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To the Victor, the Spoils (but with a Pinch of Salt): England’s Success Down Under…

January 10, 2011

After England completed their third victory-by-an-innings (and then some) over Australia in the fifth Ashes test it was a mighty struggle to think of something to write about that had not already been said. All truths told, it was nothing more than the same old story…

England had once again bowled extremely well, dismissing the Australians relatively cheaply in their first innings, before themselves batting with a confident assurance to leave the tourists in complete control of the game. Then, one final time, the English bowlers did the business; Aussie batsmen, like lambs to the slaughter. A third victory by over an innings for the tourists; usually such series scorelines are reserved for Bangladesh (and considering they are usually limited to just two tests per series, that’s saying something!).

Consequently the England team were duly praised by many, whilst Australia were castigated by everyone from ex-playing greats down to the local sheep-shearer. But it had all been said before – England had prepared better, and indeed were better than their counterparts. The result of the fifth test did not come as a surprise; indeed, there were times where it felt like a mere formality. And that is a sad fact, simply that Australia have been as bad as England have been good.

Pity and complacency are two terms (in various guises) that have received a lot of air time over recent weeks, and if there was a sixth test that pair might well have come into play. This is a most damning state of affairs for the hosts – that the difference between the two sides can be measured in the victors feeling pity for their opponents, and that the only hope for those quashed Australians would arrive if their superior English opponents were complacent enough to take their feet off their throats.

With the exception of one significant partnership between Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin at Brisbane – and the low-scoring third test at Perth – the hosts’ batsmen have consistently failed to compile a large enough volume of runs to put England under pressure (although this is also down to England’s fine bowling). Needless run-outs and careless dismissals have regularly permeated Australian batting performances this series, with only the impressively obdurate Hussey showing the confidence and clarity of mind needed to construct potentially match-winning innings’.

Not too long ago, there would have been three, four, maybe even five Australian batters ready to fill their boots each time they walked to the middle, but not now. This time the boot was firmly on the other foot, with England’s batting department registering two double-centuries, seven further centuries, five batting averages in excess of 50, and as a team passing 500 on four occasions.

With the ball, it has been the same well-documented story for much of the series. No Warne, no McGrath; no threat, no chance. Mitchell Johnson, supposed Pom-tormentor extraordinaire, was as wayward and innocuous as England’s bowlers are traditionally expected to be Down Under. In Perth, Mitch was devastating – admittedly aided by some pretty inept English batting – making full use of a swinging ball. But that was just once in the entire series; one swallow doesn’t make a summer, goes the saying. Mitch was a tormented soul once England (and their Barmy fans) were done with him.

Peter Siddle might have taken two six-fers, but aside from those two performances he managed just two further wickets from the rest of the series. The three spinners claimed just four wickets between – Xavier Doherty’s figures were 3 for 306, Michael Beer 1 for 112, and Steve Smith 0 for 138. The rest of their bowlers – with the exception of Ryan Harris – fared just as poorly, if not worse. As for Ben Hilfenhaus, they’re still looking to see if he has turned up yet. The English bowlers by contrast were threatening throughout, even when one key member had returned home injured and the then-leading wicket taker of the series was “rested”, or dropped.

So, for all the praise the England cricket team have received, it is somewhat detracted by the shockingly poor standard of performance by their opposition. The great 2005 Ashes series was great because of the quality of players on show and the high standards of play by both sides. Two largely on-form sides producing hard-fought and enthralling cricket games, resulting in one match being won by just two runs, another by just three wickets (England made 129-7), a tantalisingly close drawn test (Australia survived despite being nine wickets down) and a deservedly drawn decider. England narrowly emerged as overall victors, but did so against an Australian side that featured Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and a then-on form Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke – a side that would beat them 5-0 eighteen months later on. It had been a tense, tight, breath-taking war of attrition; top class cricket from top class cricketers.

By contrast, the four tests that have been won in this series have all been done so by mammoth margins – even Australia’s sole victory was by a sizeable 267 runs. The disparity in performance between Perth and elsewhere and the emphatic margin of English victory in the 2nd, 4th, and 5th tests emphasizes the gulf in class between the two sides. For this reason, England should not delude themselves with an inflated sense of greatness as to their standing in world cricket.

Yes, they beat Australia in Australia for the first time since the 1986-87 tour, and that is indeed something to be proud of, but this Australian side have not provided half of the challenge that England should face when they meet current world #1 side India (and #4 side Sri Lanka) this coming summer. If they rest on their laurels because of the historical significance of this Ashes victory, as opposed to placing it in the context of the standard of opposition faced, then the England cricket team could well be in for a surprise over the coming year or so. There are undoubtedly far sterner tests to come.

That, however, is all hypotheses. What has come to pass is that a better prepared, more confident, and seemingly more talented English cricket side have soundly thrashed an evidently inferior Australian team. Given England’s record in Australia over the last quarter of a century, this should be considered an impressive and laudable feat – and perhaps one England’s fans should indeed be grateful for. However, when the paucity of talent in the opposition’s ranks is taken into account, one can only feel a tinge of disappointment that England were not made to work just that little bit harder for their spoils.

In the end, perhaps the best term to describe England’s series victory is ‘professional’. It was emphatic, obviously, but most of all professional. The better side beat the weaker side, and for the majority of the tour it never looked like transpiring any other way. Now it is up to England to show that they can succeed against genuine top class opponents such as India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa over the coming seasons as they look to challenge for the #1 spot in test cricket…

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