Ashes and sparks

I have this image stuck in my head. Australia’s new coach, Darren Lehmann, fag in mouth, beer in one hand, reaches towards the switch that will flip into life the shambling monster that Australia has become.

A disparate hodgepodge of misbehaving parts, parts that have been bolted on where they don’t fit, and parts that have yet to show any sign of life whatsoever, it’ll take something along the lines of Dr Frankenstein to reanimate this mess.

Mickey Arthur’s more scientific approach didn’t work. Desperate times call for desperate measures and maybe, with “one of the worst Australian sides ever”, as they’ve been dubbed, a more maverick approach just might be the key. Or maybe Lehmann’s appointment was simply an act of desperation.

The timing, certainly, was curious: sixteen days before the start of the Ashes at Trent Bridge, Twitter was swamped with rumours that Mickey Arthur had been given his marching orders by a board that had finally run out of patience. To England fans, it must have seemed the cherry on the top of the schadenfreude gateau that had long begun taking shape in the overheated oven of Ashes expectation: the chewy base layer of a Test tanking in India, the creamy filling of Homeworkgate, with sprinkles of David Warner’s Twitter spray, dressing room splits, and a ridiculous incident involving Joe Root, a fake beard, and a Birmingham bar. It’s certainly been something to get your teeth into.

As half-baked rumour hardened into fact, it was difficult to know what to make of it all. Mickey Arthur was “a good man” who “tried his utmost”, in the words of Cricket Australia supremo James Sutherland in the first of three pressers. This was a disaster, said some pundits. No, actually, it was a good thing, said others – along with many of those who’d first proclaimed it a disaster but had now had time to think about it. The timing was bizarre, everyone agreed. This could either improve Australia’s chances, or it could destabilise them entirely.

But regardless of who’s wearing the chef’s hat, there’s only so much you can do with a batting lineup that puts one in mind of the contestant who always seems to turns up on Ready Steady Cook with a bar of chocolate, a tub of Philadelphia and a packet of digestive biscuits. “What can you make me with this?” Cheesecake. It is always bloody cheesecake. And the Australian recipe for this Aussie Ashes campaign looks anything but cordon bleu.

Perhaps Lehmann will be the man to bring something new to the mix. “My top three priorities are to win, win and win,” he said at the third of Tuesday’s press conferences. He didn’t waste much time in demonstrating that this is not simply bellicose bluster. Australia, declaring one run ahead in their first warmup match against Somerset at Taunton, signalled a new, aggressive intent: proactive rather than reactive, a readiness to take a risk to go for the win – which they achieved. This was aided by the one component of the squad in which there’s no doubt as to its quality. One statement Mickey Arthur made a couple of weeks back which prompted a fair amount of scoffing derision was his contention that “I honestly believe we can win the Ashes – we have the best all-round bowling attack in world cricket.” Perhaps that “all-round” should have been replaced with “seam”, and perhaps a “potentially” should have been slipped in there to not make it sound entirely ridiculous, but the way in which James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc shredded Somerset’s batting – from 310-4 to 320 all out – suggests that England retaining the urn may not be quite a straightforward formality.

True: the visitors only have one world-class batsman, a captain who must be the backbone of his side while he struggles with his own degenerative back condition. Where Michael Clarke fits into this whole saga will perhaps become clearer over time; he presented a united front with Arthur over Homeworkgate, but as a modern, ultra-professional sportsman, it’ll be interesting to see how his relationship with Lehmann – a throwback to more unreconstructed times when coaching manuals were considerably thinner and “work hard, play hard” just about covered it – develops. What has emerged from Lehmann’s coaching stints with Queensland, Deccan Chargers and Australia A is that he is a man who inspires intense loyalty but also respect – both of which seemed in short supply for Mickey Arthur at the end. While Australia’s precise lineup for the first Test is yet to be set in stone, it’s fair to assume that while the recipe may have its limitations, the heat in this kitchen will present no obstacle for the chef.

It’s interesting, too, that the underdogs are sounding considerably more bullish than the favourites. Lehmann talks about winning; Andy Flower is counselling caution. “We aren’t as good as some people are saying,” he said in an interview with the Daily Mail at the weekend. Alastair Cook, too, has refused to be drawn into anything resembling blustering prognostication, toeing the party line in maintaining that England are focussing on their own preparation and not what’s been happening in the Australia camp. It seemed somehow appropriate that he was at Wimbledon on Friday, watching Andy Murray’s unruffled progress to the fourth round while the Scot’s big-name rivals fall by the wayside through a combination of loss of form, injury, slippery courts and sheer bad luck. Australia may be embarking on a messy rebirth, but never underestimate the destructive power of the random and unexpected. God forbid, if Jimmy Anderson steps on a ball the morning of a crucial day in the field with the series in the balance, à la Glenn McGrath in 2005, it could be England’s hopes that are in need of resurrection. As we speak, Graeme Swann is off for an x-ray after being struck on the arm by Tymal Mills in England’s only warmup match at Chelmsford.

News has just come in, too, of confirmation that Shane Watson and Chris Rogers will open the batting for Australia when hostilities commence on July 10th.

The series is yet to begin, but the contest is already alive. The parts are coming together. Now let the sparks fly.

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