Tag Archives: Kevin Pietersen

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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The Ashes: First Test Day 3 – Bell stands firm

A FEW years ago, during a one-day international following England’s 5-0 Ashes drubbing in Australia, Ian Bell played a shot that got me thinking. Brett Lee was the bowler. Bell took a couple of steps down the pitch and offered a firm forward defensive. Nothing, in the words of Henry Blofeld, was done. But Bell just looked so calm, so cool, so totally in control. He appeared to have all the time in the world, like he could have hit the ball anywhere he chose.

Why then, I wondered, couldn’t he play like this every time? It’s a question that has puzzled greater cricketing minds than mine throughout Bell’s career. For every sublime innings, there’s a tame chip to cover. Every time he looks like he’s broken through, he will frustrate and infuriate with a sloppy dismissal.

But recently it seems like Bell is making the step up from very good to world class. He still has all the silky strokes he had when he broke into the Warwickshire side at the age of 19. But now he’s grown up and learnt how to fight.

His match-saving innings in the final test in New Zealand earlier this year was a brilliant example, and today’s unbeaten 95 – surely to progress to the first century of the series tomorrow – was another. Bell has had more than his fair share of critics over the years, and he seems to have been trying to prove them wrong ever since he made his debut.

Bell is now 31 years old, he has played 88 Test matches and scored almost 6,000 runs. The “Sherminator” jibes are a thing of the past, and yet there were still comments in the build-up to The Ashes – some of them from journalists who should know better – questioning his place in the team.

Bell is one of the best English batsmen of his generation. He may go on to be one of its best batsmen full stop. But something tells me he won’t be remembered as such. The enduring English Test players of my youth – Atherton, Stewart, Thorpe, Hussain, Vaughan – were all good players who had exceptional periods. Bell is more talented than all of them. He has benefited from the selectors’ faith – what the likes of Ramprakash and Hick would have given for the same. Now he is adding the steel, determination and grit to make him a world beater.

England fans love a moan. But they have short memories. In Pietersen, Cook and Bell we have three of the greatest batsmen this country has ever seen. They know when they’re in a scrap, and later in this series they will get the chance to really make hay.

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The Ashes: First Test Day 2 – Start the Agar

Eng 215 & 80-2

Aus 280

FOR as long as I can remember, almost everyone who has captained England for any length of time has ended up losing his hair. Gatting, Gooch, Hussain, Vaughan, Strauss – even Atherton and Stewart might have thinned on top by the end of their ill-fated tenures.

Alastair Cook’s thick black mane is showing no signs of wilting – but if the next six weeks follow the course of the first two pulsating days at Nottingham, he might have cause to pull some of it out himself.

Having collapsed to a mediocre score then launched a stirring fightback on day one, England reduced Australia to rubble. Well, almost. At 117-9 it just needed one final blow to bring the tourists’ house crashing down. But the harder the wolves puffed, the more the final pair of Ashton Agar and Phil Hughes refused to let them in.

19-year-old Agar played with freedom, skill and an impish smile. It was a freakish knock, a once in a lifetime innings. He made a mockery of the nerves and tension that seemed to grip the more experienced players during the opening exchanges.

England suffered some bad luck courtesy of two perplexing decisions by third umpire Marais Erasmus. These things will even themselves out over the series, but it’s unusual to feel hard done by as a result of the man upstairs, who should have time and technology on his side.

Cook and Pietersen did well to calm the pulse rate of the match during the final session of day two, and the situation remains delicately poised. Despite Siddle, Agar and Hughes’ excellent performances so far, this Australian side should not be giving Cook any sleepless nights. Let’s hope he doesn’t need to invest in any re-growth products just yet.

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