Aussies retain the Ashes

Published : Aug 18, 2001 00:00 IST


FEW dreams have ever faded so ingloriously as England's this summer. They believed they might win back the Ashes; instead they lost in three Tests by margins of an innings and 118 runs, by eight wickets and now by seven wickets.

At no time in the series have the Australians had to take a second new ball, England's batsmen have never used up 70 overs in any of the six innings and - apart from three overs from Mark Waugh - all the Australian bowling has been done by Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Shane Warne.

It is a re-run of the 1948 series when England were shattered by Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Bill Johnston and Ernie Toshack. But for rain, England might have lost that series 5-0. Now the Australians say their only remaining ambition is to Oz-wash England, despite the loss of their captain Steve Waugh for at least one match and probably for both remaining back-to-back Tests.

The probability is that they will succeed in their ambition. They are just too powerful for England's injury-hit batting line-up so that the comparative success of the English bowlers has been to no avail.

The 2001 quartet have ridden with all the frightening power of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse across the skyline, leaving scattered stumps, broken hands, shattered minds and dumb shots behind them in the heap of debris that was once the proud English batting.

No wonder the vision of glory was destroyed, for these four are the dream breakers; and what a powerful force they are.

Glenn McGrath is one of the greatest bowlers who ever drew on a pair of heavyweight boots; a mild-mannered, softly-spoken family man, caring for a sick wife and behaving with all the polite good taste of the 21st century male when he is off field; and with all the gut-wrenching caveman's instincts when he is approaching a bowling crease.

His pace, like that of Curtly Ambrose, is in the low 80s rather than the screaming 90 mile an hour class, yet his characteristics are those of the out-and-out quick, and even from the stand the average man about town feels an inclination to duck as McGrath runs in.

His figures are almost on a par with that paragon Dennis Lillee, the yardstick by whom all modern fast bowlers must be measured and he piles up five-fors as readily as he terrifies men 22 yards down the pitch.

If this one-man task force were not enough, he has back-up too. There is Gillespie who has battled through injury, personal strife and the vagaries of those strange men in the committee room marked Selectors. He will spot a weakness at 1,000 paces and taunt and tease and threaten until his wilder, quicker bowling mops up what McGrath leaves untouched.

If McGrath is the silent assassin, Gillespie is the raucous, bellowing example of triumphalism. His roar, when he achieves success, is not pretty, but like a battle cry from hell it makes a batsman wonder if he dare come back for more.

Brett Lee is a kitten among the killer cats, learning his trade, offering raw energy and plenty of pace at the top of the range. He is 23. Give him a year or two and see how he learns the McGrath lesson.

Alongside the raging lion, the ravaging tiger and the boisterous cub there is another lethal enemy, with a slower approach, a subtler mind and a wide range of weapons.

It was this fiend who unravelled England at Trent Bridge when for the first time in the series they had a chance of victory, looked as if they had taken it and then let it fall.

The reason was Shane Warne, rightly the Man of the Match, still deserving of all those phrases like the Wizard of Spin that the tabloids have hung round his neck since he first appeared in 1992 as an lad bristling with talent if only he could be persuaded to act like an athlete.

Warne learnt that trick, went back to Terry Jenner for coaching and back to the diet so that he could bowl all day in the sun. Now, after an operation that has slowed down the revolutions but done nothing to stop him being a great bowler, Warne needs no aid from anyone, except the occasional errant umpire and the not-so-bright batsman.

So far in this series - which began with the cry that he was finished - Warne has taken 19 wickets for 244 runs.

When Waugh decides his bowling line-up, Warne is almost always the last cab off the rank. Me thinks, in truth, he is the first among his peers. So it proved at Nottingham.

Michael Atherton won the toss - a first for an England captain in 10 attempts - and was wrongly given out off the second ball of the match. It was a Test riddled with the best and the worst of umpiring from India's Venkataraghavan and England's Hampshire, two of the finest in the business.

We must look at every aspect of their trade if two such great adjudicators are to be caught out so clearly and so often. Give the third umpire more power, use more technology, ban all electronic devices; but we cannot go on making fools of the umpires or we will wake up one day and find there are no umpires.

From the moment Atherton left, shaking his head, England were doomed. Marcus Trescothick started hesitantly, but went on to make 69, with 13 fours, and Alec Stewart made 46 before he was ninth out; but the rest were hardly able to cope with McGrath; but in the evening the England bowlers fought their way back into contention.

Michael Slater and Matthew Hayden had 48 for the first wicket but by close Alex Tudor and Andrew Caddick had reduced Australia to 105 for seven. Here was a breakthrough, a hope of making the series 2-1; the Ashes might just be coming home.

Adam Gilchrist killed the finest English visions. He and the tail added 85 in an hour and a half and instead of being 40 behind the Australians had a lead of five.

When Atherton, who had concentrated so hard, willed himself to stay at the crease, defied everything from the three pace bowlers, was wrongly given out a second time, we knew the game was gone. Warne mopped up another six victims and only four England batsmen reached double figures.

Australia, given a target of 158, scored the runs at five an over. This time there was nothing the English bowlers could do, although when Ricky Ponting was out at 72, Hayden gone at 88 and Steve Waugh hurt his calf trying for a run off his first ball, there was again a crack through which England thought they could glimpse victory.

Instead, Mark Waugh and Damien Martyn raced to success with an unfinished fourth-wicket stand of 70 in 10 overs and the Ashes were finally retained off a Caddick no-ball.

Gilchrist, standing in for Waugh whose calf muscle was being scanned in hospital, said that the result was tighter than the statistics showed, but, frankly, he was just being kind. Australia are so much stronger than England that the three margins are exactly right and seven wickets in a low-scoring match is a huge difference.

In total, the game, which finished just after tea, needed only 193 overs which, reckoned at 90 overs a day, means that it lasted only two days and 13 overs.

The pitch was lively, under heavy cloud the ball moved, and much of the bowling was superb, but it was, reckoned by overs, one of the shortest Tests.

Of course, as any player will tell you, it is a different game now, but a comparison with the 1948 series is laughable.

In one simple example on the final day of the fourth Test when Australia famously made 404 for three - to win by seven wickets - England bowled 114 overs in five and a half hours or 20 an hour.

What now for Australia? Greater glory, more victories, a World Cup success in 2003; they are still a young side packed with so many great players that the failures of Ponting can be ignored and the education of Brett Lee continue. When he returns in four years, he will be as much a handful as McGrath is today.

Where now for England? It depends on many factors including the return to fitness of Graham Thorpe, who will probably miss the last two Tests, Nasser Hussain, who may be fit for the fifth but who may stand aside so as not to disturb the squad. There are just two days between the end of the fourth and the final Test at The Oval and England will probably pick 14 or 15 for the two matches.

There is wild talk of replacing Stewart and Atherton since both are coming to the end of their careers but - as there is little to be gained in this series - it will be better to let them retire in their own good time and with the dignity they deserve.

Mark Ramprakash, who danced down the pitch and was stumped off Warne's higher, slower ball in the England second innings, has been damned for a fool and told he may never play for England again.

But, as I said at the beginning, he was facing the greatest spin bowler of them all, who will shortly have made idiots of 400 Test batsmen.

Perhaps it is better if England write off this series altogether, forgive and forget all the sins of their players, and start again when they step off the plane at the Delhi airport in November.

The scores: England 185 (M. Trescothick 69, A. Stewart 46, G. McGrath five for 49) and 162 (M. Atherton 51, Trescothick 32, M. Ramprakash 26, J. Gillespie three for 61, S. Warne six for 33) lost to Australia 190 (M. Hayden 33, A. Gilchrist 54, Gillespie 27 not out, A. Caddick three for 70, A. Tudor five for 44) and 158 for three (Hayden 42, M. Waugh 42 not out, D. Martyn 33 not out).

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