The Cricket Paper - - FEATURE -

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

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

Con­flict­ing words: Steve Smith played a key part in drop­ping Ed Cowan, in­set top, for Daniel Hughes, bot­tom

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