Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Take the Urn Home

Watching England play cricket in Australia is traditionally a harrowing experience. The walk to the SCG for the final day of the Ashes with 3 wickets needed to secure a first away triumph for 24 years was as pleasurable as a stroll in the English countryside. The best decision that an Australian made during the tour was to let people enter the SCG free to witness the coup de grace. Around 18,000 England supporters turned up to help Andrew Strauss’ team take the urn home. Flags of St George hung from the railings of the Ladies Pavilion. Australians, save for the baggy greens in the middle of the pitch, were in short supply. English dominance on and off the pitch was total.

Despite a morning of showers that threatened to delay the win until after lunch it was just before mid-day when the mighty Chris Tremlett ripped one through what masqueraded as Michael Beer’s defence to rearrange his timbers. Cue delirium amongst the England supporters. The Barmy Army have been singing since 1994 when it was routine to see England routed, frequently in the manner of a whale in the path of a Japanese whaling ship. To support England at cricket and spend hard-earned cash travelling to long-haul destinations to see sporting humiliation on a grand scale epitomised the addiction of the sports fan to their team. There are few more loyal sports fans in the world than those of the England cricket team, certainly no one disputes the lyrics of their song that they are the most loyal cricket supporters the world has ever seen.

At times it has been hard to sing in such unequivocal support of the teams that have worn the England shirt. The last tour of Australia was a particular low point. Duncan Fletcher had vowed to heed the lessons of the 4-1 defeat that he masterminded in 2002/03 and ensure no repetition. He was right, the 5-0 capitulation set a new benchmark. Players were off the pace and the body language in the field betrayed a beaten team. Experienced players like Flintoff could not set the right example from the front. Rookies like Mahmood floundered as if they had gone to play in the Bondi surf without learning to swim. No amount of lifeguards could save that England team. It was a tough posting for the Barmy Army. These are sweet times for the high ranking amongst them.

Wisden will record this Ashes campaign as a 3-1 victory for England. No Australian that you meet will tell you that it felt that close. Every defeat for the home side was by an innings – an achievement  to rank alongside the precedent set by Bangladesh. By the end of the tour there was an uneasy sense of confidence in the performance of the England team. The batsmen made runs. The bowlers took wickets. The fielding was tight. This must be what it’s like to watch a winning team we thought. No longer did you need to restrict yourself to the intervals for a run to the bar.

As always, time will tell but this England team has a glint in it's eye. It means business. The sprinkler dance was a one-off in Melbourne. The team refocused and kept their foot on the Australian throat. One away Ashes win does not a dynasty make but the pieces are in place for Andy Flower's team to reach the top. The batsmen have matured, the bowlers are disciplined, there are no shirkers in the field. With Strauss our captain we'll take the urn home and it may not leave for a while.

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