In the final act of Rounders, one of the greatest films you've probably never seen, Matt Damon's character makes the following observation:
"In a heads up match, the size of your stack is almost as important as your cards. I chopped one of his legs out in the first hand, now all I have to do is lean on him, until he falls over"
England "chopped off an Aussie leg" after a closely fought first Test, all they had to do after that was lean, and the Australians collapsed in the second Test. As much as the tourists tried to recover after that, England's larger chip stack never allowed it.
When writing about an event like the Ashes, so close after its conclusion, it's easy to get caught up in the wind of popular opinion. Many words have been written, many views offered, rating of all the players posted. Now the dust has settled, I found it an appropriate time to reflect on the events, without the cricketing hang over. And by reflect I mean pick out the episodes that interested me the most in an Ashes series which despite some sparks of excitement didn't live up to 2005.
As far as verdicts on the series go mine is fairly simple and carries no twist of M. Night Shyamalan proportions. England won convincingly as expected, and the Australians were the architects of their own downfall just about covers it. The visitors also had the sense of humour to do it whilst providing an entertaining pantomime, full of comedy value errors.
Before the series began, at the first sign of crisis the Australians panicked (Sacking Mickey Arthur on the eve of an Ashes series) because they didn't know what was going wrong. When the series eventually began however, they panicked because they knew precisely what was going wrong (They weren't as good as England). Looking in from the outside every Aussie move for the most part, whether it be selection, batting order or disciplinary action, felt like "that" move you make in chess. You know the one, where as soon as you take your finger off the piece, there's an instant realization of the mistake you've made, followed by sheer panic because you don't know yet the scale of disaster you've left yourself open to.
However, not everyone was convinced by the correlation between England's success and Australia's shortcomings. George Dobell, ESPN Cricinfo's senior correspondent certainly wasn't. Having covered the Ashes very closely, he was kind enough to share his views on events with yours truly.
Q) George last time we spoke, it was on the back of an emphatic Test series victory for England in India. How does this Ashes triumph rank alongside that achievement?
A): It’s probably a sign of how far England have come that this doesn’t seem quite as impressive an achievement. There’s no denying that this is a weak period in the history of Australian cricket and it would have been a major surprise had England not won.
Having said that, the Ashes remains - wrongly, in my view - the barometer by which England and Australia are judged by many of their own supporters. Winning 3-0 remains an impressive performance. Denying Australia a single victory for the first time since 1977 is an impressive performance. And it’s worth remembering how bad things used to be. These are golden days for English cricket. It won’t always be that way.
Q) You've written recently about the fact that it's a sign of how far England have come that a 3-0 Ashes victory is perceived to be underwhelming. How much of that is down to the strength of the England squad and how far they've come?
A): It’s partly that and it’s partly that the relationship between the team and some of the media is now very poor. As a consequence, the team’s success is not, perhaps, credited as it might be.
Q) On the contrary how much was the result of this series down to the "era of Australian decline" as Jarrod Kimber put it in his recent piece?
A): That’s a huge factor, for sure. Just as Australia’s success in the last few decades was due to an era of English decline. But let’s not always explain-away England’s victories. They’ve done very well.
Q) Mickey Arthur recently revealed that this Ashes series was a dress rehearsal for the second leg in Australia. Do you buy into that? It certainly felt that way with the musical chairs nature of selection at times didn't it? Agar in Agar out. Cowan out, Khawaja in. Khawaja out Faulkner in. Starc out Starc in and repeat. There were more changes than costumes at a Gaga concert wasn't it?
A): No. It’s just more ‘spin’ from Arthur: trying to minimise the damage to his own record while diminishing England’s success. I don’t believe him, really. Their selection was chaotic. It will go on being chaotic until they face up to their problems and embrace continuity of selection and long-term planning. There was too much looking for short-cuts - the selection of Agar, in particular - too much giving up of long-term plans after a setback or two - Khawaja - and an endless amount of ‘spinning’ against England. Did you notice, after every win, whether in the Champions Trophy or the Ashes, that a story came out suggesting England cheated their way to success? Ball tampering, bat tampering, negative tactics, not walking et al. And they say the English whinge…
Q) Beefy has said on many occasions that an Ashes series has the potential to make or break a career. Ian Bell had a magnificent series. Is he perhaps the best example of the benefits of consistent selection? A quick look at his Ashes stats certainly suggests so. In his first 3 Ashes series, 25 innings yielded just 637 @ 25!! That included 14 single figure scores, including 4 ducks. England have stuck by him and in his 5th Ashes series he's finally produced the best performance of his career.
A): I think that, were he to read that, he would point out that he had a pretty good series in Australia in 2010-11. It was overshadowed by the success of Cook, in particular, but he had done well.
Your point is still valid, though. England identified him early and have, by and large, stuck with him. It makes you wonder how Hick or Ramprakash may have done with similar treatment, doesn’t it? Maybe even David Sales or Neil Fairbrother.
Q) I know you picked out Siddle as the key bowler for Australia before the the first Test. Were you surprised at how Clarke used him in the series? He barely got use of the new ball throughout, and when he did, took a five wicket haul in the first Test.
A): Good question. Sorry to say I don’t know the answer.
(I've spoken to a few Australians about this, and none of whom have the answer either. Actually, they do, but one not so complimentary about the Australian captain Michael Clarke, certainly not one I can repeat here)
Q) Out of the young Aussie pacemen, who has impressed the most? I was a bit disappointed with Pattinson's performances before he got injured. Starc looked good in the few games he played and Falkner looks a decent player. Bird's one appearance was underwhelming.
A): Pattinson was pretty much what I expected. Sharp, committed, pretty well disciplined but a bit lacking in sophistication. He has a huge amount going for him - his pace and his ability to reverse - so he just needs to work at those skills and keep fit. He had a bad Test at Lord’s, I accept, where he struggled to adapt to the slope, but that can happen. He needs to do a little more with the ball but, if he can remain fit, he could be a very fine bowler in a few years. He’s only 23.
So could Starc. He is another with all the raw attributes. He’s just a bit loose at the moment. I wonder if he hits the seam as much as he might, too. If he doesn’t he won’t help his colleagues gain swing. But he is worth perseverance. Again, he’s only 23.
Bird looked like Woakes to me. But without the batting ability. And Faulkner backed up his words by having a strong finish to his first Test. So they have the base of a fine attack there. They just need to develop.
Whether they will is hard to say. I see some worrying signs: Mitchell Johnson, for example, never improved. Nor, really, did Brett Lee. And while Australia look at England’s mastery of reverse swing and claim ‘cheat’ rather than thinking ‘we should learn to do that’ they won’t progress.
Q) I have a sneaky feeling Root will retain the opener slot for the Ashes down under. Who'd be your middle order replacement for Bairstow, or do you think he'll retain his place also?
A): I’d be staggered if Root didn’t continue to open. He always was the long-term choice and that isn’t going to change. Bairstow has a good chance of keeping that spot, especially if he is reserve keeper. They don’t seem to rate James Taylor, but I’d take him.
Q) In the last few years the important issue of depression and its effects on cricketers has gained some media attention. Marcus Trescothick and Michale Yardy have been brave enough to come foreward in the recent past. Is there a possibility Monty Panesar's recent troubles are linked with depression?
A): It’s possible, yes. But I can think of at least one case in recent times when a player has turned up drunk a few times and, sensing he might be in trouble, claimed ‘depression.’ It’s ‘the dog ate my homework’ of the day. Clearly there are times when depression is a real problem; sometimes young men are just fools and need punishing. I’ve really no idea what the situation with Monty is, but he was at a pretty good club there and the track record of issues was not short. Ultimately, he has to take a bit of responsibility.
Q) The way Cook handled Kerrigan on his debut. protecting him after his nightmare spell in the first innings. Is there still scope for him to be on the plane to Australia? Or do you think Monty will be back in the picture by then?
A): Kerrigan may make it into the performance squad, but I can’t see him making it into the full Ashes squad. He’s a talented guy, but he had a shocker and it will take a while before he is trusted again. He’s 24, he can come back in time.
The choice of second spinner probably comes down to Monty or James Tredwell. There’s no way England are going to field two spinners in a Test in Australia, so the second spinner is there only in case Graeme Swann suffers an injury. Neither are ideal: Tredwell isn’t a big turner of the ball and Monty looks fragile at the moment. Australia isn’t really a tour for the fragile. It just underlines how good Swann his: his catching, his batting and, most of all, his spin bowling. He’s like Bob Dylan and Shakespeare: after all the praise, he’s STILL under rated.
The decision probably comes down to England taking a look at Monty and taking a view as to his mental state. All things considered, with the info I have now, I’d take Tredwell.
Q) The best performance of the series for me was Jimmy's 10 wickets in the first Test, including "that" ball to Clarke. He had to carry the weight of expectations as the leader of the pace attack and delivered. Had the Aussies won the first Test, the self belief may have lifted the tourist to perform much better than they did at Lords.
What was your stand out performance in a test match, a performance you feel proved crucial in the series?
A): That Anderson performance was brilliant. So was the Broad performance at Durham. But the difference between the sides was Ian Bell and Graeme Swann. I have this theory - one much derided - that Swann is struggling with injury but, even when not at his best, he remains a fine bowler. He took more wickets than anyone else in the series and, compared to Australia’s spinners, gave England a huge advantage.
But Bell was man of the series and deservedly so. I was hugely impressed by that innings in Nottingham. Not so much by the shots - we know he times the ball beautifully - but the way he left the ball and the way he worked out how he could score on a tricky pitch and had the calmness to bat through the long, tricky periods. It was the sort of innings of which Dravid would have been proud. And there really isn’t higher praise than that.
Q) I suspect the Ashes down under will be a much tighter affair and its difficult to see past another English triumph with Flower at the helm. What's your prediction?
A): I think England are the better side and that they’ll win.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPN Cricinfo and Spin Cricket and you can follow him on twitter here: @Georgedobell1
Rana Malook is a sports writer at HITC sport and also is contributer at ESPN Cricinfo. He tweets here: @rararana
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