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Ignore the hype – these are England’s Ashes

Ignore the hype – these are England’s Ashes

CHOO CHOO

“Wait, what’s that?”

As Christmas approaches, you might be forgiven for wondering if the faint whistle you hear as the snow begins to fall is that of the mystical Polar Express steaming along. Christmas spirit, Christmas cheer!

Alas, you could not be more wrong.

No, this is not what you are hearing. Image courtesy Matt Johnson on Flickr.

No, it’s nothing Christmassy, or vaguely interesting for that matter. It’s just the Australian hype train, tooting louder and louder as it chugs over the tracks, heading inexorably for total oblivion.

Pre-series wars of words are always drab in international sport, but nobody does mind-numbing tedium with the relentless efficiency of the Australian players and media.

Which leads me to question: Why? Why do they feel the need to do this? Why must we repeat this exasperating routine with the predictability of a mid-game Andy Murray grimace?

They do it because they are worried. And well they should be.

Ignore the hype, and forget the experts (that one’s for you, Mr Gove), England are coming home with the Ashes.

Andy Murray reacts to the latest wave of hot air blowing over from Australia. Image courtesy of habervideotv on Flickr.

Australian Panic

All the pre-series chatter predictably focussed around the absence of Ben Stokes, but the make-up of England’s side is pretty much settled upon for the first Test.

The same can’t be said of Australia, whose erratic selection panel have landed upon the perfect mathematical formula for complete disarray. Talented opener Matt Renshaw has been dropped for debutant Cameron Bancroft. Wicketkeeper Tim Paine has been ferried back from the underworld by Charon for his first Test appearance in 7 millennia. Shaun Marsh has been recalled for the 950th time to plug a middle order gap with an even larger middle order gap.

Chaos theory. Good stuff selectors.

English Serenity

By contrast, the English side is largely settled. Mark Stoneman is the new Andrew Strauss but better, and Dawid Malan has nailed down the 5 spot by dispatching teenagers to the boundary ropes in warm-up matches. Stokes’s absence is a shame, but opens the door for Woakes, Moeen and Bairstow to move up the order, and another bowler to show that they are equally angry and prone to profanity as our dear Ben.

Winkling out Wickets

For all that Mitchell Johnson brought fire and brimstone in the last Tour down under, the metronomic control of Ryan Harris at the other end stemmed the run rate and tied down the England batsman.

Then enter into the equation that Tim Bresnan (the cricketing equivalent of James Milner) had an unbelievable series in Australia, and you realise it isn’t that difficult after all.

Broad and Anderson may not have express speed, but they are cunning operators – and are far less likely to break down with injury during the series. And for all that Cummins and Starc are quick, their bowling will be far more likely to disappear to the boundary should they get it wrong.

Stuart Broad is very good at cricket. Image courtesy of Windies Cricket on Flickr.

How they compare:

So, all things considered, how does a composite Australia-England XI actually look?

David Warner vs Alastair Cook

One is angry, punchy and moustachioed, one is handsome, stoic and clean-shaven. Unfortunately the former is scoring far more runs.

Cameron Bancroft vs Mark Stoneman

Two Ashes debutants, but Stoneman’s experience and rock-solid personality means he partners Warner at the top of our order.

Usman Khawaja vs James Vince

James Vince is about as reliable as Robert Mugabe reading a resignation speech. Khawaja all the way.

Steve Smith vs Joe Root

Steve. Smith. Most boring name in the world? Yes. Most overrated player in the world? Maybe. National treasure and God’s messenger on earth like Joe Root? Absolutely not.

Peter Handscomb vs Dawid Malan

Battle of the incredibly average nobody’s. Give it to Handscomb, though I’m not sure anybody cares.

Tim Paine vs Jonny Bairstow

Tim is not even the most famous T-Pain in the world. The ginger messiah crushes his opposite number under the sheer weight of never-ending runs.

Shaun Marsh vs Chris Woakes

Mismatch as they won’t occupy the same place in the order, but Chris Woakes is mustard and has only been dropped once by England. Shaun Marsh gets dropped three times a year.

Lyon vs Moeen Ali

Sometimes, cricket isn’t that important. Moeen’s beard 1 – Nathan Lyon’s beard – 0.

The beard that is feared. Image courtesy of Jumpy News on Flickr

Mitchell Starc – Craig Overton/Jake Ball

Begrudgingly, Mitchell Starc is quite good at cricket.

Pat Cummins – Stuart Broad

Pat Cummins is as likely to tear his hamstring while eating his cheerios as to take wickets, so as he sits out most of the series injured Stuart will be making Broad inroads into the Australian batting.

Josh Hazlewood – James Anderson

Jimmy is one of the greatest bowlers in the history of Test cricket. Josh Hazlewood is a village cricket pie-chucker. No comparison.

 

England to win the series 3-2 and retain the Ashes. No draws because nobody can bat.

 

Could social media save english cricket?

For cricket fans the world over, 2005 evokes every superlative in the cliché book. The Greatest Ashes Series of all time, the series to end all series, theatre on an unparalleled scale in the history of cricket.

What a load of nonsense. The 2005 Ashes is the worst thing that ever happened to cricket. It’s the year that cursed a generation.

Ever since that fateful summer, my relationship with the gentleman’s game has been tumultuous, confused and epitomised by endless frustration. Simply, it was too much too soon. As an 11 year old I watched in awe as everyone I knew (yes, even the year 6 cool kids) experienced a sort of religious cricket awakening. Suddenly everyone was talking about the Ashes, everyone wanted to play cricket all day.

But in a sickening twist of fate, what followed that euphoric summer was a gaping chasm and the haunting realisation that everything would simply never be that perfect again.

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A Natwest T20 Blast match between Hampshire and Glamorgan. Image courtesy of Warren Duffy on flickr

Cricket promptly disappeared from terrestrial TV to Sky, depriving the generation that followed mine of the ease of access to the sport that so captured the imagination that summer.

And now here we are, seemingly scratching around from week-to-week in search of a way to save the terribly British game of cricket, right here in Britain.

For those who watched that series, there were so many moments that were unforgettable:

Freddie Flintoff and that incendiary double-wicket over, Kevin Pietersen’s blonde Mohawk, Ian Bell waking drenched in sweat as Shane Warne haunted his nightmares, Simon Jones swinging the ball like it were Mark Ramprakash’s hips, Michael Clarke shouldering arms and having his off stump obliterated, Simon Katich shouldering arms and having his off stump obliterated, the King of Spain, Harmison’s slower ball, Woodworm bats – I’m not sure a single member of my colt team didn’t buy a Woodworm bat in 2005– that summer could not conceivably have been better.

image courtesy of intocricket on flickr

I don’t know what’s better, Freddie Flintoff’s smoulder, or that majestic Woodworm bat. image courtesy of intocricket on flickr

English Cricket has failed to replicate this ever since, and while the move away from Free-to-Air Television has doubtless stifled its exposure, it has been a broader failure to evolve how it speaks to younger audiences that has quickened the sport’s demise.

The Big Bash League has shown the positive impact that television coverage can have on the game – viewing figures and attendances have simultaneously soared in Australia – but there is a tendency to pin all the blame on TV and overlook other shortcomings. This is particularly pertinent with under 16’s in 2017 – they simply don’t consume news and information from the TV screen in the way we did a decade ago.

Cricket doesn’t hold the global appeal of football and doesn’t have a massively popular and engaging console series like FIFA or Football Manager to fall back on, so it needs to find more innovative ways to engage fans.

Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become the nerve centre which drives the news and sporting agenda for young people. If ever there was a time in which TV could be circumnavigated, it is in this age of social media. Other sports dominate these channels – Youtube has even made stars of vloggers who upload videos of them playing FIFA.

It’s incredible to think, but people playing football games in their bedroom pull in hundreds of thousands of viewers every day while many cricket counties struggle to fill out their grounds. Football is omnipresent, people know everything about it, and they are constantly consuming more information about it.

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The Indian Premier League and Big Bash in Australia have made cricket modern and accessible. image courtesy of BubbleOnFire on flickr.

Conversely, cricket is conspicuous by its absence. There is a pervasive, largely unchallenged notion that cricket is a dry, boring sport, something that few would have asserted a decade ago. Has the game become more boring? On the contrary, the perfection of the T20 format has created the perfect bite-size entry point for new fans.

But what has changed is the way we talk about cricket. At its best, cricket ebbs and flows, it provides tension, shock and theatre. But large swathes of the British public seem to have forgotten this. We need to communicate with a modern audience in a language they understand to fight these misconceptions.

Social media is awash with influencers who are interested in sport, not just You tubers and Instagrammers, but what about musicians too? Actors? Young people are constantly engaging with content from these figures and are being influenced by what they see.

Greg James is just one example of the kind of ambassador the sport needs. He’s a fantastic advocate for the game and has landed himself a role presenting on BT Sport. More assets of a similar profile could have a tangible impact on exposing the game.

Why not get influencers involved with England’s players, filming themselves in the nets with Jason Roy or Jos Buttler learning the game? Going along to a match with Greg James? People are so disengaged from cricket in this country that there is a unique opportunity to educate people and rebrand the sport in the process. Cricket is tongue-in-cheek and accessible, it’s a game that lends itself to oddities and humour.

Cricket needs more advocates in the media like Greg James, but preferably with sleeves on. image courtesy of Ric Sumner on flickr

Cricket needs more advocates in the media like Greg James, but preferably with sleeves on. image courtesy of Ric Sumner on flickr

The Big Bash and Indian Premier League are proof that cricket holds mass appeal. I genuinely believe that if we get people watching and playing the game, some will not be able to help but fall in love with it.

The raw materials are there to make cricket a resounding success in England. A formidably talented generation of players are coming into their prime, including the fiery Ben Stokes – heir apparent to Flintoff, and the extraordinarily explosive Jos Buttler, renowned for swatting the ball dismissively out of the ground. The Women’s game in the UK is professional, and has made huge leaps in recent years.

The tools are there to catapult cricket back to the levels of 2005. Social media is just one avenue to achieve this, but one that can make a palpable difference if treated seriously and harnessed effectively by the powers running cricket.

 

Business as usual for Cook’s England

Cricket! And what’s in store for Captain Cook’s men? The opportunity to reach hero status once more, just as the tribe did under Strauss’ direction when they retained the Ashes in Australia in 2010/11.

Albeit overshadowed slightly by stories of transfer deadlines, wage battles and poor refereeing in the mainstream sports news agenda, a national passion for cricket is undoubtedly still present and this will continue to build further as we edge closer to the Ashes Tour. Hats off also to the ever-faithful Barmy Army, currently serving time in New Zealand, whose trumpeting tones are a refreshing reminder that the gentleman’s game still attracts an impressive level of support, while never taking itself too seriously.

As a lifelong cricket fan myself, I am always pleased to speak to others who follow the sport all year round and not just as an excuse for an all-inclusive trip to Australia or a session of Aussie-bashing. Having said that, when Clarke brings his men here this summer, I will not shy away from joining in, regardless of my girlfriend’s nationality. “Can I wear my Australia shirt to Lords? No”.

This summer, I predict business as usual for England. Thankfully, recent English success against Australia means I can say this with a sizeable degree of certainty. While I’m sure each test will be as hard-fought as always, with ‘Mitchell Johnson’ chants ringing around every ground that he visits, I cannot help but predict an England victory before many have even looked further than the current series in NZ. As much as I would love to go on about the multitude of strengths of each player in the England squad, the main reason for my placing us as firm favourites this summer is not so much due to our fantastic bowling attack and ever-improving top seven, but more so due to the lack of form and poor discipline from our opponents; the latter of which has been well-documented over the last few weeks. So here I will give my reasons as to why Australia will not win the Ashes, as opposed to why England will.

First and foremost, Australia have just been beaten 3-0 by India; a side which England beat 2-1 earlier in the cricket calendar. I am aware that this was England’s first series win in India since 1984 but the manner in which we won – and the fact that James Anderson’s nine dismissals of once-God Sachin Tendulkar edged the 39 year old closer to retirement – were extremely impressive.

Australia’s performance during their tour of India suggests that their problem is not so much batting, although their opening pair in the form of Cowan and Warner is anything but orthodox. Rather, their bowling attack is a major cause for concern. Yes, Siddle is top class; an old-fashioned, aggressive fast bowler, although a questionable character, but Mitchell Johnson? He has never really put forward a solid reason as to why he continues to be picked. I’ve never seen a bowler capitulate, take a wicket with a full toss, and further capitulate quite to the standard of Johnson. Now he’s been sent home for not doing his homework, so I’m not sure where that leaves him; probably tied up in detention.

At one point I viewed Mitchell Starc as a hot prospect, as is often the case when a young new player enters the fray. But watching him go for 50 off 10 for no return in the final innings of the last test was a ‘starc’ reminder of the problems Australia face in the bowling department.

Lyon and Doherty: spinners who don’t. I position Matt Prior as on a par with Mahendra Singh Dhoni as a wicket-keeper batsman. I also like to think that Prior will take apart the Australian spinners to a similar extent, as will KP…if his love of the big-stage still remains.

Watson, although not the most popular guy amongst opposition (and also known for slacking on the homework front), is a batsman with talent that no-one can knock. With natural ability and an aesthetically pleasing cover drive, he, along with Clarke, will be under pressure to score ‘big hundreds’ so that the bowling mediocrity has some sort of insurance.

I thought Clarke spoke exceptionally well with regard to the recent ill-discipline of four of his team. He is Cricket Australia’s saving grace; a great man and a great cricketer. If the Australian side have anything to celebrate at the moment, it’s Captain Clarke. Let’s hope he’s around for a while longer.

People will point out the inexperience in the Australian team and throw around clichés like ‘building for the future’ and ‘promising young players’. Yes, they are inexperienced, but with the first Ashes test under four months away, experience will not be gained between now and then. I must also point out that I don’t think the younger players are particularly promising.

Under Alistair Cook, English cricket is becoming the pride of the country, which makes a nice change.

My prediction for this summer…..England to win the series 3-0 and the weather taking the obligatory 2 matches.

 

Word by Ben Cossor.