Ponting's side maintains its rage

Australia worked hard in preparation. Ponting took his side to a boot camp, urged senior men to keep playing, developed plans with John Buchanan, his underestimated coach. Peter Roebuck on the Ashes series.

England suffered its worst Ashes defeat since the series staged in the aftermath of the Great War. Those matches were lopsided affairs played between a hungry side and a hungry nation. In 1921 Australia was led by Warwick Armstrong a leader whose nickname, "The Big Ship", scarcely did him justice. He was larger than life itself. Armstrong was not much of a fellow for the niceties. Instead he let loose a powerful pace attack and the force of his own personality. Australia won 5-0. No one thought it could happen again. Least of all when England was holding the trophy and playing against "Dad's Army".

But age had not wearied the 2006/7 Australians. Indeed it rekindled their desire. Champions hate to leave the stage on a sour note. Moreover Australia had several astonishing cricketers at its disposal, including a legendary spinner, a pinpoint paceman and a dashing gloveman. None was used to defeat, not to anyone, let alone England. Everyone knew that the side was bound to break up soon. But there was enough time left for one last memorable campaign. And so the great men set a trap that only their opponents did not spot.

It did not take the Australians long to recover from their setback in 2005. Within a fortnight they had dusted themselves off and started all over again. The defeated leader was given an opportunity to right his ship. Australian cricket captains are not lightly sacked. In 2004 the team had been put in the hands of a worthy successor to Armstrong, a warrior named Ricky Ponting. Raised in the backblocks of Tasmania's second city, Ponting realised that his reputation rested upon his ability to recapture the urn. Throughout his career he had known only victory. Now he faced his greatest challenge.

Ponting devoted himself to the task of recovering the urn. His first step was to admit that England had deserved to win. He howled on the field but off it faced the truth. Honesty is part of his character. Years before he had called a press conference to admit that he drank too much. Now he set about the task of improving his side with the same intent.

Australia worked hard in preparation. Ponting took his side to a boot camp, urged senior men to keep playing, developed plans with John Buchanan, his underestimated coach. No stone was left unturned. Weaknesses were corrected. In 2005, Australia's ageing speedsters had been ineffective. A bowling coach was appointed, pinched from under the noses of a complacent opponent, and replacements were found. A second defeat was unthinkable.

Ponting's players matched their captain's commitment. Several knew they had only one more vigorous campaign left in them. And so they trained and practised and waited, great players reaching into themselves for one last effort.

Meanwhile the victors of 2005 bathed in champagne. Far from rejoicing for a week before getting back to work, England fell away. It had been the same in the rugby. Everything was directed towards a single event. Hardly realising the magnitude of the task awaiting them, unaware that sport demands constant renewal, England stood still. In some areas they went backwards. Yet the Ashes had been won only by a whisker.

England arrived without its captain and without one of its fastest bowlers. Before long Marcus Trescothick had departed. Already the campaign was falling apart. Nor was it all bad luck. England brought the same old players, same old field placements and same old plan. Never mind that the spinner had not played for months, or that the support pacemen and gloveman were lightweights. Old tactics were used. As soon as Matthew Hayden took guard, a man was placed at short cover. Shane Warne's appearance provoked a barrage of bumpers. They took them for fools.

And so England went from bad to worse. Ponting's side maintained its rage from Brisbane to Sydney. Indeed its last performance was its most daunting as England was dismembered before lunch on the fourth day. And then the players celebrated and went their separate ways, some into retirement, others towards the next match, the captain back to his home to contemplate a job well done. England was left to lick its wounds, some of them self-inflicted.