There may be a hosepipe ban in Victoria, but there were plenty of sprinklers around Melbourne this week. England players and Barmy Army alike celebrated the retention of the Ashes, after they whooped the Aussies by an innings and 157 runs at the MCG to take a 2-1 lead with one to play.
Most of the team were mere toddlers when England last won the Ashes down under 24 years ago. And the majority of the players will remember only too well the pain of the 5-0 whitewash that they were involved in the last time they toured Australia. The drubbing they received on that tour makes this victory all the sweeter for all involved.
“Winning the Ashes in Australia has always been a bit of a holy grail for English sides,” England captain Andrew Strauss said. “We haven’t won the ashes yet but we’ve certainly retained the urn which is one of our primary goals. The guys deserve everything they get because the players have stood up and performed when it matters. The back room staff have prepared us well, and we feel like a lot of hard work has paid dividends for us.
“Two of the Test matches we’ve played (on this tour) are two of the best that I have been involved with; Melbourne and Adelaide. Also in the preparation phase I think we’ve been very good.
“It’s got to be up there (as the best moment in my career). The pressure of the situation, the Boxing Day Test; a huge atmosphere, and with the ashes on the line. Everyone got stuck in because we realised this is our chance of really hammering it home. Perth was a bit of a come back down to earth, and a reminder that we are not the finished article.”
Part of the reason why England cameback so well from the heavy defeat in the third Test is no doubt due to the level-headed nature of the team management. In the same way as he played down the loss in Perth, Strauss was keen to stress that the victory in Melbourne was not the be all and end all.
“Our objective was to come out here and win the series,” he said. “We haven’t achieved that yet. It’s very reassuring to know the ashes are going to remain in England for another couple of years, but it would leave a very sour taste in the mouth if we weren’t able to go and convert our position into a series win in Sydney. In reality the job is a long way off being done. It’s back to square one for Sydney.”
It was a sentiment echoed by team director Andy Flower.
“It’s not that different to regrouping after the Perth Test,” he said. “You’ve got to draw a line under previous matches and start again. And that is what our guys have to do, win lose or draw matches. There is a lot of talk about momentum, we’ve seen in this series that is not all that important. We’ll draw a line under this win and try to go out and win in Sydney.
“I’m very proud of the way the guys have played throughout this tour,” he said. “And the Melbourne performance was an outstanding performance. I’m sure the players feel that way, but we also realise there is a lot of cricket ahead on this tour, and there is a lot of cricket to be played in the fifth Test. We came out here to win the series and well be doing everything we can to do that.
“Everyone involved in this tour will feel a lot of pride about the way the guys have played, but I think it’s much to early to be feeling satisfied that’s for sure. There are other things out there for us to achieve, starting with this next Test match, we’ve got the one day series and we’ve got the world cup. We want to climb the ladder in the world rankings. There are a lot of things out there for us to aim for.”
This attitude adopted by England stands them in good stead for what is always an hectic international schedule. They face a seven-match ODI series and two T20 games after the Sydney Test, followed by the limited overs world cup in February.
“This is one series, and as a side we’ve still got a lot of goals that we want to achieve,” Strauss said. “English cricket is not just about winning the Ashes. We’ve got to look forward to the future and get our team up those rankings and hopefully to world number one at some stage. That’s the ultimate goal for us, and we’ve got small steps on the way to achieve that. I get the feeling we can still improve a lot as a side.”
The outwardly unassuming nature of the England camp is one mirrored by Strauss himself as captain. The closeness of this squad is evident, and the ‘no I in team’ ethic runs throughout.
“Its immensely satisfying,” said Strauss, of being the first English captain to secure the Ashes in Australia in 24 years. “Clearly there is a lot of hard work that goes in to preparing for an Ashes tour and the captain’s involved in that. But so are the coach and the back room staff, who’ve been outstanding. It’s very reassuring for us as a side to have backroom staff that are as committed as they are.
“It’s great for me, but we all know that a captain is nothing without guys in the side who stand up and deliver under pressure. I don’t want to take any credit for this. It’s not my victory, it’s the teams victory.”
We feel like there is no reason why we can’t go on and do better things. But if we get away from what has got us here so far, which is hard work and sticking to basics, and we start patting ourselves on the back too much and feeling happy about what we’ve achieved then we are going to go backwards again.”
It may be no coincidence that three of England’s best players in this series, were those who fared the worst in 06/07; Cook, Bell, and Anderson.
“It was the lowest point in my career,” Strauss said of the 5-0 whitewash. “And a lot of the guys felt similarly. In a lot of ways I think there was some very important lessons learnt. The one thing that struck me as an opening batsman was being suffocated from both ends all the time. I think that was the basis of our strategy out here; to make sure that Australia never got away from us and if we did that well and consistently then that would bring us wickets. We did learn a lot from that series. If showed us that it’s going to be tough work out here.”
Simple but effective strategies, excellent team spirit, and a sensible outlook on every aspect of their game have all contributed towards this new resilient England team. And it is no coincidence that this has all come about since a change at the top.
“Andy Flower has been outstanding as team director and providing strategy for us to go forward with,” Strauss said. “Ultimately its about 11 guys on the pitch delivering consistently. Maybe in the past we relied to heavily on one or two guys to do it for us and now I don’t think we do that as much.”
England have literally flowered under their new coach and captain. Since the Andy’s took charge they have won two Ashes series, home and away, and their first ICC limited overs tournament. But it’s not all about the silverware (or the urns). There are many positives from this series that England can take.
The loss of Stuart Broad after he suffered a torn abdominal muscle in Adelaide was a blow to the team. But the three quicks (Tremlett, Bresnan and Shahzad)
waiting in the wings on this tour had not been forgotten, and were ready and waiting to go at full strength when called upon.
“(It’s down to) the way we’ve been preparing,” Bresnan said, after being called into the team for Melbourne, replacing the resting Finn. “Especially the lads who haven’t been playing in the series. We’ve played warm up games and tour matches, and we’ve prepared as if we were going to play. Andy (Flower) sat us all down and said I’d be very surprised if we bowl the same team through five Tests, being so hard for them and so close together. We knew there was a chance of two or three of us playing. So we had to prepare as if we were going to.”
With so much talent and so many options in the rest of the England squad, and so few Australian players knocking on the door to get into the team, it must be like Scunthorpe United looking at the Man United subs bench and realising they could outplay their first team on their own.
“They way they bowled against Australia A I thought was a great demonstration of the strength and depth we have,” Strauss said. “Shahzad was very important in that game, you saw them all bowling in Australian conditions and thought they could do a really good job for us here.”
“They way David Saker has worked with them and made sure they were ready to go from day one was exceptional really,” Flower said. “Often when bowlers aren’t playing they lose rhythm, and the fact that they are suddenly thrust in to attest match can effect them pretty badly so all credit to him and the way they’ve worked as well.
“I think David Saker is happy doing what he is doing at the moment, he’s integrated really well into our group. He’s obviously added value to our coaching group and our players. Wed love to have him around for much longer, he’s very good at what he does.”
Perhaps the most important sign for England is that they no longer bow their heads when down, as they have done in the past. They have a resilience about them that saw them come back from a three day drubbing in Perth to bowl out Australia for 98 on the first morning in Melbourne, and go on to secure the Ashes.
Good cricket has secured the urn for England, but poor cricket from Australia has helped. Ricky Ponting has experienced his worst Ashes series in Australia, as well as a poor personal performance with the bat.
“I’m obviously disappointed with the way this series has gone for us so far,” he conceded. “I’m really disappointed with the way this week has gone for us after such good week last week. I think the really important thing we need to do is to pay credit to England. With the exclusion of the Perth Test they’ve played very high cricket throughout this series, the tour games they’ve played as well. You’ve got to give them credit for the way they’ve played and performed.
“Obviously as a player in the series I haven’t achieved what I needed to achieve for the team to be in with a chance to win the Ashes back, which I am very disappointed about. All of our players will look back at this Test with something we can learn from it. When England had their chance to bat they showed us how to bat in Test match cricket. They did what they needed to do when it really mattered and that is what we haven’t been able to do for most of the series.
“We can go to Sydney and try to level the series and try to win back some pride in the team and give the fans around Australia something to be proud of as far as the cricket team is concerned.”
His performance during this series has led to calls for his retirement, or at the very least replacement as captain. But the appeals fall on deaf ears with Ponting.
“Whatever decision I make, it’s really important that it’s for the benefit of Australian cricket, “ he said. “I want to keep playing, I‘d love to keep leading the team. I think I’ve got a lot to offer in both those regards. It’s never been about the me, it’s always been about the team.”
Ponting will not be taking part in the final Test, after x-rays on his broken finger revealed that the fracture had moved during the Melbourne Test, and that urgent treatment was needed.
Even without their captain, Australia may still prove to be a tough competitor. They came back from a comprehensive loss in Adelaide to complete a similar victory over England in Perth.
“We respect them,” Flower said, of the Australian team. “We knew when we came out here that it would take some outstanding cricket from us to come out on top in the series. And it’s going to take good cricket form us in this last Test to win this series.”
As with out of form Ponting, England also face a middle order selection dilemma. Paul Collingwood has struggled with the bat in this series, and for much of the English summer before that. There are calls for Eoin Morgan to come in for the Sydney Test now that the Ashes have been secured, but consistency of selection has been integral to England’s recent success.
“I don’t feel tempted to experiment,” Flower said on the subject. “People’s careers, that’s a very serious business, you don’t experiment with people’s career. We’ll pick what we think is the side that has the best chance to win in Sydney.”
“He (Collingwood) has had a bit of a tough series. He got a couple of 90’s in the first class games and he looked in good order. I’m not overly concerned about him. He’s an experienced cricketer and a tough bloke, and he adds in all sorts of ways to our side. But yes, his job is to score runs like all of our batsmen, and he’ll be looking to do that in Sydney.”
England look to be entering a period of dominance similar to the one that Australia have just left behind. But as with all of their successes, Flower refuses to get too carried away.
“We’ve got quite a nice blend of experience and youth in our squad,” he said. “I think it’s too premature to talk about any era of excellence. We will focus on this next test match and throw all our energy and thought in to that. But certainly as a coaching group we think about the immediate and long-term future. Its much too early to talk about that, we are number three or four in the world and there is still a long way to go.”
Despite all their modesty, England haven’t looked such a rounded, competent side for a very long time.