The Ashes: A winning habit

THEY say familiarity breeds contempt. Too much time spent in the same company – whether it’s chattering work colleagues, bickering family members or the same old strangers on the bus every morning – will eventually drive you mad. But in recent years the England cricket team appears to have discovered that the team that tours together wins together.

As the Ashes hoopla kicks into gear again, less than three months after the last series ended under the Kennington floodlights, this seems like a good time to reflect on how far England have come in the last 20-odd years.

In November 1990, Graham Gooch’s side arrived in Brisbane hoping to recapture the little urn. Gooch was injured and sat out the first Test, forced to watch as his side were bowled out for 194 and 114, losing by ten wickets inside three days. They lost the series 3-0.

Four years later they were back, with just two surviving members from that hammering  – Michael Atherton, now captain, and Alec Stewart. England lost the Test, and the series 3-1.

In 1998, Atherton and Stewart swapped captaincy duties and returned for a third shot at glory on the old enemy’s turf. This time they brought along two more battle-weary warriors from the previous tour, Graham Thorpe and Darren Gough. England escaped with a draw thanks to an almighty thunderstorm on the final day, but surrendered the series 3-0.

Stewart, who by this time must have claimed himself a regular window seat on the flight down under, took his final Ashes bow on the 2002 tour, with only Mark Butcher and captain Nasser Hussain remaining from the ’98 team. Hussain famously won the toss on the first morning at Brisbane and chose to bowl, firing the starting pistol for a 4-1 defeat.

In 2005, of course, everything changed. Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff discovered that winning was actually quite fun when you got used to it, especially when you could legitimately hit Ricky Ponting in the face.

Amid the champagne-soaked euphoria following that now legendary series, nobody seemed to much care about the future. So along came Brisbane…and the old curse struck again. From the team that started the 2002 series, only Ashley Giles and Matthew Hoggard remained in 2006. They watched Steve Harmison bowl the first ball to second slip, but neither of them would still be there at Sydney to witness the fifth nail in the whitewashed coffin.

These days, with England bidding for a fourth consecutive Ashes victory, it’s easier to list the players who have not survived the period between Australian tours. Cook, Bell, Pietersen and Anderson are on their third trip in a row. Of the XI that ground the Aussies into the dirt at the Gabba in 2010, only the retired Strauss and Collingwood are missing from this year’s touring party.

England have slowly but surely turned themselves into a cricketing family, a dynasty whereby as one player retires, another comes in to fill his spot – just as Steve Waugh’s Aussies used to do, in fact. It hasn’t all been plain sailing – they have yet to settle on a permanent replacement for Strauss at the top of the order and they don’t seem to know who should bat at number six – but it’s a world away from the touring merry-go-round of the 1990s.

Central contracts, better fitness regimes and an all-round professionalism have all contributed to England’s rise over the last few years. But one of the most important factors, often overlooked by fans and commentators looking for a quick fix, is consistency of selection.

There is talk that this England side – which will surely be judged in hindsight as being a golden generation  – is growing old. But don’t be surprised if the trend continues and most of them are back in Brisbane in four years’ time to compete for the urn yet again.

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