it will be very surprising if the slip cordon maintains the respectful silence demanded by the Australian board of control.

Bell’s mental toughness has been questioned throughout his career, and how he performs in the rest of the series could make or break him at international level.

Banished to his county, Warwickshire, and the England B team, he now has a chance to prove the selectors wrong by solidifying England’s vulnerable middle order. His modest average against Australia—25—should be viewed in the context of the bowling he has had to face, principally Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Michael Atherton averaged just four more against the same attack.

The technique and talent are there, and Strauss must be hoping that exile has given Bell a tough new layer of skin.

At this point in the series, Ponting can fairly claim to have the moral high ground—but he knows that this will earn him little backslapping from his countrymen if he fails to bring back the coveted urn.

Winning is everything for the Australian public. If he loses the series, Ponting cannot reasonably expect to retain his captaincy.