England were not supposed to lose the Ashes, Australia were meant to slip deeper into the quagmire. Why, before the series started only Michael Clarke, Ryan Harris and maybe, Brad Haddin from amongst the Aussies would have hoped to make an England team. But it is amazing how sport can waylay you, pick out a latent deficiency and expose that cruelly for the world to see. Teams often talk about momentum, truly among the more abused of sporting clichés, but a little jolt can produce just that. One man, only one, provided that for Australia and it is fair to say that they fed off Mitchell Johnson’s aggression. But we run a little ahead of the story.
Before the Ashes began, England had the best opening batsman in the world, one of the best the game has seen at number four, an Ashes hero three months earlier at number five, a solid number three, one of the two best new ball bowlers in the world, the best spinner and a feisty fast bowler who the world loved to hate but who made things happen. When you have Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Anderson, Swann and Broad you jolly well start favourites.
By contrast Australia had a very dodgy top three, nobody really worrisome at five and six, a keeper making a comeback at 36, a tearaway fast bowler who could bowl from first slip to short fine leg, a promising but under-performing spinner and a lot of very very good young fast bowlers, all of whom were visiting the surgeon more often than the coach. You couldn’t win a series with Clarke and Harris could you?
So what happened?
Quite apart from the pace of Mitchell Johnson, and pace can test the resolve of the very best, England had a few key players who were just starting to look down at their career rather than up at it. We wouldn’t have known that before because it is the hardest thing in the world to pinpoint. We could have conjectured, discussed gently in a forum that would never become public but no one could stick their head out and say that Trott, Prior, Anderson and Swann would see their fine careers just tip over. Yes, we could say that finger spinners haven’t done well in Australia, that Swann didn’t have a great series last time, that when the ball doesn’t swing Anderson isn’t the player he is when it does, that Prior had a run of poor scores getting into the series and that Trott had just hit a little plateau. But good players turn the tide and none of these was, say, nudging forty!
But sometimes mind and body can get trapped in ennui, the bloody mindedness to pick yourself up, to put in the hard yards for small gains can leave you weary, even reluctant. It is a state of mind that writers go through, for example, when they resist the urge to stare at the screen till the right word comes along, when they go with opinion, or worse a hunch, rather than a rigorously backed hypothesis. Without stating it bluntly, they let the effort drop, they can’t cleanse the mind of distraction.
With sportsmen, you can’t see it in one game but you can see it in the body language when the tide refuses to turn. The same player who resisted, who believed that 280 from the last 4 wickets was gettable, who thought a wicket was round the corner when 250 had been added by the opposition pair on a hot afternoon now starts to accept the course of the match rather than change it. I fear that might have happened with England. It might have happened with India playing overseas in 2011-12 or with the spinners in 1978.
When key players start accepting the course of a match, teams start hurtling down. Momentum appears but it is the opposition that is generating it. Without the edge, fringe players in the opposition start scoring runs, Steve Smith cracks a hundred, George Bailey smacks easy runs in the end, Nathan Lyon picks up wickets and you have no answer when David Warner takes you on.
Take them on. That is what Australia were very good at and that is what they reverted to. There is little doubt that they have played above potential, certainly the batting has, but they played fearlessly. Johnson and Warner were the enforcers at either end of the new ball, coming hard and asking the opposition if they had answers. As it turns out in this case, the opposition didn’t but unless you ask bluntly enough, you will never know.
So what does this mean for that other marquee series. Well, a marquee mini-series. India has a very young side that is looking up and that will find the conditions and the great skill of the opposition stacked against them. But this young side will be judged not as much by the results they generate but by the attitude they display. Their best years are ahead but they will only reach landmarks if they are toughened in battle and approach it with belief. Unlike with England, there is no obvious tipping point in sight in their opposition; Graeme Smith maybe, Jacques Kallis maybe, Alviro Peterson maybe but Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers are at the height of their powers as is Dale Steyn. Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy are looking up. South Africa should be playing like Australia did.
And so, quite apart from the runs and wickets, watch if India come at South Africa with resolve and spirit, see if they try to stem the tide, see if they search for a weakness in the opposition top order, see if they search for wickets when the scoreboard looks daunting. That will be the making of this side. If, however, they let the opposition dictate, wait for things to happen, contemplate the new year at home, not only will they lose the series but they will be unprepared for what lies ahead in 2014. For the opportunity to discover the steel within, if not for anything else, this should have been three Tests.