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EARNING THE URN

24-08-2009

Flintoff

As the combined cricketing forces of England and South Africa regain the Ashes from Australia at The Oval amid scenes of much jubilation, Steve Beauchampé reflects on an engrossing series.

While not consistently reaching the unforgettably dramatic heights of 2005’s encounter, this year’s Ashes series was never less than absorbing theatre with the teams much more evenly matched than when the two sides last met in Australia in early 2007, a series the home side won 5-0. With the retirement from Test cricket of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and Justin Langer, it was inevitable that Australian cricket would undergo a period of transition.

But with Brett Lee, the side’s most experienced bowler, injured before the Test series began and exciting all-rounder Andrew Symonds sent home following the latest in a depressingly long line of disciplinary lapses, most of the tourist’s 2009 squad meant little to all but keen students of the game. An embarrassingly early exit (inside three days) from the World Twenty 20 tournament which preceded the Ashes did nothing to foster public recognition of either the Aussies’ abilities or personalities, captain Ricky Ponting aside.

Though England had convincingly beaten the West Indies in May’s two-Test rubber, few were convinced this was a launchpad for Ashes success. My own expectation was for either a tied series or a narrow Australian victory (perhaps 2-1) and with concerns over the fitness of (arguably) England’s two most capable performers - all-rounder Andrew Flintoff and South African-born batsmen Kevin Pieterson, allied to the retirement of the classy Michael Vaughan - it was clear that the quality seen in 2005 on both sides would be diminished this time round.

In truth, it was a close affair, but remarks by England’s South African-born Captain Andrew Strauss that the Aussies had lost their aura (of invincibility) were accurate. The visitors’ failure to dismiss England’s tail at the conclusion of the First Test in Cardiff, when last pair James Anderson and Monty Panesar defied the bowlers for nine overs, spoke volumes for the shortcomings of their attack.

Leg spinners of Warne’s brilliance come along hardly ever, but that the Aussies finished the series with a four-man pace attack, omitting spinner Nathan Hauritz, was only partly tactical error (did they not notice the worn state of the Oval pitch even on Thursday morning?), more the selector’s lack of faith in Hauritz’s ability to take wickets.

Although Panesar, who has endured a wretched season, never featured again, the batting defiance he and Anderson displayed was indicative of England’s lower middle order. For many years the tail has been brittle, but with paceman Stuart Broad and spinner Graeme Swann both staking credible claims to being genuine Test all-rounders, and both Anderson and Steve Harmison proving difficult to dislodge on several occasions, England’s last four wickets now expect to be good for upwards of a 100 runs as often as not.

Broad’s strong showing in the final two Tests justified the selector’s decision to stick by him following a poor start to the series, at least with the ball. Such loyalty will probably see both Alastair Cook and Paul Collingwood retain their places when the squad for this winter’s tour of South Africa is announced.

That’s understandable. As is often stated, form is temporary, class is permanent and while consistency can backfire, both Cook and Collingwood have scored well and consistently against diverse opposition. Ravi Bopara has no such record and looked out of his depth against a far from strong Australian attack. Ian Bell, who replaced the injured Pieterson following England’s Second Test victory at Lord’s, scored fitfully.

Too often shuffled around the order over the years, Bell was finally restored to his favoured No. 3 slot at the Oval (as Bopara’s replacement), top scored in the first innings but was dismissed cheaply by his nemesis Mitchell Johnson in the second. Batting at No. 5, Bell is expected to push the innings along, and can’t do it; at No.3 he has more time (and reason) to build an innings. That said, his future is far from secure and omission from the forthcoming One Day series with Australia, presents others with a chance to stake their claims.

Jonathan Trott has surely secured his berth back to South Africa, the country in which he was born 28 years ago. I have a problem with this. While England are breaking no rules picking the likes of Trott and Pieterson, there is no major Test playing nation who so uses (abuses?) the rules on nationality. Wicket keeper Matthew Prior and skipper Andrew Strauss complete a quartet of South African’s in the 2009 Ashes squad, to which can be added Coach Andy Flower. Indeed, during the entire five-match Ashes series, not one Englishman scored a century.

Over the years numerous players, such as Andrew Caddick, Colin Cowdrey, Phillip DeFreitas, Ted Dexter, Basil D’Olivera, Tony Grieg, Graeme Hick, Nasser Hussain, Geraint Jones and Alan Lamb - have played for England despite being born overseas. Each has taken a different path to the England team; some learned the game here, some used England as a flag of convenience. To my knowledge, there were no such cases in the Australian team, nor indeed in the Indian or Pakistani sides..

Prior’s wicket keeping displayed a marked improvement over his previous appearances, and largely silenced the claims of Essex’s James Foster and Steven Davies of Worcestershire. His batting is reliable so the job should be his for some time to come.

Andrew Flintoff’s retirement looks a lot less problematical now than it might once have done. In truth, Flintoff was only a genuine world class all-rounder for a short period of time, climaxing with the 2005 Ashes. Certainly not a poor man’s Ian Botham, more a comfortably well off man’s, something backed up by his statistics.

Yet as is oft said, he was truly inspirational, and his wickets in particular often changed the course of matches, occasionally even a series. Yet in Broad, England have a player of real substance; not a Botham nor a Flintoff (in either physique or temperament) but with that same ability to turn a game, to take it from the opposition’s grasp.

Steve Harmison however remains as unreliable as his fellow paceman James Anderson was dependable. His mind seemingly elsewhere, Harmison often bowled too short and too wayward (particularly at Headingly). More prevarication over his desire to tour may (and probably should) push the selectors towards Harmison’s Durham teammate Graham Onions, though Ryan Sidebottom, England’s forgotten man, whose only crime appears to be getting injured at the wrong time, is surely worthy of a recall.

Unlike in 2005, there will be no open-top bus ride through central London for the England team and hopefully no place in the New Year Honours List either. Regaining the Ashes was enjoyable and gave pleasure to millions. Yet England are not suddenly the best cricket team in the world. They may not even be the best cricket team in England. After all, the England women’s team hold both the Twenty 20 and 50-Over World Cup titles, as well as the Ashes. So come on lads, that’s something for you to emulate!

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