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Lawrence Booth: Who will self-destruct first in Ashes battle?

July 1st, 2009 by Lawrence Booth in The Ashes

When history has its say, it can be hard to argue. The 1985 Ashes series tends to be pigeon-holed as uninterrupted English dominance, even though it was 1-1 with two to play. Twenty years later, we supposedly witnessed two teams at the top of their game – when the truth is England played out of their skins and Australia did not. But how, one day, will we look back at 2009? The way things are going, the temptation is to think the prize will go to the team which self-destructs second.

At the weekend England received an unwelcome reminder of pedalos past with the news that Andrew Flintoff had been reprimanded for missing the team bus on a trip to the First World War memorial at Ypres. The time for rolling our eyes with mock disapproval and passing the incident off as a harmless piece of Freddie hi-jinks disappeared long ago. When Strauss says Flintoff “generally recognises when the times are to drink and when not to drink”, you wonder how generally he means.

Flintoff was once a source of unquestioning inspiration for his team-mates. But that was around 2004 and 2005. Since then, England have learned to live without him. In fact, they have learned to play better without him. It would be sad for English cricket if the impressive esprit de corps that built up in Flintoff’s absence during the home series against West Indies is suddenly threatened once more.

Strauss’s saving grace, perhaps, is the state of the opposition. In Hove last week they looked not so much undercooked as dripping-blood raw. There is a theory that the modern cricketer requires less fine-tuning than his predecessors because he spends so much time playing anyway, but Australia’s preparation for the Ashes will amount to two competitive Twenty20 matches (both lost), a fortnight’s break, an unflattering draw with Sussex and the four-day game starting today against England Lions in Worcester (where the weather may intervene).

Even by the standards of 21st-century touring life – and even accounting for the unexpectedly early exit from the World Twenty20 – this feels a little on the light side. Back in 2005, which itself was regarded as a concertinaed tour, Australia’s itinerary before the first Test looked like this: PCA Masters XI (one day), Leicestershire (one day), England (Twenty20), Somerset (one day), NatWest Series v England and Bangladesh (seven ODIs), NatWest Challenge v England (three ODIs), Leicestershire (three days). That’s a total of 17 days.

Which takes us back to the red-rawness of Hove. The batting line-up is more or less set in stone for Cardiff, especially now that Shane Watson has been left out of today’s game at Worcester, leaving the No6 slot free for Marcus North. But among the bowlers, only Peter Siddle (match figures against Sussex of 30-8-68-3) booked his Test place alongside Mitchell Johnson.

Of the rest, Brett Lee (27.2-2-104-4) was fast but erratic; Ben Hilfenhaus (22-4-101-3) hustling rather than threatening; and Stuart Clark (26-4-100-3) strangely hittable. And let’s not even mention Nathan Hauritz (oh go on then, let’s: 38-5-158-1). Just as revealingly, they were quiet in the field, as Robin Martin-Jenkins, the Sussex all-rounder who played in the game, has revealed on this website.

Australia have one game left to find an attack and some aggression. Rent-a-quote Jeff Thomson has already come out and laid a left hook on Ponting by claiming “everyone at home thinks he’s s**t at the captaincy”. Depending on how his bowlers fare in Worcester, that may be the least of Australia’s worries.

Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Guardian

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