Authors: Rio Sports
Not as green as they look
Back in 1949 John Arlott tried to work out exactly why the Ashes feels so much more special than England’s other Test series. He decided that it was not just that the rivalry had been running so long, or that Australia had so often been the better team, but because of their attitude towards the sport. “Australianism,” Arlott called it, “the single-minded determination to win – to win within the laws but, if necessary, to the last limit within them.”
Australianism, he explained, means that “where the impossible is within the realms of what the human body can do, there are Australians who believe they can do it”, that their “team have never lost a Test match until the last run is scored or wicket taken”.
Arlott was laying it on a little thick. But then, when it comes to the Ashes, there is hardly a cricket writer who does not. And the better part of a century later there is still a kernel of truth in what he wrote. Ashes series are different. Every cricket fan in England will feel a little flush of childish excitement when thinking that the first Test starts tomorrow night.
Much as the sport has changed since Arlott’s day, and even though the conditions in the subcontinent are so unfamiliar, and the sporting culture there so foreign, the English still see the Ashes trip as the hardest tour a player can go on. It is where their players go to measure themselves.
Australia, land of hard pitches, harrowingly quick bowlers, hostile crowds, is an English cricketer’s New York. If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere. The late actor Leo McKern, who spent the idle hours of his Sydney childhood at the SCG, reckoned that for the Australians “licking the Poms is a national ambition” and a lot of their press still relish a good roast of the England team. One of the early stories of this tour was the Herald Sun’s helpful guide to England’s official squad photo, published with the caption: “Did anyone nearby wearing a suit get invited to be part?” Because the obvious weakness in this England side is that so many of them are still wet behind the ears in Test cricket.
Four of them – Mason Crane, Craig Overton, Ben Foakes and Tom Curran – have not even made their debuts yet, and another couple, Dawid Malan and Mark Stoneman, did so only this year. Altogether 10 of the 17 men England picked have never played a Test in Australia before, including a couple of the older hands, like Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes. On the face of it, then, it seems that at least six of England’s likely XI will get their first taste of Test cricket in Australia when play starts at the Gabba on Thursday. At least, unlike some of the England teams who have travelled in the past, they will not be carrying too many scars.
When Arlott was writing, tours ran on so long that this would not have been such a problem, since players had plenty of time to get used to the place before the first Test match started. As recently as 1994-95 England played three one‑day games and four first‑class matches before the series began. By the time that side got to Brisbane, they had already faced, and been battered by, a lot of the players who would thrash them again in that week’s Test. But tours are shorter now and England’s warm-up for this Test has been three anaemic practice matches on slow pitches against second XIs.
Look a little closer at those 10 players, though, and you find they are not quite so green as they appear. If tours are shorter now, the world is smaller, too, and there are more opportunities to play abroad. Eight of that group have played some kind of cricket in Australia before. Most obviously Moeen and Woakes have both played for England there in limited overs internationals.
But beyond that Stoneman, Crane, Foakes and James Vince have all had spells playing grade cricket. And Overton, like Foakes, has been on tour there before with the England Lions squad. Vince, too, did that and also played for the Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash. So the country, its cricket and culture, are not going to be so very unfamiliar to them after all. Malan and Curran are the only two who are completely new to it.
This matters. As David Gower recently explained when he was talking about his first Test series in Australia, in 1978-79: “It wasn’t the first time I’d played cricket in Australia because I had one season of club cricket with Perth behind me. That season introduced me to the Australian psyche, which was invaluable; in four months I learnt a lot about the atmosphere, the rivalry and the amount of sledging that I could expect in an Ashes series in Australia. The first couple of State games we played on that 78-79 tour reinforced what an important experience that was.”
English players often do struggle on their first Australian tours. Joe Root was averaging 54 in the Tests he played before his first tour there but had been dropped by the end of the series. Likewise Alastair Cook was averaging 52 before his first Australian tour but could manage only 27 in that 2006-07 series. But neither Root nor Cook had ever played a shot in Australia until they first arrived there with England.
Compare that with Stoneman, who has spent seven seasons in Sydney grade cricket – so long that, if he does well, there will no doubt be one or two Aussies who put it all down to what they taught him at Bankstown. All that experience will not necessarily be too much help when Pat Cummins fires down that first bouncer at his head but at least the Australianisms will not catch him by surprise.
• This is an extract taken from The Spin, the ’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe to the Spin, just visit this page and follow the instructions.
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