First as a player then as a captain, I always felt that Australia would receive at least one “favour” from England during an Ashes Test series.
That “favour” generally came in the form of a strange selection; either an England player chosen whom we felt happy about his being in the side or one (John Snow in 1974-75 for instance) where we were delighted he was missing from the squad.
However, in the lead up to this Ashes series the boot is on the other foot, with Australia regularly giving England a “leg up”. The “help” has come in the form of some poor lead up results, player suspensions and misbehaviour, and eventually the sacking of coach Mickey Arthur.
Such drastic action so close to an Ashes series could be seen as a panic move but the elevation of Darren Lehmann to the coach’s role may be one of the few recent decisions emanating from Cricket Australia (CA) that actually made sense.
It had probably reached a stage where CA decided the team was going to lose with Arthur in charge so there was no downside in dumping him on the eve of a crucial Ashes series. As an American baseball manager mischievously once said to a player who was demanding more money; “We’re losing with you, we can sure as hell lose without you.”
To understand why this dramatic decision has caused such a furore in Australia and brought unbridled joy to all of England, onlookers need to realise the ferocity of this long-standing rivalry. It’s probably best encapsulated in a story concerning one of England’s finest and undoubtedly it’s most controversial captain, Douglas Jardine.
Jardine, with his hard-line but well thought out strategy utilising bodyline to restrict the run scoring of Don Bradman, left an indelible mark on the Ashes in 1932-33.
In 1954 a young Peter May was named in the England squad to tour Australia later that year. The following day May entered the Surrey dressing room at the Oval, where an elderly gentleman invited him over. “Son,” he began, “I believe you’ve just been chosen to tour Australia.”
“Yes sir,” May replied proudly, “I’m hoping to do well and represent my country with honour.” “Don’t worry about that,” the older man exploded, “just beat the @#ckers.”
The elderly gentleman was none other than Jardine. The spirit of Jardine’s words still reverberate in England - and hence the joyful sniggering - as Australia has lurched from one crisis to another.
While Lehmann will immediately command the players’ respect and has already brought some much-needed commonsense to the squad with his decision to open with Shane Watson, the coach doesn’t make any runs or take any wickets. Michael Clarke and his team are the only ones who can turn around their recent fortunes and with an improved performance, give Australian fans hope the Ashes series is not a lost cause.
Many a player has felt positive and strong sitting in a hotel lounge listening to a rousing speech. The problem comes the next day when, under intense scrutiny, he actually has to find a way to score runs against the swing of a Jimmy Anderson and the guile of a Graeme Swann.
Even a confidence boosting net session isn’t the complete answer. It’s only when a player actually gets out in the middle and scores runs against an Anderson and a Swann that he finally feels comfortable in his own mind, that success is a possibility.
What has sustained Australian hopes throughout this rough patch has been the confidence inspired by a strong pace attack. This is not unrealistic because putting together a viable attack – one capable of taking twenty wickets economically – is the toughest task in cricket.
However, no matter the strength of the Australian attack, they can’t conjure up victory without considerable help from the batsmen. That’s where the big improvement must come from; the willow wielders.
Despite the good cricketing sense behind the change to Lehmann, he can’t help the players once they’re in the middle. About the best words he can offer the team as they leave the dressing room are either a choice of Jardine’s refrain or “Don’t do the opposition any favours.”