The Sydney Cricket Ground, 6 January 2008. It is the final moments of the fifth day of the second test against India. In the last over, part-time spinner Michael Clarke takes three wickets to pull of an unlikely win that gives Australia the series with one match to play. Having just won 16 tests in a row, the team celebrated this great and unexpected outcome enthusiastically.
The sun had barely set on this scene when the Australian’s came under close scrutiny. Fuelled in part by India’s desire to deflect attention from the racist remarks of one of its team during play, the Sydney Morning Herald’s cricket writer (the English-born, former Somerset county captain, Peter Roebuck) launched a public attack on Ricky Ponting’s leadership and his teams conduct, and episode that is fully described in Adam Gilchrist’s unvarnished autobiography True Colours.
I thought about this scene again after England had beaten Australia at the Oval to regain the Ashes last week. So, in collaboration with my antipodean cricketing comrade Simon Philpott, we decided to take stock of the 2009 Ashes series.
The photo of England celebrating the final wicket is a mirror image of the one from the SCG eighteen months earlier. Yet the English press reaction could not have been more different. The Roebuck critique of Ponting in early 2008 had been eagerly lapped up by the British media and led to some rabid comments in the blogosphere about the need to take the Aussies down a peg or two. Of course, none of this mattered once the roles were reversed and it was England who triumphed. Then the press could not get enough of the euphoria, the double standard notwithstanding.
Seeing one’s side lose the Ashes it painful for a cricket fan. It is doubly painful when you see it through the winner’s press. Trying to keep a reasoned view of an Australian team’s performance when consuming the English media is more than a little difficult. One has to get used to a certain imbalance in assessments and coverage. If you were to believe the home side’s commentary, Australian behaviour supposedly threatens the integrity of the game while England’s identical conduct is merely a manifestation of ‘good, tough, test cricket.’
For Australians, losing the Ashes is especially painful in 2009. In 2005 it was devastating too, but the urn was deservedly went to a side that played excellent cricket as a bonded unit for four tests.
The feelings about 2009 come from the fact that the losing side has won many battles and registered many successes. None of this changes the fact that if you come out of the series with 2-1 in tests beside your name your country rightly holds the trophy. But if we probe beyond the end of series triumphalism for a cold, hard look at what Australia did well and what it did poorly, we will have a better basis for thinking about what lies ahead.
The teams in context: who had the experience?
Since 2000 Australia has won 27 series, lost 5 and drawn 2. However, three of the 5 losses have occurred in the last 5 series. It is a wonderful record despite recent setbacks against teams, two of which, India and South Africa, are in purple patches of their own. England’s test series record over the same period reads 19 wins, 11 defeats and 6 draws. Interestingly, England’s recent record is identical to Australia’s – it had lost three of its last 5 series.
In the English media, the 2009 series was set in context via their success in 2005. Sky Sports promoted this through each and every lunch break with a programme detailing the “inside track” on English success in that series. Even some English cricket writers came to regard this backward view “irritating beyond measure.” Airbrushed from history was England’s historic 5-0 Ashes loss in Australia in 2006-07. As one Australian journalist remarked on BBC radio’s Test Match Special – “you blokes love to talk about ‘05, but we like to talk about 5-0”.
This nostalgia was reflected in the repeated observation that the current Australian side did not have the “aura” of its predecessors, which had dominated world cricket since 1995. This bemused most Australians who recognised that with the retirement of Damien Martyn in December 2006, Justin Langer, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath in January 2007, Adam Gilchrist in January 2008, and Mathew Hayden in January 2009, the 2009 Australian’s were necessarily a new and different unit. If there is such a thing as an aura it comes from sustained success, and having lost series away in India and home to South Africa – but then having beaten South Africa in South Africa – the current Australian team was at an early stage of its development and its performances were not always predictable or sustainable.
The statistics bear this out. If we look at the age and test match experience of both 16-man squads at the beginning of the 2009 series we find the Australian’s were much less seasoned than the English, despite being marginally older.
Australia average age: 29 yrs / England: 27 yrs
Australia average number of tests: 26 / England 30 tests
[Minus the leading test appearance of Ponting (131), the Australian average number of tests is 18. England, minus their leading test appearance (Flintoff, 74), drops to 25.]
Australian players with 25 tests or less: 11 / England 7
Australian players with 40 tests or more: 3 / England 6
Performance statistics: who was best on paper?
The 2009 series is remarkable for the fact that the losing side had the superior statistical performance:
If you want to know why it is important to look at these statistics, then you only have to read Vic Marks’ remarkable report in The Observer which claims Australia were beatable because “they had an ordinary bowling attack.” One week on from the Ashes and English journalistic revisionism has begun. Sure, Hilfenhaus and co. were not without problems, as we discuss below. But look at the above numbers and ask yourself — if Australia’s bowlers were ordinary, what were England’s?
Why didn’t the team with the best statistics win?
To support the cliché that games are not won on paper, and that averages and statistics can deceive, the 2009 series demonstrates that when you score or take wickets is as important as how many runs you make or wickets you take.
Australia had three poor sessions and managed to spread them over three test matches – principally short periods in the first innings at Lords, Headingley and The Oval, where batting collapses in less than a couple of hours shaped the outcome, and resulted in the two lost tests. England too had three poor sessions, but confined them to their one loss, the fourth test at Headingley.
This means Australia concentrated its success and distributed its failures. In contrast, England concentrated its failures and distributed its successes.
This is what is behind the oft-repeated manta that a team has to seize those moments that come along in a game. England did this better than Australia. Failing to take the tenth English wicket in Cardiff during the first test in many ways cost Australia. Not only would it have put them 1-0 up, it would have changed the dynamic of the series, infusing an inexperienced side with extra confidence. However, a combination of time lost to poor weather, more time lost to English delaying tactics, and (most importantly) Australian’s bowlers performing poorly in the last couple of hours, meant the desired result was not achieved.
Remember too that it was in Cardiff that Australia’s batsmen scored four of their eight hundreds – for that to have been a meaningful contribution they needed to have won that test.
Of course, in terms of when you get to seize moments, winning the toss and having the best of the conditions helps. You can’t legislate for luck, but there is no doubt England winning four of the five tosses and getting to bat first (especially in the final test) was a huge plus for them in all cases except Headingly. Winning the toss, especially as the home team, confers great advantage with home teams winning 41% of all test matches since 1877. Touring sides win 27% of tests after winning the toss. In winning 1 of 5 tests away from home, Australia performed just under the average of 24.6% of tests won after losing the toss. In addition, the poor umpiring decisions that hastened the Australian batting collapses at Lords and the Oval show that the introduction of the referral system from this October is both overdue and welcome.
Two other statistics reveal that timing is as significant as totals, and disclose that behind the individual successes of Australia’s bowlers lie some problems that need addressing:
What does this mean for the development of the Australian team?
The strong record of individual success in the series shows there is the making of a very good team amongst Australia’s contracted players. The deficiencies have come because those talented individuals do not yet function as a unit whose sum is greater than its parts, especially in being able to capitalise on openings and tighten up in moments of danger.
The goal has to be having a settled and performing team for the next Ashes series starting in November 2010. With test series against the West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand before then, the final pieces in the jigsaw need to be put in place quickly during those nine games. That means in the foreseeable future there will be some changes, but not many, to personnel. Some possibilities include:
What does this mean for the development of the England team?
Predictably post-Ashes euphoria has led to the expected dreams of world domination being declared by a number of England players. Perhaps they will learn from the 2005 experience, when they slid back down the ladder while looking into the past, but the above statistics show that the current crop of England players, at least in current form, are a weak foundation for that aspiration. As such, their ICC test ranking of 5th, still below a de-throned Australia, seems about right.
As a former country captain, Peter Roebuck lamented the inability of English cricket to produce a consistent supply of test match players, as the selection of Jonathan Trott highlighted the continuing reliance on southern Africa players for a competitive team. Of those southern Africans, perhaps the coach, Zimbabwean Andy Flower, will do the most to keep goals realistic. He was quoted as saying after the series win that England
have got a long way to go as a side, we are still number five in the world and we’ve got a long way to go to be where we want to be. I’ve heard that phrase ‘dominating the world’. I think that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves. We’ve got to get to number four first.
Whenever England look to future series they fall back on two clichés: first, that they have a “young team” and, second, that wherever they are about to tour is “the hardest tour you can go on.” Andrew Strauss’s post-Ashes comments did not depart form this well-worn script. The above statistics about their squad puts the first claim to bed, and the observation about their forthcoming tour merely repeats what they have said in the past about going to Australia, India and even the Caribbean. To be sure, success away from home is something that has eluded recent English teams, and the up-coming four test series against the new number one team in South Africa will be revealing.
England’s reliance on home ground advantage has stemmed from the unique conditions they construct. As the only country to use the Duke ball because of its propensity to swing, England departs from a global standard. This series has also shown a desire to prepare pudding pitches without much pace or bounce. That was clearest at the Oval for the final test where the driest strip in living memory was on show. The quality of the pitch did not determine the result, but given that the summer had been wet, a dry pitch that saw the ball go through the surface from the first session onwards was clearly prepared in order to give England a great chance of the needed win if they won the toss, which they did. The unusual nature of this was widely recognized:
Pre-match promises that The Oval would be its usual fast and bouncy self have not quite been borne out by the events of the first two days. Surrey officials insisted in advance that there would be “no cooking the books”, but Ian Bell described the pitch on the first evening as a “day three wicket” and one former England batsman present yesterday said he was astonished to see the truest surface in the land taking turn on day one. “I almost fell off my chair,” he said. “It’s good for England, but it’s definitely not a normal Oval pitch. [Lawrence Booth, “Ashes Diary: The Spin Doctor Drops In,” The Guardian, 22 August 2009, Sport, p.6]
Furthermore, a county umpire told London’s Mail on Sunday that if the Oval were a county pitch it would have been marked poor, excessively dry and with excessive turn, with the home team docked 15 points in the domestic championship.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s English cricket writer Peter Roebuck had some harsh words in response to the pitch conditions:
Far from playing hard and true, the strip was thirsty from the opening hour. Evidently the curator overdid it…Obviously England were intent on avoiding a high-scoring draw. In that case the Ashes could not be regained. Although rigged, the pitch was just about tolerable…England’s strategy was ruthless. Only the unwillingness to admit it stuck in the craw. Holier-than-thou posturing has little appeal.
It is Roebuck’s last line that hits the nail on the head. Preparing an Oval pitch with characteristics diametrically opposed to its normal state is one thing, but pretending that no such thing has been done is quite another. The litmus test in these moments is to imagine what the English team and media would say if, say, Indian authorities turned Eden Gardens into a green top, or if Australia made the SCG a concrete-like surface for pace to determine a series decider. We all know that the charges of moral infamy against the home authorities would be ceaselessly indignant. Perhaps Andy Flower’s greatest achievement will be, should this imaginary scenario unfold in the future, to remind people of London 2009 and the fact that England will have brought it on themselves.
In the meantime, we are counting down the days to the next Ashes series starting in Brisbane in November 2010.