Can England win the Ashes this year?

First of all, why all the palaver about a game of cricket? Well, you have to understand that, for the cricketers of England and Australia, the Ashes series is the ultimate test of nerve and sinew. They believe, and rightly so, that to represent your country and not partake in the Ashes is a bit like being a soldier in the Second World War and never hearing a shot fired.

It’s not so much a sporting encounter as the manifestation of a long-running grudge between two countries, which has lasted more than three centuries. It’s Jack proving himself better than his master, an attitude declared on T-shirts bearing messages such as ‘Save Water, Marry a Pom’ or, more particularly, the article in a Sydney paper that greeted the England team’s arrival in Australia with the comment: ‘Is this the best England team the South Africans can provide?’

When I first arrived in Australia in the late 1970s to make a television show for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the first question I was asked by a local journalist was: ‘Is it true you’ve come to Australia to work because you can’t get a job in England?’ As I write, the England team is shaping up well. It won its first warm-up match against Western Australia in Perth, which is what you’d expect from 11 players who might well be England’s first pick against a state team short of full strength.

Yet we did what we had to do, with the exception of Alastair Cook (an opening batsman of suspect technique, who the Aussie quicks fancy bowling at) and Jimmy Anderson (who, for all his great gifts as an opening bowler in England, has struggled in Australian conditions). The rest seemed in fine fettle, particularly Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann on whom so much depends. It might also be that, before the end of the series, England will regret their plan to play only four frontline bowlers.

Moreover, Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and, perhaps, to a lesser extent, Strauss will be mercilessly reminded of their South African connections, hence the newspaper headline, but they are tough and durable professionals who are well used to dealing with questions about parentage and loyalty.
It is also true that, for the first time in many Ashes series on home turf, the Aussies appear to have more to worry about than the Poms. The great team of the recent past with Ricky Ponting at his best and a team of match-winning players such as Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne is now a memory. By comparison, the present team appears to be a forlorn shadow of past glory.

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Of the players that thrashed England 5-0 in Australia in 2006/07, Ponting is the one exceptional cricketer remaining. He is, of course, a great player, the most complete batsman on both teams, yet he has scored only one Test century since July 2009 and there is a feeling that, at 36, he may be
a fading star. He has returned to his state side for the first time in three years to try to regain confidence. He knows better than most that a significant return to form could help avoid the unthinkable, namely being the first Australian captain to lose a home Ashes series in 25 years.

On the other hand, it’s important we don’t get too cocky. The England team is more efficient than inspired, and I for one have never seen an Australian XI, no matter how lowly of reputation, that allowed England an easy ride. So, all is set for a sporting encounter of such significance it once threatened relations between England and Australia. The ‘Bodyline’ tour of 1932, when a policy of short-pitched bowling devised and managed by England’s captain Douglas Jardine, and executed by his great fast bowler Harold Larwood, became a diplomatic and constitutional dispute. It also set the temperature for all encounters thereafter.

It’s worth remembering that whereas Lord’s treated Larwood shabbily on his return, the Australians welcomed him warmly when he decided he would leave England and retire to a suburb of Sydney, where he was treated with respect and admiration by the Australian public. The Aussie beef wasn’t with a bowler of Larwood’s class-they admire great cricket-ers no matter whom they play for. What the Aussies objected to-and still do is the type of well-bred, arrogant Pom who regards Australians as inferior beings.

The late, lamented Jack Fingleton, Australian Test cricketer and journalist, was the man who facilitated Larwood’s transfer to Australia. Fingleton was friendly with Ben Chifley, the Australian Prime Minister of the time. On Larwood’s arrival in Australia, he initiated a meeting between the two men. Larwood said to Chifley, in his broad Midlands accent, how pleased he was to come and live in Australia, and thanked the Prime Minister for his help. Chifley said to Fingleton: ‘What did he say?’ Chifley, a dinki-di Aussie, then told Larwood he was very welcome and hoped he would enjoy his new home and settle in Australia. And Larwood said to Fingleton: ‘What did he say?’

Two nations divided not only by a common language, but also by a deep and abiding love of the great game.