Friday, November 24, 2006

Ashes Fever

Ah, Cricket. The thump of leather on willow and all that. For anyone who's never got to grips with this game, last summer you missed the greatest sporting spectacle of all time: a contest between two groups of men which lasted for two months, and where the result was still in doubt until lunchtime on the very last day. And at the end, England managed, for the first time in realy 20 years, to beat Australia, their great rivals and the best team in the game.

Loads has been written about it, but two things in particular struck me, from the first day of the first match (which England lost). The first was the second ball. After all the buildup and anticipation, English bowler Steve Harmison managed to hit the Australian opening batsman with the ball so hard that it left him needing stitches on the side of the head. The batsman carried on batting regardless. It set the tone for the series: both sides going at each other hammer and tongs, throwing everyting into the competition, giving no quarter and expecting none in return. And yet, all done in the best possible spirit of sportsmanship.

After all the hope and buildup, England started brilliantly, by bowling Australia out in two sessions for a meagre 190 - an excellent result for a bowling side, and a great opportunity to start the series with a win. Then in just a few minutes, all that hope whas punctured, when one Australian bowler bowled out half of the England side for just 21 runs. Enter a man who had never played a test match before, and who was regarded as very much the unsafe selection: Kevin Pietersen. He was already well-known for his panache and style in one-day cricket, where his attacking, unorthadox approach to the game earned him a hatful of runs. But to see him striding out at this point brought a shudder to most of the commentators: all the wisdom of cricket says that at 21 for 5, the last thing you want is a cocky, agressive debutant; you want an experienced campaigner who can play defensively and steady the ship. All the people who advised against the inclusion of Pietersen had cautioned against exactly this: what happens if he comes in at, say, 60 for 4 - does he have the temperament to ride out a storm and play safely and sensibly?

Well, it turned out that he did, at least for a while. But he did far better than that. While all the other England batsmen collapsed in the face of an onslaught from three of the world's finest bowlers, Pietersen came out fighting and took them all on, hitting each of them in turn out of the ground. He was eventually out to a brilliant catch right on the boundary rope, while going for a second successive six off the bowling of Shane Warne, arguably the best bowler in the history of cricket.

In the end, England lost the match by the substantial margin of 239 runs: their bowlers failed to repeat their earlier heroics in Australia's second innings, and their batsmen were once again skittled out for a tiny total. Only one batsman reached fifty - but that was Pietersen, who once again, took on the bowlers agressively and got the upper hand against each of them.

England lost the match, but went on to win the series; two key things from the first match pointed the way. Before the first test, Australia had acquired an aura of invincibility. But even in defeat, England in the first test had proven that Australia were beatable. First, following on from Harmison's aggression, they had demonstrated that their bowlers were capable of getting Australia out for a beatable total; and secondly, when all the other batsmen were getting out, Pietersen showed that by sheer agression it was possible to beat the Australian bowlers.

In the next match, England batted first. From the outset, every one of them followed Pietersen's lead and batted aggressively. England scored over 400 in a day - a feat which hadn't been achieved for years - and went on to win the match (just). The rest is history - and it was fitting in a way that it was Pietersen who, on the final day of the series, once again took on the Australian bowlers and bludgeoned a fantastic 158 to save a crumbling innings and snatch away Australia's last chance of drawing the series and hence retaining the historical Ashes trophy.

But isn't it interesting how often the seeds of ultimate victory can be found even in the depths of defeat?


Post a Comment

<< Home