Cow Corner rather likes that ad – because when an Ashes series approaches you do find yourself counting down the days (there’s a little Mike Gatting-inspired pie in every window of Cowers’ Ashes advent calendar). You wonder what history will be written, who will emerge with their reputations enhanced or tarnished, and what homework the Australians will be set between games.
And yet. And yet.
Father Christmas isn’t real, and while the Ashes are, it is true to say that the pre-series hype hasn’t sat quite as well as usual.
As one journalist put it in the build-up, dragging this series back into context, this is the equivalent of a Merseyside derby. In its own right, Liverpool v Everton means plenty to both sets of fans, but at present with the Manchester and London giants running the game, the matches are played with precious little riding on it beyond the result itself.
England are the number three side in the world, Australia number four. There’s a tradition and a history behind the clash that’s like few others in world sport, but in the larger scale of things it will tell us little than what sort of trajectories these two sides are on.
Actually, judging by day one’s play, the comparison to a Premier League match is actually somewhat apt.
This was the chaos of the top flight, the self-styled ‘most exciting league in the world’. Attack ruled defence – passion largely trumped technique. There was carnage, but it was largely needless. It started from the top, with Alastair Cook gifting his wicket, and the rot continued long into the evening.
And there even the same tired quips about the game being too full of foreigners, especially when Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott were united at the crease.
The comparison is not intended to do a disservice to the bowling, which was impressive at times – James Pattinson has the ability to be the best player on show in this series, while Peter Siddle’s work is usually unprepossessing and quietly effective. James Anderson’s delivery to account for Michael Clarke could scarcely have been more perfect had it been mapped on Hawk-Eye the day before.
But when 14 wickets fall on the first day on a pitch hailed as something of a road, and nobody manages a half-century, you also have to question the batting.
Batting seems to be a lost art these days. It’s as if batsmen have spent so long playing on roads that it only takes a single deviation from perfect (today it was swing in the overcast conditions) to wreak havoc to the wickets column.
Perhaps the only crumb of comfort for England is that they’re so used to these underwhelming performances from the batting order (and never more so than in the opening dig of a Test series) that the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and Graeme Swann will be prepared to bail them out of trouble.
Andy Flower’s record as England coach has precious few blemishes. But as Cow Corner documented earlier this year, first-day showings with the bat is one of them.
Today exposed the frailties rather of both sides. England have a batting order which, despite individually boasting some of the most impressive statistics ever produced by men with the lions on their chest, somehow contrives to fold with alarming ease. Australia have a batting line-up shorn of its former talent and held together by sticking plaster – almost literally in the case of captain Clarke and his injured back.
Australia are also in such a twirl on the spin front that on the first day of the Ashes they chose to hand a debut to a 19-year-old left-armer with 10 first-class matches to his name, Ashton Agar. Another spinning prospect, Fawad Ahmed, was meanwhile fast-tracked as an Australian citizen, given his passport and could yet feature in the series.
In the Premier League those kinds of deficiencies are ruthlessly exposed when the teams get into Europe, and the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich scythe their way through in the Champions League at the expense of England’s top four.
As England found against South Africa, they’re some way short of being the world’s best. As Australia discovered in India as they lost 4-0, they’re a little bit further away still.
Did the quality matter, though? Not to the fans, who were too busy enjoying the entertainment. Trent Bridge was packed to the rafters and in full voice, never more so than when the hosts finally got a foothold in the cloudy Nottingham evening.
Now, as the opening skirmishes are processed and analysed, those tactical problems and technical deficiencies seem more pronounced. But as play continued and the game moved at breakneck speed from one drama to the next, with momentum swinging pendulum-like from one side to the other. It was thrilling, and all the more so because you felt that the country was finally invested in a cricket series after so long spent watching other sports enjoy the limelight.
14 wickets in a day? To borrow a phrase from football: Cricket. Bloody hell.
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