Apologies may be in order. A few weeks ago, I was advocating aid for Australia. As we had set the place up, we had a duty when this once-proud daughter house was sliding into decline. We used criminals to get the country going, which worked well. Hard, amoral characters, they built a nation in their own image. That was Australia for two centuries: hard, amoral – and good at cricket.
Then everything seemed to be going wrong. Perhaps it was the southern sun’s fault: melting down toughness and leaving a vacuum for decadence. It was time for the mother country to come to the rescue with fresh supplies of convicts (we have plenty). With their restorative blood-lines, the hardness might return and the Aussies should be capable of playing proper cricket again, in fifty years or so.
Well, my anxieties may have been premature. It has been an astonishing series, worth analysis as well as sackcloth and ashes. The first point is that the Australians’ achievement is all the greater, because they are not a great side. When we won the Ashes in 2005, the Aussies were fielding five players from the post-1918 Australia X1. (Try Hayden, Morris, Bradman, Ponting, Greg Chappell, Miller, Gilchrist, Lindwall, Warne, Lillee and McGrath, with Tiger O’Reilly as twelfth man/alternative to Lindwall.)
Despite five-nil, no-one from the current team forces his way into that line-up. Indeed, there are quite a few journeymen. Rogers, Watson, Bailey, Harris, Siddle, Lyon: none of them is remotely a world-class performer. Yet they gave a world-class performance: one for the annals and the record-books: one to keep the chain-gang cheering. They all played above themselves, as did Mitchell Johnson, who is now world class. But has there ever been a previous instance of a pace-bowler suddenly transforming his reputation when he was already over thirty?
The English side lacked pretenders to genius, unless you consider Pietersen, who is a genius, or a pretender. But Alastair Cook is – or was – in line to be the first Englishman to score 10,000 Test runs and score thirty Test centuries. Bell is as technically accomplished as any recent English batsman. Most of the rest were well-established, massively experienced and good at winning – or they were hugely promising: ie. young Root, now dropped.
Last summer, we beat the Aussies three-nil. Even if that may have been a flattering margin, there was still a good gap.
At the beginning of this series, only Michael Clarke would have featured in a combined X1. During the past five Tests, there has been a swing from 10:1 in England’s favour to – at best – 2:9. On current form, England would only provide Stokes, and possibly Broad.
This transformation helps us to understand cricket. It is a most deceptive game. To a casual observer, it will seem so gentle, so civilised. The players wear whites. There are intervals for lunch and tea. Around the boundary, whiskery old coves with beery suntans and ancient MCC ties are arguing about who opened for IZ against the Old Harrovians in 1955. “Well run, Sir.” It does seem to be the sporting equivalent of George Orwell’s old maids bicycling to Evensong.
For cricket at a higher level, this is wholly deceptive. Serious cricket can claim to be the most ruthless of sports, in that it puts its players under relentless psychological pressure. For a batsman who is out of form, it is a lonely walk to the wicket, and an even lonelier walk back, if yet again, in that most comfortless of euphemisms, he has failed to trouble the scorers. Sledging has been much complained of, and rightly so, but the worst, the most destructive, sledging comes from the voices inside the batsman’s own head. During this series, two English players broke under pressure. Among former cricketers, there is a high suicide rate.
Pressure: that is the key. A Test match is played in two places simultaneously: on the field, and in the mind. This is the real criticism of Alastair Cook, the real worry about his powers of captaincy. He never seemed to trouble the Aussies’ minds. Cricketers often agree that a target of 150 in the fourth innings can be daunting. In the later stages of a match, Melbourne is never a generous wicket, and to win, the Australians had to make 231. That is when a proper captain finds the way to exert pressure. It is hard; he has to set attacking fields and he cannot spare many fours. But somehow, he has got to break through inside the enemy’s heads, so that 150 feels like 450.
Cook failed abjectly. He did not appear to have a clue how to use his main bowlers. Had he lost confidence in them, or had they lost confidence in themselves? In his field placements and bowling changes, he was poodling around; the Wilkins Micawber school of captaincy – something might turn up. In that match, at least, Anderson was economical. He should have been bowling until his boots were full of blood: until his feet fell off. As it was, something did turn up – the Australian scoring rate. Rogers and Watson sauntered home.
English heads were always vulnerable. The Aussies were never dismissed for less than 200; we were, six times. When that happens, you tend to lose five-nil. Is there something wrong in the dressing room? What about Pietersen? When he is on song – the willow warbler, perhaps – it seems effortless. When he is not playing well, there seems to be no effort. Is he like Geoff Boycott: would he too prefer it if cricket were not a team game?
If the problem is morale, there might be a solution: Michael Heseltine. It is December 1985, at one of Jeffrey Archer’s Christmas parties. It is also the height of the Westland affair, when a West Country helicopter firm briefly threatened to bring down Margaret Thatcher. Hezza had been locking horns with her. At Jeffrey’s, Norman Lamont tells me that Michael will resign. ‘Balls.’ ‘You’re wrong. You mark my words. This will end up with him going.’
So I stroll across the room to test the atmosphere. ‘Congratulations, Michael. You have twisted the Prime Ministerial tail as it has never been twisted before. But you can’t win. You’ve got to leave yourself an escape route.’ Hezza’s mane blazed. ‘I shall do no such thing. There is no question of escape routes. I am going to win.’
‘[Expletive deleted] me,’ thought I. ‘Lamont is right. We have the irresistible object meeting the immovable force. When one of them is the PM, she takes the trick.’
The then leading slow bowler in England, Phil Edmonds, had been listening to us. He was impressed – with Michael. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘we are shortly off to the West Indies, and no-one gives us a chance. Everyone thinks we’ll be slaughtered. Will you come and give us a pep-talk?’
‘I will, and I’ll tell you what you must do. You must make defeat a psychological impossibility. You must eat, breath and sleep victory. Victory for breakfast, victory for lunch, victory for dinner. Banish any thought of defeat. That is the way to win.’
So: in the current travails, the planners at Lord’s could do worse than send for Lord Heseltine. But there are a couple of caveats. Michael did lose his battle, and whether or not the pep-talk took place, England were butchered, though by a great side: one of those West Indian teams which was both immovable and irresistible. But that will not apply to this summer’s Sri Lankans and Indians. Whether or not Michael Heseltine has a role, the current crisis of morale cannot and must not be insoluble.