It’s not easy. Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Frank Tyson, Jim Laker and Tony Lock. Not a bad attack, most people would agree. How did they get on in Australia in 1958-59? Well, the result was four-nil. To Australia.
Or there are Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff and Ashley Giles, four of the famous five who helped England win The Ashes in 2005, for the first time in eighteen years. How did they do Down Under a mere eighteen months later? Not quite so well: this time it was five-nil to the hosts.
Sri Lanka, with Test cricket’s leading wicket- taker, and the leading slow left arm wicket taker, plus two batsmen with over eleven thousand Test match runs? Not only have they yet to win a Test series, they haven’t won a single match; they have managed two draws in thirteen attempts
That’s the thing about Australia. It’s no respecter of persons, or of reputations. Alastair Cook and James Anderson, on whom so many hopes are pinned as England, prepare to travel there in just a few weeks time, have both performed heroic feats in Australia. But the last time they were there, in 2013-14, Cook averaged 24 with the bat and Anderson 43 with the ball. The other way round would have been great; as it was the numbers had “Ashes losers” all over them, reflected in another five- nil whitewash.
Ask the highly vaunted Indians how to win a Test series in Australia? Ask away. They’ve been trying since 1947-48 and have yet to win a single one. To be fair, they have come close, particularly in 2003-04. But overall, they’ve won just five Tests out of forty-four played there.
Pakistan have likewise failed to win a series in Australia. They too have come close. In 1976-77 they squared a three match series in Sydney after losing the second Test, at Melbourne by 348 runs. There is a bit of a clue here as to when Australia are vulnerable: Ian Chappell, Ian Redpath and Ashley Mallett had all retired; Jeff Thomson suffered a severe injury while fielding in the first Test, and missed the rest of the series. For Pakistan, in that victory at Sydney, one of the all-time greats, Imran Khan, took twelve wickets.
Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have each toured once, playing two Tests and losing both.
In every respect the relationship between Australia and New Zealand is a special one. In cricketing terms this was exemplified by the fact that for many years Australia simply refused to play their antipodean neighbours. In 1945-46 Bill Brown took a second-string Australian side to New Zealand and won the sole Test. New Zealand had to wait till 1972-73 for their first proper series. Their only series victory in Australia came in 1985-86. Again, the omens were in the visitors’ favour. Allan Border’s Australia were at genuine low ebb.
They had just lost The Ashes and their various playing elevens have a distinctly underwhelming look about them with , apart from Border , only Craig McDermott and Geoff Lawson offering much promise for the future. New Zealand, on the other hand, were probably as strong as they have ever been, with two genuinely world-class players in Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe. The visitors won the first Test at Brisbane and the third at Perth. At Brisbane, Hadlee took nine for 52 and six for 71; Crowe made 188. At Perth, Hadlee took five for 54 and six for 90; Crowe scored 71 and 42 not out. This is not to say that nobody else did anything. Far from it. But to beat Australia in Australia, your top performers have to stand up.
Between 1979 and about 1993 the West Indies were unchallenged as the best Test team . During that era they toured Australia five times, drawing the series in 1981-82 and winning the four others. But they have won no other series in Australia, not even during Gary Sobers’ long career.
That leaves the oldest rivals South Africa and England. Before Graeme Smith’s side arrived to face Ricky Ponting’s men in 2008-09, South Africa had played nine series in Australia and had won none of them, although they had secured some domineering wins at home over the years. But they won that series and two more since, most recently in 2016-17.
How did South Africa do it? A key factor is the captain. Smith was probably the best of his era, tough, insightful and tactically astute. There were batsmen prepared to fight it out and play long innings – Smith himself, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, Faf du Plessis. Just occasionally, with a winning side, there will be an unexpected contribution, involving a touch of something like genius – J P Duminy’s wonderful innings of 166 at Melbourne in 2008-09. Above all, perhaps, there has been the pace attack. South Africa have been blessed with a succession of outstanding fast bowlers, from Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn through Morne Morkel, to Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Kyle Abbott (now sadly lost to international cricket) . Spinners are an optional extra.
Three wins all came after Australia’s own period of dominance, which lasted roughly from 1993 to 2007. This does not mean that Australia are now a poor side – as they have, very occasionally, been in the past. Every team is entitled to go through what is politely referred to as a period of transition. No, Australia are not a bad team. They are just like the other top sides- some days they are really good and some days they are really bad.
Now, England. Let’s forget the early days when it was all rather different . Starting with the period beginning after the Great War ( well , yes, I suppose that was a while ago…) England won in 1928-29, 1932-33, 1954-55, 1970-71, 1978-79, 1986-87 and 2010-11.
One thing is immediately clear from this list. There are no periods of extensive dominance, of the type enjoyed by Australia at various points. This, of course, ignores the fact that England have actually – unprecedentedly – won four successive home Ashes series. But that serves simply to emphasise how hard it is to win in Australia. England have only once won two successive series in Australia, in 1928-29 and 1932-33 – and the latter was a special case.
The importance of a strong pace attack was stressed earlier. 1932-33 was perhaps the extreme example of that. This was the notorious “Bodyline” series when England devised a strategy, around the fast, short-pitched bowling of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, to counter the otherwise apparently invincible run-scoring powers of Don Bradman. Larwood in particular was exceptionally fast and he was almost lovingly handled by one of the greatest but most controversial of Test captains, the austere and ruthless Douglas Jardine.
Bodyline was swiftly outlawed and we have seen nothing quite like it since. But England’s next win, in 1954-55, had certain features in common with that earlier series. There was another highly resolute captain, the Yorkshire professional Len Hutton. There was a good blend of youth and experience. Above all, there was Tyson, for no more than seemingly a few months both freakishly quick and amazingly accurate. Paired with the skilful and persevering Statham, he proved irresistible against an Australian line up that was slightly short of the highest class.
There were comparisons in 1970-71 too. Another crafty Yorkshire man, Ray Illingworth, was in charge. England were probably the best team in the world right then. Illingworth had five players who could have walked into an England team of any era. – Geoff Boycott, John Edrich, Alan Knott, John Snow and Derek Underwood. The key performers, though, were Boycott and Snow. Boycott had the sheer bloody- mindedness that a batsman needs to get big runs in Australia: Cook, though a different sort of player, showed something similar in 2010-11. Snow was a great fast bowler at his absolute peak. Australia were, well, yes, in a transitional phase. Graham Mackenzie was at the end of his career. Ian Chappell took over as captain from Bill Lawry in the final Test of the series. They were about to turn the corner.
Not much needs to be said about 1978-79. Australia suffered more than England from the Packer saga and were no match for Mike Brearley’s highly competent tourists. 1986-87 was interesting. The truth is that neither side was especially good, but Australia were definitely worse. Ian Botham had enough in the locker to make a difference and David Gower had a good series too. Everything was about to change though. Australia started picking on character, rather than achievements in domestic cricket – Steve Waugh, Ian Healy – much as Duncan Fletcher was later to do for England. – and the long- suffering Border slowly built a team of world beaters.
It was a different world, though, in 2010-11. England again had a captain with a touch of steel, the unflappable Andrew Strauss. Ponting, such a great player for so long, was past his best and his Australian side seemed strangely tentative. England had the one great batsman, Kevin Pietersen (remember him?) and the highest scoring one, Cook. Despite the loss of Stuart Broad after the second Test, England’s attack was more than adequate for the job.
What about Australia. ? How do they go about winning at home? Captaincy is usually crucial; think of Warwick Armstrong, Bradman, Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Border, Mark Taylor, Waugh. It is this, combined with the bowling attack (the runs will take care of themselves). Usually that means pace, sometimes extreme pace and ideally in pairs. Gregory and MacDonald, Lindwall and Miller, Lillee and Thomson, Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson. Of course in their period of ascendancy they had Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Combinations like that, skilfully led, will demolish an inferior team. They will seek out weaknesses and prey on them; if they can’t immediately find any they will nominate imaginary weaknesses and prey on them instead. Someone like Johnson can effectively win a series with just a few incisive spells.
So what chance for England now? Well, it’s far from hopeless. The uncertainty surrounding pivotal all-rounder Ben Stokes is deeply unhelpful and potentially a decisive blow to England’s hopes. That said, Australia are far from being a great side, and that seems to be a condition precedent to beating them , a fairly obvious point admittedly.
There is a lot of uncertainty about England’s top order and that is a real worry. The selectors are taking a punt on Mark Stoneman; there is no reserve opener. In Australia you really do need a few batsmen to do very well. Michael Vaughan had a fantastic series in 2002-03 but the team lost three-one.
It’s a shame they couldn’t find a flat out fast
bowler, even a relatively untried one. One can’t help feeling that the attack may struggle in Australian conditions.
We can’t expect Moeen Ali to work another of his miracles – can we? Usman Khawaja might turn out to be his rabbit. Finger spinners have tended to have a limited impact Down Under, though Graeme Swann did his bit in 2010-11, and Nathan Lyon has become a key component of Australia’s attack.
If Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood and Pat Cummins stay fit one would expect Australia to win but Joe Root’s team will not be a pushover.
Bill Ricquier. 6/10/2017. This article was published in Scoreline Asia: https://scoreline.asia/how-to-win-in-australia/
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