AT last it begins. The Ashes has been the talk of the town for so long that it is quite a relief that the action will start.
No more pontificating, shadow boxing or mind games. Contest is all that matters now and there should be plenty because there are some big questions that will be answered in the next two months about the relative merits of cricket in both countries.
England are favourites, deservedly as they hammered Australia in Australia in 2010/11 and, before that, in England in 2009.
The problem is everyone expects them to do likewise this summer and that, as David Gower’s men discovered in 1989, is when Australia are at their most dangerous.
For, make no mistake, they are not as bad as some in the media have portrayed them. They did well against South Africa last year but people concentrate more on their disaster in India. Goodness, that happens to everyone occasionally as the sub-continent is a very difficult place to go to and draw, let alone win. Just remember the cheerleading and celebrations when England won in India in the winter for the first time since 1984/5, so Australia’s shambles there should not be considered particularly important. What was important from that tour was the final breakdown of the management pairing of coach Mickey Arthur and captain Michael Clarke from the majority of the squad. It may only have been a fortnight ago that Arthur was sensationally sacked and Clarke removed from his role as a selector but the seeds were sown back in India when they suspended four players for failing to fulfil a written task. The subsequent humiliating of the players ensured the dressing room would never be happy. They were not a team but a collection of individuals with a captain who was becoming increasingly isolated.
Not anymore. The appointment of Darren Lehmann as coach is a masterstroke, as is the decision to give him real power. That was accomplished by neutering Clarke, the captain. Now it is Lehmann’s decisions that are driving the dressing room and it is a much happier place for it.
The results are already obvious. Lehmann spent days courting Shane Watson back into the fold from his rather self-indulgent sulk, and he is now back in his favoured role as opening batsman. Chris Rogers, a gnarled old first-class veteran with 20,000 runs and an average of 50 has been told firmly he will open and is expected to bat long.
It may not seem much, as every side should have settled plans and positions but, under Clarke and Arthur, Australia really did not. Now the openers know their job and there is clarity.
First drop is likely to be Ed Cowan so, effectively, Lehmann has decided on playing three openers to negate the threat of England’s potent seam attack. That is just prudent thinking and, even if Phil Hughes gets the nod over Cowan, it will still mean an opener at three.
If Clarke slots in at four as mooted, or even his favoured five, and the top order looks to have purpose. What has been interesting since Lehmann’s appointment though has been the return of joy to the camp.
Watson is happy, Rogers is delighted he is getting a fair go in an Ashes series and Cowan, the one who, on the face of it, appears to have suffered by Lehmann’s appointment, is ready to bat anywhere. But the most important change is in Clarke himself.
All he has to do now is bat and captain. The rest – the long international conference calls, the constant management meetings and selection meetings that can wear even the hardiest of leaders down – are gone.
Lehmann and the back-up staff do everything to ease the workload on the players and allow them to enjoy the game.
It sounds simple but, in a closeted dressing room where the players go from hotel to bus to ground and back, a sense of claustrophobia can squeeze the joy and fun out of playing cricket. Players enjoy pressure but there also needs to be release.
So Lehmann has addressed that as well. No longer are families restricted to certain dates. Turn up, enjoy the country and muck in, is Lehmann’s message to the wives, girlfriends and children.
Happy players are better players and, to that end, Lehmann has also stopped the forming of cliques. The team will discuss cricket but not in small groups. After every day’s play they will sit in the dressing room and chat about the game. If there are disagreements they will not insidiously foment in whispered conversations in dark corners but be aired and cleansed in full view, beer in hand if necessary. The team will be honest with each other and be that much stronger for it on the pitch.
One of Lehmann’s charges at Queensland Bulls described his style as “full-on cricket but cricket with fun. Enjoy each other, enjoy the challenge and individually and as a group take full responsibility”.
Not exactly MBA management text but just what a mixed group of men need. There are boundaries, responsibility, disclosure and commitment.
Is it enough for them to win the Ashes though? Undoubtedly they appear in much better fettle than one month ago but against them is an England top five which averages more than 40, notwithstanding Joe Root’s promotion to opener. There is also the problem of James Anderson and Graeme Swann, England’s most potent bowlers. Consider all those left-handers in the Australian line-up and Swann just waiting to bowl at them.
To win would be an immense turnaround. Australia have quality but much of it is youthful. James Pattinson is a superb bowler but has only played ten Tests. Mitchell Starc is an awkward left-arm seamer but lacks the nous that experience provides. Peter Siddle is a workhorse and Nathan Lyon a serviceable off-spinner but certainly no Swann.
England should prevail but Australia should run them a lot closer than looked likely some weeks ago.
Lehmann’s appointment has cleared the fog that was engulfing the squad. Now it is up to the players themselves to prove they are worthy inheritors of the baggy green cap.