England won the Ashes yesterday.
I can’t begin to describe how awesome, yet surreal, this is.
We were told before this series that Australia, without McGrath, Warne, Hayden, Langer and Gilchrist, were a weakened side. We were told England had a good chance of regaining the urn. But England lost in the West Indies, and Australia beat South Africa on their own turf and were the number 1 Test rated nation in the world.
What happened in this year’s Ashes series was so up and down and bizarre that the fact England won has still to sink in. In truth Australia are indeed a weakened side, and one going through transition trying to replace the greats who have departed (Hauritz for Warne) and nurturing young talent that is not yet firing consistently (Johnson, Hughes).
Collingwood and the amusingly stubborn partnership of Monty and Jimmy Anderson saved England’s bacon at Cardiff. Freddie bowled like a Viking god at Lord’s. Edgbaston was buggered into a bore-draw by both the rain and excitement-killing knocks by Pup Clarke and Marcus North (I had tickets for that day but poleaxed by swine flu I drifted in and out of consciousness on the couch all day and didn’t miss much). Headingley, oh Jesus, Headingley – the crowd chanting “We’re shit – and we’re 1 nil up” as the batting disintegrated summed up the utter direness of England’s performance. Good god, the batting was dire. Most Test teams have one god-awful collapse a year: England manage it once a series.
Australia’s collapse in their first innings sealed it for England – but even then, never say never: I’d not have bet against Australia chasing down a massive total because it wouldn’t have been the first time England bowlers have bottled it.
Ricky Ponting said during the presentation that looking back over the stats in this series (by which he means lack of hundreds by England batsmen as opposed to Australia’s and the fact the Aus bowlers have taken more wickets), he couldn’t figure out how England won. That was perhaps a tad ungracious, and got some boos from the crowd, but he has a point. If England had performed like this against the McGrath/Warne juggernaut of 2006/07, they’d have been shafted ten ways till Sunday – again.
As it was Hughes, the much vaunted wunderkind, failed to deal with the short ball and was promptly discarded, Nathan Hauritz bowled well at Cardiff but Australia still didn’t really give a fuck about him to the extent of leaving him out of the squad for the Oval, to their cost; Mitchell Johnson’s radar went AWOL and suggestions of “Midge! Phone your mum!” from the Edgbaston crowd may not have been entirely helpful; Bing didn’t play and Stuey Clarke was mystifyingly damned with faint praise by chief selector Andrew Hilditch after taking 3-18 at Headingley and really should have played in every Test.
Still, Shane Watson, called in to replace Hughes, more than coped at the top of the order. He scored three half centuries in five innings and more importantly managed to roll out of bed each morning without breaking something. Michael Clarke was Australia’s best batsman, and Marcus North put his hand up in with innings of dogged defiance at No 6 while chipping in with the ball. Midge got his mojo back and Hauritz’s performance at Cardiff made me think that Australia should shut the hell up about looking for a new Warne and look to go forward with this guy because he’s sure as shit better than Beau Casson. Hauritz must feel like the young second wife whose hubby can’t stop going on about his stunning first wife who was his one great love and who he still carries a torch for. It sucks and I felt sorry for the guy when I read he’d been avoiding reading the newspapers with their endless “is this the best Australia can find?” coverage.
England had their own travails to deal with. Fred’s knee packed up and KP’s achilles decided it had had enough. England were without both players at Headingley, and this was really one in the face for those who said England perform better without Flintoff, and that Pietersen should be dropped as punishment for giving his wicket away in the 90s, because without them England sucked. They were without Flintoff’s heart, and without the sheer bloody-minded determination Pietersen brings to the middle. I’m of the opinion Pietersen made a pretty good captain, and in time could have been a great one. Strauss decided to pursue a career in cricket rather than in the City, and somewhat appropriately, he captains like an accountant. Don’t expect any daring declarations from this guy. But his batting was solid, which was more than could be said for a few of them. Bell was infuriating – again, he didn’t step up when England needed him to, and the explosive potential of Ravi Bopara seen earlier in the year against the West Indies fizzled meekly into nothingness. Cook for some reason seems to have escaped scrutiny, despite posting one big score of 95 in this series and then nothing of note thereafter.
Bopara’s replacement, Jonathan Trott, was awesome. A century on debut in the deciding Test of an Ashes series takes some beating. He doesn’t have the insouciant brilliance of Pietersen or the outrageous, showboating talent, but boy he can bat. KP reckons he and Trott will get some flack from the South African crowds when they tour there this winter. The SA crowds can go fuck themselves. With KP’s strutting aggression and Trott’s steady robustness I can’t wait to see these two together out in the middle come December.
Of course, England will be without Fred. All the bowlers stepped up at various points, be it with ball or bat, but most of the attention was on Flintoff. I was at Lord’s on the day he won that Test for England and it was magical, amazing, something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. This wasn’t quite Flintoff’s Ashes, but the big man gave us all something to remember him by.
The highlights of Day 4 at the Oval are playing on the TV behind me as I’m writing this. Earlier this morning Flintoff held a press conference. He told how he had a quiet meal with wife Rachael last night and that the celebrations this time around were more poignant than the full-on alcoholic debauchery of 2005. He goes into surgery tomorrow morning to get his knee sorted and will be out for 9-12 months. Get well soon, Fred.
Andrew Strauss summed up the series best when he said during the presentation: “When we’re bad, we’re very bad; when we’re good, we’re good enough.”
Yep. “Good enough” may not be full-on awesome, but compared to the hiding England took in 06/07, it’ll do for me. It’ll do for me, and for every other England fan, for now. But if England want to keep hold of that urn come 2010, “good enough” won’t be enough when it comes time to jump on a plane Down Under and face a team who are at their most dangerous when they’re wounded.
Enjoy it, lads, because the hard work, that’s just beginning.