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Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2007
From the Introduction ...
On the day after England's disastrous defeat in the Adelaide Test, the Ashes were resting in a glass case inside a darkened room at the South Australian Museum, just across from the collection of stuffed llamas and monkeys. A very steady stream of visitors came by to see the urn, which was supervised by a rather jolly security guard called Marie.
How do people react? "They mostly say 'Isn't it small?'" she replied. "Or they ask 'Is it the real one?' Or sometimes 'All this fighting over something so little!'" Marie's point was proved instantly. A smart-suited businessman, in jacket and tie despite the midsummer heat, strode towards the display. He stared for a few moments. "Is that it?" he asked incredulously.
The previous day's cricket had effectively ensured that the Ashes would, in the mythology of the game, return to Australia. But, in physical fact, the urn would shortly go in the other direction again. Mad, of course. But cricket is a perverse game, with moments of madness. And the previous day the nearest England had got to the Ashes was the fact that they batted like stuffed monkeys.
The notional Ashes usually reside in Australia. By 2009, England's next opportunity, it will be three-quarters of a century since Bill Woodfull took repossession after England's rather ignoble victory in the Bodyline series. In all that time England will have been holders for barely 20 years.
Yet the actual urn has only been allowed to visit Australia twice. Inevitably, this visit gave new life to the question: "Why?" It was unfortunate, however, that it required the intervention of the tycoon and self-publicist Sir Richard Branson to bring the argument to public attention. Branson did not help on an intellectual level, since he had no idea what he was talking about, and regularly referred to the urn's owners, MCC, as MMC.
But he did force MCC to address it. Why shouldn't the Ashes stay in the country that holds them? The traditional argument â€“ that the urn is far too precious to withstand the travel involved â€“ has been destroyed by its tour this winter. It made eight separate flights, and rather more car journeys. Had it been physically moved on every occasion it supposedly changed hands, it would only have made ten flights in the 75 years. So that's clearly nonsense.
The second argument, advanced by an MCC spokeswoman after Branson had blathered, is "it's not a sporting trophy, it's a museum artefact". She will have to do better than that: it's obviously both â€“ or why would anyone care? No sane person would suggest that the real urn should be presented and then booted round the winners' dressing-room. It is tiny. It is fragile. But museums lend their prize possessions to other museums all the time. That's what happened this winter.
There is no need to dispute MCC's ultimate ownership or its right â€“ indeed duty â€“ to oversee the urn's safe keeping. Australia should be told that if they construct a suitable display in one city (no messing about between Sydney and Melbourne), then the Ashes would be loaned to them whenever appropriate.
This is only fair. It would also add yet another layer of magnificence to this already sumptuous rivalry by bringing in the potent concept of "the empty plinth" for the losing country. The case for this was first argued here a dozen years ago. It's an idea whose time will come.
The baggy greenwash
In the days when the great Bishan Bedi was twirling happily, he used to applaud every time he was hit for four, in a manner that suggested the boundary was all part of his strategy â€“ and that by hitting it, the batsman was just becoming ever more entrapped in his web.
I thought of Bedi in February, after England had won something called the Commonwealth Bank Trophy: David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, self-righteously demanded that the media should apologise for their criticisms, and coach Duncan Fletcher started reminiscing about the motivational power of a polar explorer who quoted Mother Teresa at him. Losing the Ashes? Hah! You don't understand: just part of our cunning plan.
It was indeed an astonishing finale. Once a tour has failed, and the players have started pining for home, the condition can normally be cured only by the flight out. Perhaps this team finally confronted the thought of returning to Heathrow with blankets over their heads. No touring team had ever been insulted as rudely as this one; and none so richly deserved it. We always knew they could play, and yet this tour did fail. There was no Bedi-style masterplan to fool the Aussies by handing them some early successes. England's job was to win the Ashes. And the defiant little PS should not deflect anyone from the main facts.
We can see it clearly now: Australia would have regained the Ashes even if England had played up to their 2005 standards. Anyone who has ever seen a western knows that when a group of old compadres get together for one last, vital mission, it cannot end in failure. And these compadres were way too good, way too committed. Even the most embittered England supporter should take pleasure in the fact that they have seen Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist bat and, above all, seen Shane Warne bowl.
England's one chance was essentially negative: that the intensity of the schedule would favour the younger team. But though England were younger, they weren't fitter. The fact of losing was no disgrace: it is 36 years now since England last won an away series against a full-strength Australian side. The manner of it was disgraceful.
England were at once worn out but under-prepared; complacent yet overapprehensive; inward-looking yet dysfunctional as a unit; closeted yet distracted. There were many reasons, the most pertinent, I hope, all raised in our Ashes section. The captaincy was not especially significant. Doubtless Michael Vaughan would have done the job better than Andrew Flintoff. So might Andrew Strauss. Indeed, any one of us who sensed that England should have batted on into the third morning at Adelaide would have averted the whitewash.
When the Flintoff v Strauss conundrum first arose last summer, it seemed to have the makings of one of those great English captaincy arguments which always pit a public school/university chap from the Home Counties against a working-class northerner: Sheppard v Hutton; Cowdrey v Close; Cowdrey v Illingworth; Brearley v Boycott. Yet the debate never really took wing (the public got more passionate about the wicketkeeping, and later the spin bowling). My own feeling is that if your best player really, really wants the captaincy, there has to be an excellent reason to deny him â€“ which there wasn't. And simply, the captaincy makes less difference these days. Everywhere now (perhaps less in Australia than elsewhere), the power rests with the coach, and England's coach had become very powerful indeed.
Duncan Fletcher took over the job in 1999, in a climate of despair after a World Cup performance that was not so much disastrous as farcical. A sympathetic ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin, ensured that he had resources â€“ central contracts, specialist assistance, luxury travel â€“ that his predecessors could only fantasise about. Above all, he had authority: on tour, it became unbridled to an extent previously matched only, very briefly, by Ray Illingworth; at home Fletcher saw off a rival as intimidating as Rod Marsh, who found his views on wicketkeeping disregarded; even the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, was kept at arm's length. And Fletcher also made certain the contracted players played as little cricket as possible whether under his direct control or not â€“ traditional warm-up and practice matches, difficult enough given the current schedule, were disdained.
Against this background, Fletcher was able to create a hermetically sealed world in which he believed his players could thrive. This was the "England bubble". And the players did thrive. The first five years of this millennium represented English cricket's most sustained period of success since the 1950s. England played some vibrant, thrilling cricket. Fletcher's professionalism, his seeming omniscience and his sense of certainty played a major role in making this happen. It all culminated in the summer of 2005.
But there are problems living inside a bubble: eventually the oxygen runs out. And if this one began as the Eden Project, it had turned by this winter into something like the Big Brother house. Accurate information rarely seeped out; it also stopped seeping in. In the nature of things, players came and went from the bubble, but Fletcher was ever-present, and in the rare downtime allowed by this demanding job, he disappeared to his home in Cape Town. He isn't a man given to cocktail party chit-chat either (to put it mildly). So he lost touch. Even experts have to keep listening and learning; Fletcher, on the evidence of the 2006-07 Ashes, just stopped. Indeed, one senior county coach, a man who should be in constant touch with the England management, told me recently that Fletcher had not spoken to him in more than two years.
English supporters at the Adelaide Test talked non-stop even to strangers about the team selection. The chairman of selectors was there on a private visit, yet Graveney was not party to the decisions. If one enquired about this, there was some piffle about "protocol", as though this were the Japanese imperial palace rather than a cricket tour...