More than a struggle for the urn

THAT the Ashes represents a tradition needs no reiterating. It has always meant significantly more than merely a struggle for the urn of burnt bails between the game's original rivals.

THAT the Ashes represents a tradition needs no reiterating. It has always meant significantly more than merely a struggle for the urn of burnt bails between the game's original rivals. The 2005 Ashes, to be played in England in July, has evoked more interest than has been witnessed in recent times. This is obviously due to England's victorious run over the last two seasons, which has given the Barmy Army unflinching belief that Michael Vaughan & company could end the 18-year-old drought.

The focus on the forthcoming combat has been so very intense in both camps that, even as England was locked in battle with South Africa in the land of the Veldt, and Australia was busy establishing its supremacy over Pakistan at home, all talk was with reference to the face-off between the old foes.

One even got the feeling that for England, 2005 was all about the Ashes. So much so that England's defeat in the Cape Town Test in January by 196 runs, was immediately ascribed to the impending visit of the Australians, saying that the loss was in keeping with the recent Ashes history.

Five English captains have failed to put it past the old rival since Mike Gatting's men retained the urn in 1986-87, and the interesting part is that for each of them the first Test in the Ashes year had ended in heavy defeat.

Australian captain Ricky Ponting had been honest when, during the Pakistan series, he said that his side's thoughts were already on the Ashes, and that his boys were keenly following the England-South Africa series. Ditto with the Aussie fans. In fact, the Sydney crowd witnessing the Pakistan Test cheered when news of England's first innings collapse trickled in.

The interest surrounding the coming Ashes series has been heightened by England's 2-1 victory over South Africa, which has been described as possibly the country's finest achievement abroad — Gatting's 1986-87 success notwithstanding — since Tony Greig's 1976 team had a five-Test series in India sewn up after three matches.

Considering that England, has in the preceding three Ashes years, let up on pressure — the Cape Town result does not portend well, considering the precedents. However, former England captain Ian Botham brushed aside the defeat at Cape Town as a hiccup that would do the side good. "In fact, it might be exactly what they need — a little kick. Because they have not tasted defeat over a year," said the all-rounder.

The England players are pretty upbeat. Darren Gough, who has played in four losing Ashes series, said: "We have players now who are at the top of their game. They are all up for it. When England win the Ashes I will be there at the ground."

The inimitable Aussie leg-spinner Shane Warne reportedly admitted that England stood a chance this time, but in the same breath said that the Englishmen have been saying that for years! Warne, for whom it will be the final tour to England, is keen to leave The Oval in September holding a replica of the urn. "I would not like to lose a series against England in my time. I sure want to keep the record in tact," said the leg-spinner.

While world champion Australia has been setting lofty standards with its clinical demolition of oppositions, the recent ones being India, New Zealand and Pakistan, England's ascent, on the other hand, has been slow but sure.

Vaughan's side, currently third behind India in the ICC Test team standings, was easily the most improved team of 2004. It whitewashed New Zealand 3-0, and in April, won its first Test series in the West Indies since 1968, before shocking Australia in the semifinal of the Champions Trophy. The English team's new-found confidence is quite apparent, and you can be sure that England will be no push-overs this time around. That, in itself, would be an achievement, considering that England has won just one `live' Ashes Test in 43 encounters (Edgbaston '97) over the last 15 years.

In fact, the success over the past 12 months has given England genuine cause for hope that with careful planning it can run Australia close. The packed Test itinerary in South Africa — five Tests crammed into 40 days — has visibly strengthened the English side's resolve. The tour was, by far, the toughest undertaken by Vaughan's team.

The series also underlined England's strengths, notably Vaughan's qualities as captain, Andrew Strauss' batting, Andrew Flintoff's spirit, Matthew Hoggard's ability to seize the initiative. The last two took 49 wickets between them. It was England's first series win in South Africa in three attempts after the latter's return to the Test fold, while its last triumph had come under M. J. K. Smith some forty seasons ago.