Urn Burial

On a sun-drenched Sunday evening at Lord’s, on one of the hottest days of the year, England bowled Australia out for 235, chasing a total they could only have reached had Don Bradman been kept in cold storage and defrosted especially for the occasion.

They saved themselves a day, secured themselves a 2-0 lead, and, in all likelihood, the series as well, and prompted a whole heap of hand-wringing Down Under as to how it can possibly have come to this.

Sports sections of Australian papers have been brimming over with theories, analysis, finger pointing and hair-tearing, with a sideline in shirt-rending and chest-beating. T20, that rampaging wrecker of domestic scheduling and the Sheffield Shield, is to blame; it’s the pitches; it’s the lack of unity within the side; it’s a lack of forward planning and inadequate youth development; it’s the simple fact that the current Australia side is shit and they are now reaping the whirlwind of all the afore-listed. Sack-cloth and ashes indeed – and not the type that reside in a display case at Lord’s, that small terracotta eye of the storm of hype that preceded this series.

Shades, then, of Shelley’s Ozymandias and Thomas Browne, who, in his Hydriotaphia (Urn Burial) wrote that “time… hath an art to make dust of all things”. Edward Gibbon, too, might have been able to come to the party with a few words on the catastrophic crumbling of empires (though conflating Christianity with T20 might conceivably be pushing it), and, if you’re more contemporaneously-inclined, now would be a good time to invoke your Spenglers and your Toynbees and mention how everything is cyclical (cycles of what, though? On this, no one seems to agree).

One aspect I’ve particularly enjoyed when gathering the research for the blogs article in the Wisden Almanack is that the reactions to events are often more fascinating – and instructive – than the events themselves. I’m not big on interaction, but I do like to observe, quietly but closely, with an obsessive eye for detail, in the background (think the wall-scrawling, notebook-filling serial killer from Se7en, if he was a cricket fan – alright, perhaps that’s too much information). Given the reaction in the Australian media the last time England hammered Australia, the latest tsunami of Antipodean excoriation – ranging the gamut from reasoned analysis to near full-on hysteria – is no great surprise. Because if anything was guaranteed to bring affairs to a head, it was this, the series that, while its relevance in a post-colonial world might be up for debate, for many still defines the sport.

For a while now, it would seem that objects in Australian cricket’s rear-view mirror may indeed have been shitter than they appeared. It’s only now that that reality is stark enough – that they are being tailgated by a third Ashes defeat in a row – that it must be confronted. During Australia’s last round of dominance, it was the likes of Hussey, Ponting, Warne and McGrath who constituted the engine under the hood. Now, they simply do not have the horsepower, and at Lord’s they seemed to coast completely to a halt. It was a crushing, ignominious, soul-destroying defeat. The difference between the team that tore England apart in 2006-7 and the team that collapsed so abjectly on Day 2 at Headquarters the other week – a panicked procession of wickets that put one in mind of a herd of deer scattering over a hillside at the sound of a gunshot – is now so stark by comparison that the elephant in the room is now all there is. In a search to pinpoint the reason, everything assumes significance and everything is fair game for criticism – even down to the new team spirit Darren Lehmann has engendered, and which was on display during warmup at Trent Bridge. How dare they share a laugh and indulge in jolly japes when their team is being obliterated on the field – this is war, dammit! Conversely, there’s also been much made of the talk of a rift between Michael Clarke and his former vice-captain Shane Watson, who is admittedly not covering himself in glory at the moment due to a mystifying inability to understand the lbw rule. Michael Clarke may be a fine batsman and a strategically imaginative captain, but he is no man-manager. And so on. It’s understandable, the desperate need to find the one underlying reason that, if tweaked satisfactorily or banished entirely, will fix everything. There is no magic bullet, though, that can fix the troubles of this current Australian team. The side are not without talent. They are however, lacking in experience. The only thing that can fix this is time. The only way out is through.

If defeats along the lines of Lord’s – and likely the loss of the series – do not destroy the team’s young talent, they will at least thicken the scar tissue that will enable them to fend off future slings and arrows. (And speaking of outrageous fortune, it’d not be making excuses for Michael Clarke in acknowledging that his failure to win the toss on both occasions so far has not helped him.)

Ashton Agar, Australia’s very own version of Cinderella at Trent Bridge, complete with fairy-tale “you shall go to the ball” call-up before sweeping the England bowlers off their feet – and their lengths – ended up back in the kitchen at Lord’s in terms of comedown. As a Test bowler, he’s not yet ready. In a few years, he will be. Usman Khawaja’s batting equivalent of a panic-attack in the first innings was mitigated by a cool-headed partnership under pressure with his captain, a confident carting of Stuart Broad to the boundary on three occasions and a wristy line in leg glances that, dare I say it, put me in mind a little of VVS Laxman. Australia need to keep faith with him at number three because that debut knock at Sydney in 2011 was no fluke in terms of things to come, though there’s been a fair amount of water under the bridge between then and now. James Pattinson, collateral damage as a result of Australia’s wobbly batting and insufficient rest between innings, has it in him to become his side’s McGrath but is as yet too fragile. So was James Anderson at the beginning of his career. Pattinson, too, needs time, as well as careful management.

The current team might be the best Australia have, but they really aren’t that bad. The raw material is there. Trust me, they aren’t about to turn into the West Indies just yet.

Which brings me to the one thing I never saw coming, only two matches in: the almost apologetic reaction of some England supporters and pundits to their own team’s dominance (and even more ridiculously, wails that the series is being “devalued” because of its one-sided nature). Having already been tickled by the moral relativism that abounded in the wake of Stuart Broad not walking at Trent Bridge, this is a whole new thing. Sport is war! No, hang on, it isn’t, it’s a game for gentlemen, with standards and something called “the spirit of the game” to uphold – we don’t really know what that is, but we will make a big song and dance out of it dependent on the advantage it gives us! And anyway, we don’t gloat, we are British and – it goes without saying – better than that! I doubt McGrath, Warne et al. were sobbing into their Baggy Greens over the prospect of the Ashes being devalued as a series in 2006-7 when England were being dismantled, or that the thought that a close-fought series would really be better for the sport gave them many sleepless nights or prompted agonized, soul-searching contemplation.

Like hell it did. Only the English could feel sorry for the opposition and then have an existential crisis about it.

I know we all love an underdog, but let’s not get carried away. Australia will rise again. Me, I’ve always liked the notion of time as a river. The water will flow on, passing trees and houses, and at some point, around the next bend perhaps, it will pass more trees and houses, only different ones. Australia’s next great batsmen and bowlers won’t be Ponting, Hussey or Warne; they will be someone else. And that next bend could be sooner than you think.

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