RANTINGS OF THE 5-0 BRIGADE DON’T STACK UP THIS WINTER
Derek Pringle identifies some encouraging aspects of the upcoming tour even as the hyperbole is hyped up Down Under
If there is a crumb of comfort for Joe Root’s England this winter in Australia, short of Ben Stokes being exonerated of all charges because his fisticuffs defused a hidden terror plot, it is that the Aussies seem to be in as much disarray as them.
Usually so harmonious in the buildup to an Ashes series, especially in their singing from the same hymn sheet, their crowing has been dissonant even contradictory, two un-Australian traits when it comes to taking on the Poms at sport.
Take for instance the wisdoms of David Warner, Australia’s vice-captain, and an Arthur Scargill figure in the players’ recent pay dispute with Cricket Australia (CA).
A week ago Warner said that the forthcoming Ashes series, which gets under way in Brisbane on November 23, would be war, insisting that players must channel historical hatreds of the English in order to win the day.
A few days ago, he’d rowed back from that position. He regretted his choice of words, explaining that his bellicose hyperbole was put out there in order to whip-up interest among Australians assuming that 5-0 would be a foregone conclusion.
Remarkably, Glenn McGrath, a perpetual and patriotic 5-0 man over the years, came out to say how brave Warner’s initial words were. Never one for a backward step, at least on a cricket field, McGrath’s thoughts on Warner’s back-tracking are not yet known, but they won’t be sympathetic.
Then we have Steve Smith, Australia’s Test captain, telling us how he would “love it to be 5-0 like last time”.
Under the McGrath rule, this is a wish rather than a statement of fact and therefore claptrap, though it does mention the ‘five’ word which prevents Smith from being completely outed as a wuss.
Smith also revealed, in his recently published book The Journey, that he only became Test captain after sharing a beer with Brad Haddin and Mark Taylor, then a selector, in Adelaide. He shouldn’t have drawn attention to the occasion. Australian beer is cold and tasteless, a bit like their choice in leaders.
There is another hoo-ha surrounding Smith and it is that he has put pressure on New South Wales to drop Ed Cowan, the leading run-scorer from last year’s Shield competition. The reason? So that he can have a look at another lefthanded opener, Daniel Hughes, who at 28 is Cowan’s younger by seven years.
To many this will seem fair enough, but it has raised more than a few hackles in the wake of the acrimonious pay dispute with CA. During that standoff, Australia’s Test cricketers claimed to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with State players, though this move suggests that in matters of national interest the latter must take a back seat.
After all, sticking up for Cowan to make a better living one minute is no good if you deny him the chance of actually making one.
If that is contradictory, Mitchell Johnson’s claim, that England can still win the Ashes without Stokes, is borderline treasonable. Mind you, Mitch has already moved as far west as it is possible to go in Australia, so the only place the authorities could exile him to is Christmas Island.
Johnson, who was England’s destroyer in chief during the last Ashes
series in Australia, has always been a sensitive soul. A fast bowler with tattoos, he should, by rights, have joined a biker gang by now. That he hasn’t is the reason he now warns his countrymen against complacency on the back of Stokes’ likely non-participation, one mostly drowned out by the more jingoistic claims doing the rounds.
Fortunately for England, there are precedents to back Johnson’s point, the most recent being South Africa’s win over the Aussies in Australia a year ago. That team, captained by Faf du Plessis and beaten 2-1 by England during the summer, overcame the loss of Dale Steyn, who was injured during the first Test, as well as the absence of AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel, to win the series 2-1.
Both their victories came in the first two Tests, including the opener in Perth. Since re-integration to world cricket, South Africa have never lost a Test at the WACA in Perth, a place where England have lost their last seven. Seeing how South Africa accomplished victory there, twice in the last eight years, should be compulsory viewing for Root’s team as they ready themselves for the fray.
England have also won in Australia despite being under strength. In 1986/7, they headed Down Under without their best opener, Graham Gooch, who had made himself unavailable to tour following the birth of twin girls during the English summer. Mike Gatting’s team still had Ian Botham, and it was two decisive performances by him, at the Gabba and in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, that enabled them to win the two Tests which secured the urn.
Finally, to confuse the Aussies, there is James Sutherland’s insistence that Australia is “impatient for Ashes success”, a bold statement from CA’s chief executive given his Machiavellian role in the recent pay dispute which has still left many players seething.
A former State player himself during the Eighties, Sutherland is basically saying: “We’ve given you a great deal on pay, now it is time to deliver on that,” with a barely audible sotto voce, “or else.”
Away from the talking heads, there are further reasons for England to take succour. Australia’s batting is highly reliant upon Warner and Smith. Also, like England, unless Stokes comes riding in, they have no all-rounder to balance the side which leaves who might bat at six open to speculation. So far, the smart money is on Glenn Maxwell though he is not yet nailed on.
Then there are the continuing questions over Usman Khawaja’s qualities to consider, as well as those of Matthew Wade, whose Test average of 28 is modest by the standards of modern keeper/batsmen. With Ashes rookies Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb also unknown quantities, especially if James Anderson can get the Kookaburra ball swinging, Australia’s batting strength is questionable.
Finally, Australia’s pace bowling, while strong on paper, has not shown itself to be strong of body. Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood all add up to a heap of trouble for England if they are fit and firing, but having all three on song at once is rarer than Shane Warne eating salad.
If England are no more than one Test behind after Perth, the third Test in the series, the Ashes could still be theirs.
England have also won in Australia despite being under strength, without their best opener Graham Gooch
Surprise: Mitchell Johnson has suggested England can compete even without Ben Stokes
Conflicting words: Steve Smith played a key part in dropping Ed Cowan, inset top, for Daniel Hughes, bottom