The Rivalry That Unites Us

The Gabba, day three

The first Test of any new series is always supposed to be an examination in alien conditions. That the first test of this Ashes series took place only three months after UK series finished meant that the narrative of a ‘home and away’ series accentuated the sense that different rules applied this time around. As such, the narrative in the lead up to the match in Brisbane – especially from the Australian team, media and public – was of how things would be markedly different to the 3 nil losing series just past. Not just the end result, but also the means to that result: bouncier pitches[1], batting-friendly conditions[2], a more settled Australian team[3] and an England team over reliant upon older players near to the end of their careers[4].

It even suited the English to portray the upcoming series as one between two closely matched teams, in order to stave off the complacency that might otherwise creep in. The last time England toured, in 2010-11, they came away with as comprehensive a 3-1 scoreline as it is possible to achieve; gaining their three victories on the back of crushing innings victories. The shock of that result lead Cricket Australia (CA) to engage in a restructuring process[5] very similar[6] to that put in place by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB)[7]
four years previously. A new head coach, the South African Mickey Arthur, came in and a period of tumult reached its head on the eve of the UK Ashes series when he was abruptly sacked[8].

In came Darren Lehmann[9] in Mickey’s stead; a man who embodied the rough and tumble, ‘have a go’ culture that Australian cricketers more closely relate to. The departure of the cerebral Arthur was heralded as an admission that a carefully choreographed, hierarchical approach like that taken by the England head coach Andy Flower would not get the same successful response from the Australian players, who are by nature more carefree, impulsive and willing to back their own abilities rather than rely on set regimens to extract their maximum level of performance.

Having had time to settle in his role before the Brisbane Test it was going to be intriguing to see if the ‘mentor’ role played by Darren Lehmann[10] would bear fruit. For if it did, it might tell us something about how the two teams, and by extension the countries they represent,
feel at their most comfortable and able to maximise their performance[11].

Another contrast between the leadership of the two teams propagated in the lead-up to the Test was seen in the tactics of the opposing captains[12]. In this, too, could one see from those making all the comments (Australians, primarily) how they saw the major character
differences of the two nations, and their approach to cricket in particular.

Day One

With all the talk that had filled the battle space between the end of the previous series and the start of this, and the declarations of how things would be different this time, it was somewhat reassuring to find that the first day of this Test followed much the same script as that in the UK series. Once again, a brittle Australian batting line-up had succumbed to disciplined English bowling with Brad Haddin finding a feisty lower-order batting companions (in this instance, the recalled Mitchell Johnson adding 64 runs) to regain a semblance of respectability to the scoreline.

273/8 at stumps with Haddin unbeaten on 78 was a minor victory after Stuart Broad had collected four of the first five wickets to leave the hosts on 100/5. Broad added Johnson’s wicket late on to leave the field as the day’s main protagonist[13]. All the more so given the overt attempts by the media and crowd to put him off his game after his acts of gamesmanship in the previous series[14].

Overall, there was a strong sense that Australia had failed to grasp the initiative that was there’s for the taking as hosts[15].

Day Two

The second day was a very different story. England folded under a sustained barrage of quick, hostile bowling; a form of attack that had been in the pipeline for months, and heavily advertised to boot, but that they were still powerless to prevent. At one stage in the afternoon they lost six wickets for nine runs and the dark days of England’s attempts to beat Australia in the 1990s and early 2000s came quickly back into focus, along with more recent travails[16].

It was a display of mental failings as much as it was technical but highlighted how a game which is often framed within the genteel traditions of its roots can become a rigorous physical test which threatens life and limb at the top level. Again, Stuart Broad attempted to take centre stage as his batting cameo hallmarked the bravery which was needed to see off the threat of Johnson and his new-ball partner, Ryan Harris. Broad took hits on the helmet, hands and body but got to 32 before he was the last man out in a dismal total of 136, in reply to Australia’s first innings of 295 all out.

The irony was twofold: that the meticulous planners of England’s retinue of coaches was unable to stake out a way through an obvious fast bowling tactic[17], and that, in actuality, the collapse was sparked by the run-scoring pressure applied by the gentle off-spin of Nathan Lyon; a man who through his treatment at the hands of Australian selectors over the
past 12 months had come to represent all that was muddled about the previous process behind finding a winning formula, but under Lehmann was now showing the signs of benefitting from a stable period of coaching input previously denied him by the supposedly more strategic Mickey Arthur[18].

Day Three

Jonathan Trott batted again today but, again, not for very long and not before Michael Clarke and David Warner buried England with hundreds[19] and Haddin came in and had some more fun at the tiring bowlers’ expense. A declaration at 401/7 off 94 overs left England with a notional winning target of 561, one that became even more remote after Trott was again found wanting by the short-pitched bowling of Johnson, leaving England reeling at 24/2 at stumps.

After a period of English Ashes dominance and accusations that they had been unable to seize the key moments in the UK series, Australia were not going to pass up the opportunity to stamp their authority on the game when this opportunity came along. Warner’s subsequent verbal attack was a premeditated attempt to grind England down further[20].

That it came from a man who had already got under the England side’s collective skin previously hinted that the authority for his statement came from the very top[21]. England’s bowlers – bar Broad – looked resigned to the perilous situation throughout the day. Hardly expending every ounce of energy in their attempts to cut off the runs or snare wickets on what was becoming a blameless Gabba pitch. There was certainly nothing in it for Graeme Swann and both Clarke and Warner took turns to try and hit him form the attack, with the added motivation of denting his confidence for Tests to come.

The part-time off-spin of Joe Root was used for 15 overs when in his previous 11 Tests he had only bowled a total of 33. Early on in the innings England were already spending their time in the field mentally attuned to the batting rescue job they would need to perform. It made their vain attempt to bat out the last hour of play unscathed all the more limp.

Day Four

The last day of play was prefaced as another backs-to-the-wall batting rescue akin to the model recently laid down at Auckland, Cardiff and Cape Town. It wasn’t to be as, instead, the first innings was recreated, albeit in a slightly more drawn out way[22].

The big talking points were therefore centred around verbal confrontations, both on[23] and off[24] the pitch. What they revealed was that these two teams have no affection for each other. This is hardly surprising given the close proximity of the two series; a period of time that precludes the burying of hatchets that usually transpires between international cricket teams. It also exemplifies the confrontational approach that Darren Lehmann has asked of his players, and his country[25]. Having been present at the Gabba for days two and three it is a call to arms that the partisan home crowd has been all too happy to respond to.

But it is no blanket approach to verbal warfare. Australia have identified perceived weaknesses in the England team and targeted them. It again shows the planning they have undertaken to ‘return the urn’. But unlike the methodical and evidence-laden approach taken by England, it represents a very Australian approach to strategy; trusting one’s instincts and to carry the fight to the opposition.

Ashes 2013: Cricket Australia boss James Sutherland said Australia
will not seek pitch advantages against England this summer.
Australia’s restored self-belief will help win them back the Ashes.
Ashes: Ricky Ponting says England ‘past their absolute peak’.
Ashes: Mickey Arthur has been sacked as Australia coach, Darren
Lehmann linked with top job.
Ashes 2013: Darren Lehmann replaces Mickey Arthur as Australia
coach; Clarke steps down as selector.
Australia coach Darren Lehmann brands England cricket as ‘dour’.
Editor of Brisbane’s Courier-Mail explains crusade against Stuart
England travel in hope that Jonathan Trott confounds Australia’s
leg theory.
Johnson blows England away in a 381-run drubbing.

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