If Australia turn this remarkable series on its head to win the final Test at the Oval and retain the Ashes, the reason will not be another heroic performance with bat and ball from Shane Warne. Nor will it be a match-winning return from injury by Glenn McGrath, another captainís innings from Ricky Ponting or a return to his belligerent best by Matthew Hayden. It wonít even be because of Simon Jonesís failure to recover from his ankle injury in time to take the field for England. No, the real reason for Englandís failure to regain the Ashes will be that some twit at the England and Wales Cricket Board thought it would be a really smart move to make an advance booking for Englandís victory parade in Trafalgar Square.
It is one of the more perplexing (not to say bloody irritating) things about the English that we have a habit of assuming victory or superiority before the final proof is in. Early last year when the BBC spent the first hour of its Six Nations Rugby preview talking about what an impregnable fortress Twickenham had become it was painfully obvious that the newly-crowned World Champions were about to get turned over at home by Ireland. So it transpired. And so the foreboding grows as the denouement of this series approaches, not least because this rashly anticipated parade is booked for, of all days, the 13th of the month.
For English cricket fans, to whom the experience of supporting a confident and successful team is fresh enough that a lingering paranoia from past disappointments still lurks beneath the surface, it is hard to know whether to accept the evidence of the last three Tests and be confident that the momentum lies with the hosts or to fear that the slumbering Australian giant is about to awake and deliver the cruellest in a long line of bitter blows. The rain which robbed the Old Trafford match of so much time, allowing the Aussies to escape defeat, and the dropped catches and missed stumping which allowed Shane Warne to use up valuable time at the crease there, are now fixed in the mind as potential factors which cost England the Ashes.
Then, when the England management announced on Tuesday morning that fast bowler Simon Jones had been ruled out of the match after failing a fitness Test, it must have seemed to England fans as though Private Fraser had just turned to them with a wild gleam in his eye and announced, ďWeíre doomed!Ē Jones has been Englandís most consistently dangerous bowler in this series, the one who, if he got it right, would run through the Australian batsman swiftly and mercilessly. Although Englandís four other bowlers, especially Andrew Flintoff, have all bowled well for long periods, it has been when Jones was bowling that the feeling of an imminent wicket was always present.
But for England to go through an entire five-match series, particularly one of such intensity, was always going to be a matter of extreme good fortune, the sort that can never be relied upon. Australia have had to go into two crucial Tests without their spearhead Glenn McGrath. If England cannot survive one match with one replacement player, it might well be said that they do not deserve to win the Ashes.
Much will depend upon whom England choose as Jonesís replacement. They have given themselves two options; Durhamís batting all-rounder Paul Collingwood and Lancashire fast bowler James Anderson. It is fairly obvious that they represent respectively the passive and the aggressive option. Collingwood is a fine player; a technically sound and determined batsman, a brilliant fielder and a bowler who can swing the ball at a fairly gentle pace. But a like-for-like replacement for a front-line fast bowler he is not. His inclusion in the team would signal that England intend to bat for as long as possible and hope that rain does the rest. This would be an unfortunate backward step from a side which has got into its position of strength by backing its own abilities and taking the game to the opposition.
The other signal that Collingwoodís inclusion might send out is that England have less than complete faith in Anderson. This would hardly be surprising. After his stunning performances at the very start of his international career two years or so ago, Anderson has not progressed as England hoped. Instead he has gone backwards. The decline which began in a Test against South Africa in 2003 when Umpire Venkat warned him for following through down the pitch was complete by the return tour last winter when he cut a sorry figure. Quite sensibly, he was sent back to Lancashire this summer to get some first-class cricket under his belt. He has taken 51 wickets so far, at the hardly eye-catching average of 31.80.
Lancashire coach Mike Watkinson says that form and confidence have returned in recent weeks, which is good news. But all the reports seem to say that while accuracy seems to have returned, the old pace and late swing have not. Indeed, from what I have heard none of the Lancashire pace attack has swung the new red ball once all season. This is an important bit of information. Andersonís first, breathtaking performances on the international stage were with the white ball. He took five wickets on his Test debut, but against Zimbabwe. I cannot recall having seen him bowl a single truly impressive spell with the red ball, probably because he is a swing bowler and the red ball, these days, rarely swings in any but the most favourable conditions.
This may be down to changes in the manufacture of the balls themselves, but speak to the head man at Dukes, who manufacture the balls used in Test cricket in England, and he will tell you that a major factor is the fact that most cricket clothing these days is made from polyester. And, as Dame Edna would no doubt tell you, you couldnít polish Warneyís bald patch with polyester.
Remember the good old days of cotton? The days of Dennis Lillee and John Snow when fast bowlers had their shirts unbuttoned to the navel and sported great streaks of bright red down the thighs of their trousers? Ah, long gone, my friends, long gone! In these days of flimsy, sweat-inducing polyester you will never see a pair of whites bearing any more than the faintest of pink tinges. And how else is a shine imparted to the ball (well, legally anyway) but by removing a very fine layer of red-dyed leather from ball to trouser leg? If it isnít on the trousers, it never came off the ball. Hence no shine, and no swing. For my money Matthew Hoggard and James Anderson could drastically improve their consistency in Test cricket just by investing in a couple of pairs of cotton strides. The simple solutions are often the most effective.
It is fortunate for Anderson that, if selected, he will be returning to the side at a time of year where swing and seam of the conventional kind are likely to be significant factors. As the year turns to autumn, damp, dewy mornings are likely to favour bowlers of the Hoggard/Anderson type. The old NatWest Trophy final, played in early September with a 10.30 start, became a bit of a joke in the end because unless the weather were freakishly warm the side winning the toss would invariably put the opposition in and bowl them out cheaply. This coming Test match, which starts on the 8th September, begins later in the year than any previous Test match in England. It also starts at 10.30. In such conditions Anderson, if he gets it right, could be devastating. The death, or at least serious incapacity, of new ball swing (see above), may diminish this advantage, but the success of Hoggard and Jones in using conventional swing at Trent Bridge must give England hope that their stranglehold over Australiaís batsmen can be continued.
Australiaís batsmen last weekend went some way towards easing the humiliation their bowlers had suffered at the hands of Essex. But 166 of those runs were made by Brad Hodge, who is likely to remain reserve batsman at the Oval, and another low score by Adam Gilchrist will have done little to improve his battered confidence. A brutal 150 by Matthew Hayden gave Australia some hope that he has returned to form at last, but centuries earlier in the tour at Worcester and Northampton led to nothing in the Test matches, and another bullying performance against such household names as Tony Palladino and James Middlebrook will mean little when he comes up against Harmison and Hoggard with the new ball.
Australiaís concerns are not confined to their batting. Not to put too fine a point on it, they were pummelled by a talented young Essex batting line-up led by 21 year-old Alistair Cook, a left-handed opener destined for great things. Stuart MacGillís hopes for a game at the Oval were severely dented as, judging from the figures, was the ball each time it left his hand. Jason Gillespieís woes continued, Brett Lee was expensive and only Michael Kasprowicz was able to stem the flow, to some degree at least.
Glenn McGrath, still nursing his elbow injury, was not risked against Essex, but he came through a net session well on Tuesday and was finally passed fit for the Test match on Wednesday afternoon. It is no coincidence that the two Tests England have won have been those from which McGrath was absent. They very nearly won again when he played at Old Trafford, but even there the great fast bowler was well below full fitness. Englandís batsmen, despite their statements hoping that everyone will be fit for the final match, can be forgiven for quietly wishing that McGrath had not recovered in time. Even so, a lingering lack of fitness caused by his ankle and elbow problems, exacerbated by a lack of cricket in recent weeks, may well leave him well below his best.
Looking back at this thrilling series (best done after a quick snifter just to calm the nerves), it strikes me that one of the biggest surprises has been the pattern of play. On last winterís tour of South Africa England displayed a penchant for getting themselves into a bit of trouble before fighting their way out of it. Good practice for the Ashes we all thought, for that was likely to be the way of things this summer. Instead, since Lordís, it has been quite the reverse; Australia getting into trouble and trying, and mostly failing, to fight their way out of it. After the disappointment of Lordís came Englandís realisation that they would have to come back hard at Australia from ball one at Edgbaston. This together with the sudden, freak injury to McGrath and Pontingís misjudgement over the toss, completely flipped all expectations and all momentum upside down. If England can hold their nerve and win here at the Oval, that morning will have been the catalyst of their victory.
If Englandís challenge is to hold their nerve, Australiaís is to find a new way of thinking about their approach to the game. For over a decade now the Australian team has been rather like a domineering father, imposing his will on his family by virtue of his physical strength and ability to intimidate. Now, like all such fathers, they have reached the point where they realise that their powers are on the wane, and they have one son, perhaps more, who is big enough to give as good as he gets and who, crucially, no longer feels afraid. This is likely to be a puzzling time for Australia. Once the legend is damaged, the psychological advantage they once took into each game disappears. Every team which takes the field against them will do so with renewed heart and vigour. Methods and strategies which used invariably to bring victory will no longer do so consistently. Now, for the first time in their long careers, they must think about how to regain the initiative from an opposition growing in confidence by the day, something which they may find hard to contemplate after years spent winning almost every time they played.
So far the Australians have been bullish about their prospects. They have stuck to their old men and old methods (with the notable exception of the debut given to Shaun Tait), confident that it is only a matter of time before proven players come good and below-par performances are replaced with ones more fitting to reputations. In a way it is understandable that the Australians feel they should give this great side the best opportunity to salvage the series themselves, and that afterwards will be the time to take stock and make changes. But changes, inevitably, will have to be made, for reasons of collective age if nothing else. Victory at the Oval should not blind them to that. Whether they retain the Ashes or not, their performances in this series have been well below what is expected of them, and captain Ricky Pontingís comment this week that he should not carry the can alone should the Ashes be lost suggests an unaccustomed degree of self-doubt is creeping in.
It must be questionable whether, at this late stage, the same men and the same methods can be Australiaís best chance of retaining the Ashes. Form may be temporary, but when a great old side is surpassed by a younger one, itís usually permanent. The selection of young all-rounder Shane Watson would have given the team a precious injection of freshness going into this vital match, as well as a fifth bowler giving them increased options in the field and essential cover for a less than fully fit McGrath. But these Australians are still capable of one last collective push for victory, while this England side will still be confident of repulsing it. More miracles with ball and bat from Shane Warne may be Australiaís best hope, but he has worked wonders time and again in this series, and yet Australia still trail 2-1.
With frequent showers forecast for Friday and Saturday, the weather may yet have the final say. But as the greatest series in Test history reaches an unbearably tense conclusion, the whole country is on tenterhooks before its most eagerly awaited sporting occasion since the Football World Cup Final in 1966. Should England win, and Australiaís long and proud dominance be brought to an end, the celebrations will be worth witnessing . Already cricket has won itself a new audience far beyond its wildest dreams, no doubt even Tony Blair will soon be talking fondly of childhood summers in the north-east watching Durham in the County Championship. That alone should be reason enough for wishing England well.