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There’s been plenty of rain in England this summer, but you wouldn’t know it from the 22 yards in the centre of Trent Bridge. A wicket that was the traditional home of English pace bowling now resembles something from the maidans of Mumbai.
Perhaps it’s no surprise in England, a land whose national dish is chicken tikka, but a warm week has put the final crust on the type of surface that will follow the Australians all summer, for a cable has arrived from the Raj informing the MCC that these colonials don’t take well to the turning ball.
Cricket has changed since this kind of thing was condemned as ‘doctoring’. In 1956, the only time in the past century that Australia lost a third straight series to England, off-spinner Jim Laker took 46 wickets at 9.60, including 19-90 at Old Trafford. Sand and marl had been mixed into the pitches to maximise the advantage of Laker and left-arm tweaker Tony Lock, and the Australians were at daggers drawn with curators and county clubs. Such a thing was considered tantamount to cheating, and remained so in 1972 when Derek Underwood exploited a Headingley pitch that had been supposedly taken over by a fungus called fusarium, though it was noted that no other part of the ground, including the rest of the wicket square, was similarly affected.
Nowadays, there has been a subtle change of occupation: doctoring is now called tailoring, and it is accepted practice around the world. When England prepared a subcontinental surface at the Oval in 2009, Australia were seen as fools for not selecting a spinner. England weren’t knaves for employing a tactic that used to cause international incidents. As Lance Armstrong says, if everyone’s doing it, it’s not cheating anymore.
The question for this series is, have England been too smart by half? The curators’ guide has been events in the last six months in India, where, on pitches that spun backwards, England won 2-1 and Australia lost 4-0. While Australia were at sea on those wickets, England’s Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar outbowled the locals and Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen played innings of great substance. If they could, England would happily stage the Ashes at the Wankhede.
But the risk for England is that their tactics might play the inexperienced Australians into form. In India, all of England’s pace bowlers struggled except the redoubtable Jimmy Anderson. Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan failed badly, and only Anderson obtained dangerous reverse swing. This week’s Trent Bridge wicket and surrounds have the texture of sandpaper. Expect the English fieldsmen to throw the ball with the trajectory of boys playing skippers with stones at the beach (roughing the ball up in this way is another practice that used to be frowned upon but is now accepted). After 20 overs the ball will look like something from the bottom of the team kit. That’s all very well, but in doing so, will England be nullifying what has been a very effective conventional pace battery, just as, in 1956, they didn’t use Frank Tyson? England seem to be so spooked by Australia’s strong suit in fast bowling that they are prepared to neuter their own, like a swap of queens in a chess game.
The other potential weakness in the plan is that Australia’s batsmen will not be as clueless against spin as they were in India. Many other factors were amiss with that team at that time. Whatever the effect of the renewal at the top, the simple fact is that the Australian batsmen will have learnt from the Indian experience and be better for it. Phillip Hughes, Ed Cowan and Steve Smith were conspicuously better players of spin bowling in April than they had been in February. They’re not world-beaters yet, but they won’t be as bad as England seems to expect. Likewise, Nathan Lyon is on an upward curve, and will have conditions to suit. As Jack Gibson said, if they keep improving, you don’t know where they’re going to stop.
For England to be overconfident in an Ashes series is implausible to anyone who has been alive for more than 10 years, but the current puffed national chest offers Australia’s cricketers a sneaky opportunity. England expects its cricketers to win. On paper, they exceed Australia in all departments. These teams were mismatched in 2010-11 on (bouncy, true) Australian wickets, and England have improved more than Australia since then. Michael Vaughan’s forecast of a whitewash doesn’t seem as far-fetched as his hairline. English supporters find some kind of inexorable logic in the sequence of Olympic Games-Tour de France-British Lions-Wimbledon-Ashes. Their cricketers have had a psychological edge over Australia since 2009. So why, with all that in their favour, would they also doctor their pitches for spin? What can they possibly be afraid of?
In that hint of insecurity lies, for the Australians, a glimmer of hope. It’s only a glimmer, and in all likelihood Australia may produce good sessions and good days, but not three winning Tests. Yet if English sport has one historic constant, it’s the gift for stuffing up the golden chance. In drying out their wickets the way they have done at Trent Bridge, they are leaving no stone unturned. It’s called thoroughness. It’s also called anxiety.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.