Ashes Trauma: The Fear of Australian Resurgence

Brad Haddin has only won two Ashes test matches. That number sounds surprising because at Trent Bridge he scared England. He dragged his team to the brink of a record chase with that undefinable Australianness that has the English press resorting to clichés: “mongrel”, “the kangaroo and the emu can’t take a backward step”. The way Haddin clobbered Steven Finn on the final morning brought back bad memories for England fans. The old inevitability of Australian victory seemed to be returning, revenge exacted for Edgbaston 2005.

Haddin, even more than Michael Clarke or Chris Rogers, seems like the last link to Steve Waugh’s great Australian team. Had it been Phil Hughes or Ed Cowan batting with James Pattinson, moving ever closer to the target, the fear wouldn’t have been the same. Haddin, for all his fallibility, can still scare England fans because he has that intangible Australian quality, the grittiness of a Border, Waugh or Ponting. You can see why he was brought back into this team. For all Clarke’s silken strokeplay, he lacks the street-fighting, bare-knuckle resilience. You don’t worry if he’s still there…

How different it used to be. The first Ashes series I followed avidly was in 2001, in many ways the classic nineties and early noughties Australian series victory. The Poms were pummeled. When Mark Butcher led his heist at Headingley, it only made things worse – you needed to be a genius, VVS at his most inspired, to beat this team. All of them scared us. There wasn’t a single player you didn’t fear could take the game away from the English, even if they seemed beaten. Michael Slater’s fast-handed flashes gave way to Justin Langer’s back-foot slashes, and Matthew Hayden personified his muscular Christianity, turning the crease into his own kind of bully pulpit. Punter at three, his thrusting drives and dismissive pull, admonishing Caddick or Gough for the having the temerity to bounce him. His hubristic, Dubya face made 2005 all the more sweet when it came, but his batting never wavered, his hard hands simply resulting in four more.

Damien Martyn was the silent, smiling assassin, with his Patrick Bateman eyes and off-side glides. Mark Waugh seemed the best of the lot, batting and catching with elegance and ease, never troubled by situation or score. Just when he seemed to have lost interest, he’d stick out a mitt or languidly flick to leg, succeeding so as to go back to his previous calm. His brother was different. The image of Steve Waugh lying on the Oval turf, blank bat raised to celebrate his hundred on one leg, defined his era. The air of inevitability emanated from him: he was always going to be fit for that test and score a ton, he was always going to score his hundred eighteen months later at the SCG off the last ball of the day. He was more puppeteer than skipper, and the England players seemed to fall under his spell just as much.

Just in case that lot failed, there was Gilly. Such a nice man. Such a brutal batter. He crushed hope like no other, snuffed out any glimmers in a few overs of frenzied hitting. He spun like a dervish to pull the fast bowlers and waved his bat like a wand to clear the off side. He was past his best by Perth in 2006, but dismissed the bowling with the most awesome display of talent. His nasal “bowlin’, Shane” was as aurally omnipresent as the Barmy Army’s inane optimism, and his keeping was only secondary compared to his batting. Maybe Haddin isn’t too bad…

So they’d probably score 500. But we could match that? Not against the Aussie bowling attack. Shane Warne hinted at the poker player he’d become, bluffing Bell and Hollioake eight years apart, but was also simply the best spinner around. No batsman was ever settled or safe from a man who could do what he did to Gatting and Strauss, as well as hundreds of others in more mundane ways. For all the banter and bullshit, no-one could ever play him. Brett Lee, similarly blond and hostile, took a more direct approach, as Alex Tudor’s eye socket can testify. Jason Gillespie was intense and terrifying, charging in to detonate Marcus Trescothick’s stumps repeatedly. Finally, there was Glenn McGrath, surgically dissecting techniques, taking wickets with the dread inevitability of the Grim Reaper. His Lord’s spell in 2005 was a classic Ashes momentum shift, England’s advantage eradicated in one grim spell.

How things of changed. Now Australians dread Jimmy’s swing, Swann on the final day, KP at full cry. Alastair Cook, a left-hander in the Justin Langer “nuggety” mould, can dominate them. The Australians now seem mediocre. Ed Cowan is an eloquent writer, but that’s the sort of thing Poms do. Ponting let his runs speak for him. David Warner’s twenty-teens T20 technique clashes with his ‘seventies Lillian Thomson temperament. Every club player has seen a Shane Watson, blasting away for a few overs before getting out softly. The bowling threatens, but it’s nothing special. Yet it only took Haddin’s counterpunch for England fans to panic again. The trauma is still there. It won’t go away whilst the Baggy Green is still worn, forever redolent of Steve Waugh’s gimlet eye. But next time, don’t think of Haddin as Healy or Gilchrist returned, ready to steal the game. Remember he’s lost more Ashes tests than Glenn McGrath did in his entire career.

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