The Ashes series has turned into the ultimate test for this England side. Their comeback in India last year was remarkable. But to do it again in this environment is very different.
In India you do not have a crowd baying for your blood, a media as aggressive as the Australian press, a bowler like Mitchell Johnson sending down 93mph thunderbolts at your throat, an Australian captain desperate to win his first Ashes series or players such as David Warner and Shane Watson who have had enough of England chirping away at them.
England have given Australia plenty of abuse over the past three series and they believe it is payback time. It is England’s senior players I worry about. Graeme Swann, Matt Prior, James Anderson, Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook have won so many series and are legends of English cricket. They will be able to sail into new careers and be feted as great England cricketers because they won three Ashes series, a Twenty20 World Cup and a Test series in India.
Now, though, those senior players have to ask if they are up for the fight on this trip or are they just going to roll over and let Australia win. Can they show Joe Root, Michael Carberry, Steven Finn, Gary Ballance and Ben Stokes that England are here to play a ballsy brand of cricket and show the courage required to fight back?
Swann, Prior and Anderson are the spine of the team. You arrive in Australia and know what you are going to get from them. But they did not deliver in Brisbane and looked in that match as if they had lost a bit of edge. For the sake of the team, they have to be the driving force in the nets working harder than anyone. I hope there has been honesty in the England dressing room.
You can talk to the coaches for advice, but ultimately in a team as experienced as this one the proper work is done during face-to-face meetings between players. Ask colleagues: “Are you up for the fight?” Demand from each other that you have to be prepared for the challenge. Why is this the ultimate test? Well, because you can get hurt by someone like Johnson.
In India, your pride can be hurt by a mystery spinner making you look foolish but here you can be damaged physically. Fast bowling is a unique challenge. When you have an issue against spin, as England did a year ago in Ahmedabad, putting it right is good fun in the nets. You go and work on it, get men around the bat, play on dusty decks and hit sweep shots, working out a method by repetitive practice.
Then, when you get out in the middle, it is a mental battle over whether you can cope with pressure of the crowd and the moment. However, when you have an issue against pace, the thunderbolt throat balls, practice is unpleasant. You are bombed in the nets and have to wear a few on the body. The one thing as a batsman that you do not want on your CV is that you struggle against the short ball and quick bowling.
You dread such a black mark because it questions your technique and ticker. Against fast bowling you need a calm exterior, but inside your blood has to be boiling. You need to be bouncing around with boxer’s mentality ready for a fight. I want to see that in every batsman when they get to the crease in Adelaide.
Fight, execution of shot, understanding the fields set and not taking the easy option by saying: “This is just the way I play”. I want them to be tough on themselves. If you look at England’s top seven most of them had some form of success, albeit for a limited time, in Brisbane. Only Trott and Prior were all over the place. Trott has gone now and his replacement will be untested in such conditions. That can be a good thing. Play without fear.
Prior, however, has got to be tough on himself. He has opted for the easy option so far by going out and playing a few shots to get himself back in form. The hard option is to battle for a while and put a huge value on your wicket for the team. Saying to himself “I am not the Prior of old — I can’t play expansive shots”, is tough. For a long period he has played brilliantly, hitting everything through the gaps. He looked like Adam Gilchrist.
Now, when things are not going his way, the only way to get back into form is to earn the right to play that expansive game. Fight and occupy the crease. Do not give your wicket away so easily. If he continues to play in the same fashion as at the Gabba he will expose the tail to Johnson. He has to stand up and play a more mature game and grind out an ugly innings.
What we are seeing at the moment is the gulf between county and Test cricket. In County cricket you face medium pace, and the odd bouncer. When you step up to Test cricket it is a massive gap because of the pace factor. Players are better mentally prepared these days for Test cricket and the transition looks easier but that is because we do not have many genuine pace bowlers in the modern game.
Now, through the skills of Johnson, we are seeing what Test match cricket is all about. I saw in Brisbane from Cook, Carberry, Root and Ian Bell enough expertise and calmness under pressure that suggested they can score lots of runs against this Australian team. But the one thing England cannot do is think they are going to improve simply by reminding themselves they have won the last three Ashes series.
Look back to 2010-11 in Australia and England were successful with an attritional brand of cricket, restricting runs with the ball and batting doggedly for a long period of time. But they were facing a bowling attack that did not have any venom and a batting line up past its sell-by date. I sense England felt they could come here again and play the same brand of cricket and win.
But you have to evolve as a team and realise that Australia knew exactly how England would play. Now England have to change. Attritional cricket will not work now. They have to be more expansive and aggressive: bowl a fuller length for the first 25 overs, gambling on conceding more runs against taking more wickets.
Michael Clarke has been a part of four out of five series losses and he has clearly had enough. He is thinking this is his time. Not only can he win this series with a great brand of cricket but he also knows he probably will not survive if he loses again. He is fighting for his captaincy and you have to give him a huge amount of credit for the way his team came out and played positively and ultra aggressive.
So now, this England team has to think about how to respond in Adelaide. There is only one way. We talk about Aussie mongrel. Well, it is time the England mongrel came out. That British passion is a strength of this team and I want to see it.
– The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2013