Unbeatable at home


SPORT is sustained by the very idea of unpredictability. Into its soul is sewn the mantra, 'Anything can happen'. Character can subdue talent, and courage can overcome form. In the chaos of conflict, lesser men find the nerve for big deeds; powered by ambition the anonymous man embraces the heroic. It is less a miracle than a measure of the human spirit.

That's all very nice, but there is no way England is going to win the Ashes. Chance has left town and opportunity is too scared to knock. Even unpredictability has its limits.

An optimistic Nasser Hussain might look for a sporting analogy and triumphantly point to Uruguay walking into the Maracana Stadium in 1950 and defeating Brazil in a World Cup final in front of 199,854 people. He would be wrong, this is even harder. A bit like expecting Michael Chang to win Wimbledon, a feat so absurd that John McEnroe was willing to drop his shorts on centre court if it happened.

Of course, this has less to do with England, withered as they are by injury, as it has to do with Australia. Beating them in cricket, at home, has become the ultimate examination in cricket, and one of sports' greatest trials. It is akin to humbling Pete Sampras on grass, or sneaking past Manchester United at Old Trafford, or holding off Michael Jordan in Chicago. More people have gone off the Niagara Falls in barrels than accomplished those feats.

England's test is of nerve, but also of technique. Marcus Trescothick does not have a future with the English Ballet because his feet seem perpetually caught in quicksand; it does not seem to have bothered him, but that is also because he has never met Glenn McGrath at Perth or Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney for that matter. Then again, Graeme Pollock was no tap dancer either, but averaged over 60.

But with Australia, much of the damage is done before a ball is bowled. The assault is aimed less at the rib-cage than at the mind. It is not preconceived, or a deliberate one, it is just there. The moment players land here, they are looked up and down, and quickly measured up. It can be an uncomfortable feeling.

There is no rudeness in this hard land, but there is no band or baaja either; welcome here usually comes in the form of a question. As in Dear Nasser, will you be happy to win one Test? Or simply, having just arrived are you ready to go home? For Hussain, interrogations by Clarence Darrow would be more comforting.

It does not stop either. There is no pampering, or pats on the bat. Barring the British Embassy, there are no free meals to be had here. In India, the press is gracious to visitors (though some would say we fawn); in Australia no such respect is accorded. It is said the Australians hunt as a pack, that the press, players, public, work in unison towards a common goal. It is not intentional, nor is it an accusation, but it is true.

On the third, or fourth day after England's arrival, a major Melbourne newspaper ran a series of three photographs, of English players dropping catches in practice. It was hilarious, and it was cruel, a sort of perverse delight. If you waited long enough you could take similar pictures of Jonty Rhodes or Ricky Ponting or Mark Waugh: even the best drop catches, especially in practice, but there was something amusing but pointed to their publication.

No one thinks England is very good, and mostly they are right, but it is constantly articulated. Whatever flaws England has, they are reminded of it on radio, at nets, at play, in the newspapers. Steve Harmison bowled seven wides in a row, and 16 in total, in the first tour match. It was then suggested he was a nervous fellow. It was thereafter mentioned that Hussain, in the next match, had to keep talking to this strapping, young fast bowler to reassure him, like a mother taking a child's hand to cross the road. It was like being psychologically stripped in public.

It also sent a message: this was the new, big fellow who was going to unsteady Australia? C'mon.

There is a natural impertinence to the Australians, but they have also earned their swagger. Big talk is easier to swallow when backed by bigger deeds. England, like other teams coming here, are not just told they will lose. But by how much.

It is easy to get unsettled. Hussain said he turned off the TV in his sister's home in Perth when Australia had Pakistan 8/40 in Sharjah. He must fold newspapers too which repeat endlessly that England has lost its last seven Ashes series. And then, unlike other teams who say they will be content with a series win, Steve Waugh has the effrontery to speak of a 5-0 clean-sweep. For Hussain, it is like a broken bottle sitting in the stomach. Antacids are useless.

Hussain operates from a position of weakness, and if he does not know that, it is made clear to him. He cannot extol the virtues of his players too sharply because the Australians will fall over laughing (Australia almost beat India in India, England couldn't do so in England); moreover, their injuries resemble an army after a battle, and this one has yet to begin. The England captain also cannot undermine the Australians because that is like saying Sampras in his prime had an uneasy backhand. He said the ageing Waughs would be under pressure, not so much a cheap shot as a powerless one, whose impact has eroded with Steve's century against Pakistan and Mark's departure.

In short, Hussain has no weapons, a David against Goliath with no stone or sling in sight. He has brought a host of players who have never played Australia before, bolstered by the logic they carry no old scars; then again, Australia makes a living sacrificing such virgins. As I write, the first Test has not begun, and already the English must feel wounded, their spirit under scrutiny, and January, when they return home, is another calendar away. Perhaps they will be stirred to fine deeds, dragged to greatness by the stubborn Hussain, or quietly bow to the inevitable, and go away wondering what is so bloody "lucky" about this country.

Whatever, across the world, other teams will not laugh at England. The bruises in their memory of Australian summers gone by have not faded yet.