Posted by: rajeshkannan | July 25, 2009

The Ashes: An Indian Perspective

Botham's AshesWhen I was ten, the elder Bush embarked upon Operation Desert Storm. My uncle was posted in the Middle-East at the time, and television programmes were frequently interrupted with missile attack warnings instructing people to go to the basement or nearby bomb shelters. I know this because he’d sent me a tape recording of a programme he had been watching, and the end was cut off by one of these interruptions.

What does this have to do with the Ashes? The tape he sent happened to be ‘Botham’s Ashes’ – a highlights package of the 1981 Ashes, Headingley and all. I’d heard about the miraculous fightback of course – and 10 years later, would see it emulated in Calcutta – but to see even a highlights package of this epochal series was another matter. And the missile warning interruption was an unwelcome intrusion of real life, because Allan Border and Graham Yallop were batting beautifully (this was the fifth test which England won to go 3-1 up), even though I knew their resistance would be futile. But my fascination with the Ashes had been well and truly stoked, though I have yet to see the denouement to that Test.

1991, of course, was a time when England could still entertain thoughts of regaining the Ashes. Steve Waugh was just a thorn instead of the bogeyman, nobody had heard of Glenn McGrath or Shane Warne, and Ricky, well Ricky was sixteen, chasing girls, and still a year away from heading to the Indian nets at the World Cup to get some tips from some teenaged batsman his (Ricky’s) coach was raving about. Sure, Australia were resurgent, but you’d have got long odds on England’s next Ashes win coming in 2005.

Ah, 2005! Being Indian doesn’t make me neutral while watching the Ashes, but it does mean that my allegiances can shift from one series to the next. Australia were at their peak and universally loathed in 2005, and it was no different in the Delhi bar where I watched parts of the Lord’s Test. But pissed off by saturation hype surrounding England, I was willing the Aussies on, and when Glenn McGrath used the slope as only he could, you could see the glares from the other patrons towards me, the lone Australia supporter. As the series progressed though, for once, the hype was justified, not just about the closeness of the series but also about England’s chances.

I suspect Indians watching the Ashes have always enjoyed Warne’s duels with England’s batsmen, if the word ‘duel’ were to include ones of the car driver-deer variety. The fascination is tinged with smugness because Warnie seemingly threw grenades at English and South African batsmen, while chucking pies at our boys, and that’s why few subcontinenters rate him higher than Murali. Warnie’s in the commentary box now, though that hasn’t stopped him from getting into Ravi Bopara’s head.

As I  trawled through my memory for recollections of Ashes series of the past 20 years, I realised that I can hardly recall England’s tours to Australia. I clearly remember Slater’s first day stunner puncturing a hole in England’s psyche before Warne blew it to smithereens in 1993. I remember England’s first test win at Edgbaston in 1997, and suddenly all was well with the English and the Aussies were going to be vanquished after 10 years. We all know how that ended. I remember Mark Butcher’s magnificent 173 at Headingley in 2001. And of course, there was 2005. But I hardly recall anything about England’s tours in the 90s. The noughties are a bit more fresh (hello Hussain’s toss, Michael Vaughan, Harmison’s wide and Adelaide!) but I suspect they’ll fade away from non-Australian memories in a few years.

And I understood why. A visiting Australia at least gives England a modicum of hope, one which England’s hyper-sensationalist press exploits to the hilt, to the point where you wonder why Australia even bother turning up, so heavily are they going to be beaten. But even the rabid media cannot possibly convince anyone that England stand a hope in hell of winning in Australia, and this weak Australian team would still prove way too strong for this English team down under. Hence the lack of hype, and hence the collective amnesia about 2006-07.

But this is 2009 in England, and it is time once again for gallant Sir Andrew Flintoff to shed his torpor and inspire England to victory over the villainous antipodean hordes. And, astonishingly, he did precisely that at Lord’s, triggering an outpouring of gush, and the word “great” being bandied about freely.

Seriously, has the bar fallen so low for ‘great’? I can think of a few great cricketers in the past 10 years but Flintoff is not one of them. He is good, but his body of work is too sparse and too Australo-centric to be taken seriously in the greatness stakes (see also: V.V.S. Laxman). And let’s not forget who captained England to the airbrushed-away 2006-07 Ashes.

And while we’re on subject of the English press, is there no cricket at all between Ashes series? In the past, this indifference towards other teams was resented, now it just prompts jeers in the subcontinent and other places. If England want to seriously contend at the big boys’ table, they’ve got to take all their cricket seriously. And it is no coincidence that England hasn’t produced a single genuinely great cricketer in the last 30 years, not since Ian Botham. And you, Sir Andrew (as he no doubt will be one day) are no Sir Ian.

But on to Edgbaston, scene of a famous Test in 2005. My nails couldn’t withstand the tension as Brett Lee and company whittled away at the runs, and when it was all over, who’ll ever forget the defining image of the series, as Andrew Flintoff consoled Lee, in a truly magnificent gesture. Edgbaston was the scene too of English cricket’s supposed rebirth in 1997. Fresh from a 3-0 Texaco trophy win, England could scarcely believe their eyes as Australia tumbled to 54/8 at lunch in the first Test, en route to a crushing defeat. Hope died out pretty soon a dozen years ago, but there is no Stephen Waugh this time around. Would you be surprised though, if Ricky Ponting emulated his old captain and snuffed out another English renaissance at Edgbaston, of all places? I can hardly wait.

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Responses

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your article Rajesh. Worthy of the best cricket publications anywhere.

    The Ashes is important and steeped in history – it was contested a quarter century before the Federation of the Australian nation – but I believe that the Border-Gavaskar Trophy is beginning to match it in importance within the Australian cricket community.

    As each Border-Gavaskar series is contested the more and more it grows in stature and I reckon it will be the defining cricket contest of this century just as The Ashes was during the last.

    If I was forced to choose between a win away in England or India, at this point in time I’d choose the latter. It is so much tougher and therefore, sweeter and longer lasting.

  2. It is natural for you to hardly recall any good Ashes series in Australia as England are always doing the catching up exercise. It’s so easy for England to say that their main aim is winning the grand slams but unless you perform well in the masters, you have little chance of winning one.

  3. Living in England turns me off seeing the Ashes as the be all and end all. This article is correct. The English press only really care about the Ashes. Certainly Freddie only cares about the Ashes and the Ashes in England. It is why he can never be a true great, except in the eyes of English fans.

    What about South Africa and India series? Surely they are at least as worthwhile as either the Ashes or Border/Gavaskar series?

    As an aside, I have only just discovered this board and can I say that the articles are far better contributions than practically any of the stuff I have been reading in the press? The reporting around this series makes the sport reporters look like a bunch of desperate children lurching around with no control over their emotional state when they write.

  4. Some time travel that Rajesh!

    Nesta, I’m with you on the BG series.

  5. Terrific read and yep l’m another Aussie who loves the Border-Gavaskar trophy as much as the Ashes these days. A fire that was stoked at a young age by the two blokes with their name on the trophy.

    Actually close to my favourite individual performance is Martos phenomenal batting on the subcontinent that saw us finally win in India (and Sri Lanka).

    • Jj, absolutely right. Damien Martyn is way too unfairly characterised as a pretty player with little substance (a lot due to his waft in ’94), but his performances in 2003-04, in Lanka and India, were truly magnificent. My team was at the receiving end, but if I have to be flogged by someone, I’d take Marto’s scalpel over anyone else’s scythe any day. What a player, and what a beaut to watch!

      • Damien Martyn was the loveliest Australian batsman to watch I have ever seen. One of the OBO’s in the Champions Trophy when Oz beat England described him as inflicting ‘death by velvet’.

        • This new Aussie lineup lacks the style of players like Marto and Mark Waugh. Hughes and North will never be as appealing to watch.

  6. Is no cricket at all between ashes series?
    Well it depends how many England win. We heard all about their pre Ashes series wins in 2005, but as there were none to talk about this time around…

  7. Rajesh, thanks, great article. Seriously good journalism.

    Kumar, re your comment on the previous blog, maybe there are not fences to be mended. Maybe I read the papers too much. I thought the fallout from the Aus/Ind conflict was pretty bad, but maybe it’s just another day in international sport.

    Lou, the English cricket press is funny isn’t it? Good writing sometimes but you’re right they’re very reactionary. I think there are two cricket related games in England, one is playing cricket and the other is making a living off people who play cricket.

    So, how do you solve a problem like Mitchell? Stu is looking very attractive at the moment. Maybe time to give MJ a break, let Stu and Watson have their chance, and MJ will come back once his head is sorted. Can’t really answer that question unless you’re able to look him in the eye and see where he’s at. Both MJ and the manangement will need to swallow their pride if they were to drop him, but better one step back and two steps forward than pig-headed obstinancy.

  8. Great post, RK.Echoes a lot of sentiments that I have, and very good read.

    Damien Martyn – Very easy on the eye, much like Mark Waugh, and right now, Clarke (when playing spin). Australia has always had such players in every generation, didn’t they?

    Edgbaston – With Watson making such a strong case, young Hughes can be dropped I suppose.But I wonder if Aus team mgmt will see it that way.

    For Eng, with Bell returning to the fray, it should see a healthy competition between Bopara and Bell to cement a place.But neither batsman seem to be ready for the No.3 position.Not yet.

  9. I don’t think they’ll drop Hughes. Our batting is not really the problem. Watto and Ronnie both showed their all round abilities over the weekend. And Clark’s figures looked decent.

    I love the Border-Gavaskar trophy. It’s just a shame that the crowds in India arent there for tests. I know this was partially to do with issues such as poor selection of grounds and lack of shade last tour, but I still I worry about the lack of interest in test cricket in mighty India. And this takes some of the luster off that series pour moi.

  10. Great article.

    Can’t say I’m optimistic about Punter emulating Steve Waugh though – I think this is the weakest Aussie side I have seen here since 1981.

    And what the hell has happened to MJ ?

  11. i never thought the day would come when i would side with the english press, but it appears i have sold my soul to the devil.

    see i think freddie is great, because of one factor. watching him play gets you excited, involved, in awe of the game. i would point to that spell in the windies where he bowled with one leg. the scorecard, or statisticians don’t have any evidence of it, but watching every delivery as his face looked about to explode with pain was pretty incredible.

    however, i would understand if this factor is not accounted for by more sensible cricket aficionados. because the excitement factor for me also makes afridi great, and i know there won’t be any takers on that one…

  12. Fred, I think they need to drop MJ. If third rate county players are flogging him around the park, he is at rock-bottom and he is not suddenly going to find form.

    Everybody is going on about his technique but I think that is bull, it is between his ears that is the problem.

    And he looked so dismal first session at Lords, seriously that was some of the worst bowling I have seen by a front-line strike bowler that I can remember.

    Plunkett and Harmison bowled almost as shoddily in one test 2 years ago against the Windies, but MJ even possibly out did them.

    He is a real talent, and if they continue to play him, I am just worried that the Aussies could lose him completely.

    I hate the idea of Watson coming in, he’ll breakdown or do something effing stupid while batting but MacDonald is more appealing and Clark definitely as at least he knows where the top of off stump is.

  13. karachikhatmal, I agree with you about Afridi. I am a fan. He’s as mad as a coot though and not a great, apart from his eccentricity. He says some surprising, touching and quality things in interviews.

    I really rate his bowling and it was grand to see him play a sensible innings in the 20/20 final.

    I consider Freddy an Ashes great, but not an all time great.

  14. It has come to something when Aus only have the likes of Watson and Macdonald to choose from. There is a Roy shaped hole in the squad.
    Dropping MJ for Clark would make sense but that is a fairly tame attack.
    A damp wicket and a poor weather forecast. I hope Punter wins the toss.

  15. A quick scribble in Karlstad railway ststion on the way to London. As such, I cannot do justice to a really superb piece for Rajesh.

    Quick thoughts. The Press should not be seen as representative of cricket fans in England. Many newspapers and websites resent the monopoly Sky (Murdoch) hold over coverage and slant their stance accordingly. It is fair to say that the “man in the street” is primarily concerned with The Ashes, but at £75 for a ticket, I was in a sold out Lord’s last year for the fourth day vs SA, and the crowds for the World T20 were enormous. Likewise Flintoff has had some fantastic displays vs SA – he’s no great, but he is very good indeed if he is fit.

    Aus vs Ind is big for cricket fans here, but we don’t get coverage of the India element of the series, indeed no home Tests in India which does make it more difficult to follow. The IPL was only available via Setanta too, but that channel has collapsed, so we may get more accessible coverage now.

    Martyn was in my Beauties XI, but I’d have ME Waugh ahead of him as his fielding was equally sublime (VVS’ at slip too).

    I’ll be back with some of the thoughts Rajesh has prompted tomorrow and I’m delighted to read such wonderful stuff at 99.94.

  16. Any ideas what this pitch is going to do?
    Loads of rain about, but in 2005 Punter thought it would do more on the first day and got stung big time, (if you can call 2 runs big time – I still hold that Warne’s second innings dismissal cancelled all the work he did with the ball for the whole series).
    Could be a great toss to lose!
    I expect the weather to play a part early on pitch conditions, but as with Lord’s, do Australia have the attack to exploit them?
    I expect the pitch to revert to type and get easier to bat the longer the game goes. I know it’s difficult to gauge the pitch based on an extremely poor Warwickshire bowling attach, but I do believe there is a reason for Mr Bell’s runs this summer.
    I expect anything under 400 to be chased down in the 4th innings inside 4 full sessions, so I hope Punter is not put into a position where he needs to force the issue on Sunday evening when only 300 ahead or we could be 2-0 down come Monday night.

    I’m just glad I don’t have to make any of the decisions and can sit back with the rest of us and say “I told you so” when its all done and dusted.

  17. The article is right. To extend it further, the press in general seems to be focussing on the ashes.

    Bangladesh won their first test series against a major test playing nation and yet could hardly get in a word edgewise.

    Meanwhile in SL, the incomparable Chaminda Vass has retired and it has hardle caused a ripple.

    Thoughts?

  18. Can one of the article writers do a special on Chaminda Vaas?

    Dement, the English press will realise he has retired when they next play Sri Lanka. Probably not before.

    And can the Oz team hire hiim to teach MJ something about g and d? Please?

  19. Lou – there was a piece here http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2009/jul/19/sri-lanka-chaminda-vaas-retiring. Not much, but something.

  20. I’m catching up on stuff I missed when on holiday and I’d just like to add my compliments on what a great piece this is. I can’t really add anythingof value but wanted to register my appreciation.


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