Open Essay

Ashes 2015: Dust to Dust

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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A thrilling and unexpected series victory for England in the Ashes of 2015 points to a troubling cultural change in world cricket

Anyone who doubts the importance of the Ashes to cricket’s future should read what Indian cricket fans have to say about the game’s great Anglo-Australian contest. Courtesy of the live-bloggers at Cricinfo. com, who sprinkle their ball-by-ball match coverage with readers’ comments from all over the cricket-speaking world, this is now possible, and a reminder of what a peculiarly international game cricket is. To the hardest fought Test cricket, played in packed English or Australian stadiums, these Indian commentators (or so I surmise they are from their names) bring the relish, fervour and trenchant views of the increasingly Test-match-starved Indian fan. Sampling them has become a vital ritual of my biannual Ashes routine.

‘Nothing against the Poms but it would be so great to see them dancing to the tunes of a legspinner … Pull the rabbit out of your hat Clarkie!’ implored a Cricinfo reader called Amit of Australia’s former captain, as the first Test of this summer’ Ashes series began in Cardiff, with Alastair Cook and Gary Ballance piling on the runs. Like most Indian aficionados of the Ashes—or the bloggers on Cricinfo suggests—Amit wanted the Australians to win (or at least the Poms to lose). He also, like most, seemed to know a thing or two about Test cricket. Yet who are these Indian cricket tragics, glued to the contest between two foreign teams, at a distant cricket ground, deep into the Indian evening?

They are much like the rest of us furtive Cricinfo followers: compulsive cricket followers, skivers from paid work. ‘I have a group project submission and my German “kollegen” are certainly furious for watching this damn wretched series!’ wrote Anish, maybe from some infotech company in Hyderabad, Bangalore or Chennai, as Australia, having been unexpectedly drubbed in Cardiff, launched a fight-back at Lord’s. Unlike the rest of us, however, India’s cricket tragics are from the country that will soon decide cricket’s future, as the BCCI extends its sticky-fingered reach over the global game, which is why the passion these fans display for the five-day game, even as most of India falls out of love with it, feels so significant. ‘The long gap between the last Test and this one was unbearable!’ wrote Karthik, as play was due to be begin at Edgbaston, in the third Test of this summer’s series, now tied 1-1. Without wishing to place too heavy a burden of responsibility on Karthik, that is an Indian sentiment to inspire hope in lovers of Test cricket everywhere.

Unsated by India’s own recent Test record, which has produced too little success in the last couple of years, India’s online cricket community seem to be embracing the Ashes as Test’s cricket marquee contest. They respect its long history. They perhaps recognise it, now that India-Australia has faded and India- Pakistan is too seldom seen, as the last great cricketing rivalry. They clearly relish its unique status as a five-Test series played in the only two countries where Test cricket still routinely fills stadiums, commands front pages, and turns a profit. Thus has the Ashes become a forum for these Indian fans’ always-trenchant views. ‘Really disappointed to see Ballance being dropped. Bell should have been dropped,’ thundered Sumit, shortly after play began in Birmingham. ‘How the tide changes! Bell came into this match to protect his career, and ends up enhancing his reputation by taking the bull by the horn!’ mulled Samrat Ahuja, two days later, as Bell, in a blaze of cover drives (‘vital knock, counter punching and yet composed…’ adjudged Prashant), helped knock off the paltry 124 runs England needed to take a stunning and unpredicted 2:1 Ashes lead.

Then, on a green Trent Bridge pitch, on 8 August, that lead became 3:1, giving England the series. This has made the 69th Ashes series one of the most surprising and unpredicted ever. England were whitewashed—5-0—in the last Ashes series, held ‘down under’ in 2013-14, and it was reasonable to expect something similar in England this summer. The past year has been rotten for England cricket. It has been beset by poor performances— the team is languishing in sixth place in the ICC rankings— infighting and a media campaign to oust Alastair Cook as captain. Perhaps only the absence of a credible alternative saved him. Yet England have nonetheless regained the urn, and in some style. The feared Australians, with their muscular pace bowlers and hard-hitting batsmen, were not merely beaten, but walloped. They lost by 169 runs in Cardiff; by eight wickets in Birmingham; and by an innings and 78 runs in Nottingham. Already, with the Ashes decided, this trouncing has pushed Michael Clarke to announce his retirement, which was a sad end to a great career, albeit fitting in a way. For Clarke has never been adored by Australians: too flashy, too cocky, too self- interested, they grumble, he was owed this indignity by the cricketing gods. Perhaps he will be remembered more fondly for it, as he surely deserves.

Yet he leaves a team, now led by Steven Smith, in disarray. The Australians’ confidence is shot. Several other big-name players— perhaps even the erstwhile feared, but in England ridiculed, Mitchell Johnson—are likely to follow Clarke into retirement or the wilderness. Indeed, if the Australians win at the Oval this week, in the dead rubber match that will conclude the series, it will be merely another sort of indignity. Most commentators would attribute this not to an Australian rebuke, but to the England team, flush with success, letting their attention wander.

A fierce rivalry and a dramatic result, with some wonderful individual Test performances— including Joe Root’s two centuries, which have taken him to the top of the world batting ratings, and Stuart Broad’s lazar-guided 8-15 at Trent Bridge: it has been in many ways a wonderful English summer of cricket; especially given the toxic cricketing sideshows it has laid to rest. After a poor winter tour to the Caribbean, including an embarrassing 1-1 draw in the Test series against the IPL- ravaged West Indians, England were until only a few weeks ago a team in crisis.

Peter Moores was sacked as coach. And as England’s tired cricketers limped home to a damp County season, most of the press coverage was devoted to the jettisoning of Kevin Pietersen. This was controversial even before he scored an unbeaten triple century, for Surrey in May, on the very day Andrew Strauss, the new boss of England cricket, informed him that his exclusion from the England set-up was permanent. Briefly sensational, this messy episode is almost forgotten now. From an English perspective, in short, there is a lot to celebrate. Yet the central, Test-preserving, importance of the Ashes contest, recognised by cricket lovers everywhere, makes this summer’s fare strangely unsatisfying, nonetheless. Because as a harbinger of where cricket is headed, this Ashes series was almost as troubling as it was exciting.

For all its passages of brilliance, too much of the series was determined by a pervading incompetence, mainly but not only, on the Australian side. To illustrate that, consider how little cricket has actually been played. Of the four games played so far, none went to a fifth day and two might easily have been over in two. This constitutes five-day cricket in name only. A similar result at the Oval would make this the second shortest Ashes series ever, in terms of overs bowled. And that is perhaps likely, so hapless is the Australian batting; Australia’s first-innings score, of 60, at Trent Bridge was the seventh lowest in its Ashes history. Only Chris Rogers, David Warner and, passingly, Steven Smith, have looked up to the task of Test cricket. The Australian middle- order, faced with some decent, but by no means terrifying, English seam bowling, on some green-tinged, but by no means unplayable, pitches, has been inept. Adam Voges averaged 20 in the first two games; Clarke, just 16.

The rise of technique-wrecking T20, the bête noire of the cricket purist, has naturally been blamed for this decline. And it is part of the story. T20 stars such as Shane Watson, whose peripheral role in the series augurs the end to his disappointing Test career, often struggle to acquire the impenetrable defence and concentration that Test cricket demands. There is little need of either in wham-bam T20, or opportunity for bowlers to bowl the relentless length balls that are required to master swing. But this is not the whole story. Warner was a T20 star before he has scored a first-class fifty, and is now thriving in Tests. Voges and Clarke once had solid temperaments and techniques.

Another reason for the Australian embarrassment is hubris. Believing their own exuberant press, the Australians thought they were better than they are. Clarke, Brad Haddin and other ageing players were in clumsy touch going into the series; yet it was assumed that they could battle back to form against the old foe. Yet, for a third reason, packed modern tour schedules simply do not allow time for this. This summer’s first Ashes Test started barely a fortnight after the Australians arrived to encounter their first English conditions in two years at least. On the treadmill of relentless international and T20 cricket, most of the younger Australian batsmen—including even Warner and Smith—may never be comfortable against the seaming or swinging ball. In a sense, this is the seminal counterpoint to the globalising of cricket’s fan-base, which Cricinfo represents.

Before the Internet changed everything, rival cricket fans knew little of each other: following cricket was more a national than a global pursuit. At the same time, top cricketers, being schooled in county cricket, or because they were accustomed to much longer overseas tours, tended to know foreign conditions much better than they do today. The recent concentration on T20, which knows nothing of defence, has only added to this steady degradation of batting skills. According to Graham Gooch, England’s second-highest Test-run scorer: “It’s the whole package of not having the technical skills but having the attitude, the mental toughness, the discipline, the concentration … these skills are being chipped away at the edges by the amount of one-day cricket and T20 cricket.”

This is not the deleterious effect of T20 that most Test purists feared. For it has long been hoped that, so long as cricket administrators could be shamed into maintaining five-day cricket’s place in the calendar, subsidised by T20 riches, it would endure. Yet what we may now be seeing is a rewiring of cricketing skills, changing the game from within, even beyond the reach of the administrators who draw up the fixture lists. Test teams, inept in foreign conditions, are increasingly unable to win away: over the past couple of years, series between two reasonably matched teams invariably end in a home victory. Draws are becoming relatively scarce, which, wishing for a return to the interminable bore-draws of the past, distinguished by snail-paced scoring rates, make Tests more predictable. That will in turn make it less compelling to an audience that is already, even in Australia, slipping away. It would certainly be a foolhardy fan who booked a ticket for the fifth day of a Test in England: a partial refund, and no cricket, would be his likely reward.

Perhaps this is worrying too much. For this truly has been a marvellously entertaining English summer; and in the performances of Broad and Joe Root—who has two centuries and an average over 70 from the first four matches—joy for any purist. And perhaps the next Ashes, in Australia next year, will deliver a flinty, indeterminate draw or two, a form of cricketing tedium never much loved, until it is gone.