Armies of bleary-eyed people will be staggering into work in the next few weeks and it will have nothing to do with the Christmas party. For cricket fanatics in the UK, nocturnal nirvana is just around the corner. The Ashes, the five test match series between England and Australia, begins in Brisbane on Thursday morning (midnight on Wednesday in the UK). Never mind limited overs cricket; for true aficionados there is no more compelling encounter than an Ashes series. Hardcore fans with Sky will be sprawled on their sofas watching the action unfold on TV, and no doubt there will be countless devotees of Aggers, Vic Marks, CMJ and the rest of the BBC Test Match Special team, ears glued to muffled bedside radios so as not to disturb their slumbering partners.
These early moments in a series are important because they are often a harbinger of things to come. In 2005 when the Aussies came calling, they had an incredibly strong side, four or five of whom would have walked straight into a World eleven. I was holidaying in Corfu during the opening match at Lords with my wife and close friends (God knows how this lunatic piece of timetabling occurred). Eschewing the glorious weather and our lovely beachside terrace, I headed for a dark, smoky English bar up the coast where they were showing the cricket. From the very first over it was obvious that England were not at all intimidated by their more fancied foe, peppering their batsmen with hostile deliveries and drawing blood from their captain, Ricky Ponting. England lost that match but they had laid down an early marker of intent and went on to win an enthralling series that was in doubt until the last afternoon.
Eighteen months later, devoid of their iconic captain, Michael Vaughan, and somewhat under-prepared, England took on an Australian side bent on revenge in their own backyard. Harmison’s first ball was a hugely extravagant wide that finished up at second slip and he was removed from the attack having conceded 17 runs in two overs. The series was barely a quarter of an hour old but the message from England was unequivocal: “Don’t shoot; we’re coming out with our hands up.” The ultimate result was a 5-0 drubbing.
Honour duly restored, the bulk of the Aussie team then retired, including Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, two of the greatest bowlers of all time and Adam Gilchrist, the most prolific wicketkeeper-batsman. Shorn of their stars, Australia surrendered the Ashes when they toured England last year.
The history of this celebrated rivalry goes back to 1882 when Australia beat England for the first time on an English ground at the Oval. A few days later a satirical obituary appeared in the Sporting Times in London lamenting the death of English cricket and stating that “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. Ivo Bligh led an English team “down under” a few months later and vowed to regain “the ashes”. When this was accomplished he was presented with a small terracotta urn containing what are thought to be the burnt remnants of a cricket bail and a legendary rivalry was well and truly established. The sacred urn is now kept in the MCC cricket museum at Lords.
Generations of gritty, laconic Aussies, fuelled by a chippy desire to “stuff the poms”, have managed to do just that over the years. Taking them on in Australia can be a challenge. Huge, partisan crowds, particularly at the Melbourne Cricket Ground which has a capacity of 100,000, can be a very daunting experience for the uninitiated. Phil Tufnell, an excellent English spin bowler but hopeless fielder tells the story of fielding on the boundary at the MCG and being shouted at from someone in the crowd, “Oi Tuffers, lend us your brain, we’re building an idiot.” Aussie cricketers have always been past masters at the black art of “sledging”. Close fielders and the bowler verbally abuse the batsman to break his concentration and, as a former Australian captain described it, bring about “mental disintegration”. Nothing is off limits when it comes to this verbal intimidation. Ignoring it is the best option but there have been some witty ripostes over the years. “Why are you so fat?” a famous Aussie bowler once bellowed at the newly arrived overweight batsman. “Every time I f*** your wife she gives me a biscuit,” came the instant retort.
The decade following the First World War was a particularly barren period for England. Australia won nearly every match and their superb batting line-up was bolstered by the arrival of a new wunderkind to the ranks, Don Bradman, the greatest batsman the world has seen before or since. The English captain on the 1932-3 tour was the uncompromising Douglas Jardine who devised his famous “leg theory” to nullify the Australians. He instructed his fast bowlers, Larwood and Voce, to bowl short at the batsmen rather than the stumps. He packed his fielders close to the wicket on the leg side to catch the ball as the batsmen fended it off to protect themselves. A number of Australian batsmen were injured by this “bodyline” approach and a huge diplomatic row broke out between the countries. It may not have been cricket as the saying goes but England won the series. “I’m here to win the series not to win friends,” was all Jardine would say. He could have been an Aussie.
There is a surreal air about the upcoming series. Australia has slipped from the pinnacle of world cricket to an unbelievable fifth in the world rankings, lagging behind England. Instead of the usual braggadocio in the local press, there is an almost palpable air of foreboding. Even Ricky Ponting, established in the pantheon of great batsmen, is “copping flak” about his indecisive captaincy and as I write there are injury doubts about another of their batting stars, Michael Clarke. England has the settled, experienced side. They are well prepared, confident, in good form and supremely well led by Andrew Strauss. The Aussies have a number of novices on board, are on a losing streak and are patently a team in transition. Everything points to the first series victory for England in Australia for 23 years. On paper it should be a breeze, but you just know that the Aussies on their home patch will make the old enemy fight every inch of the way. The hottest sporting ticket in town is on your sofa at midnight on Wednesday. “Play!”