Australia regrouping just as England’s confidence suffers a major dip

This summer could well witness the most closely contested Ashes since 2005

The traditional role of Poms in Australia is to accept graciously the humorous insults directed at the England cricket team, responding politely without resort to obvious cliches, particularly those involving convicts.

For all kinds of reasons, it is a little different this time. For a start, British visitors are now greeted with a kind of affectionate pity mixed with honest curiosity: “What exactly is a backstop?”

On enervating Australian afternoons, when the mind turns only slowly, it seems best to say that backstop is a fielding position, employed by captains of incompetent teams who can’t trust their wicketkeepers.

On reflection, this might be a reasonable analogy for the Brexit Test. (United Europe, several hundred for no wicket declared; Combined Westminster XI, struggling to avoid a whitewash, nought all out, following on and praying for a deluge.)

It certainly has resonance for the balance of Anglo-Australian cricketing power, less than six months before the Ashes series begins at Edgbaston on August 1st. This now seems to have swung violently away from England.

From far away has come the news of England’s worst cricketing week since the last Ashes. Meanwhile, Australia’s cricket, badly battered in 2018 by both scandal and failure, is showing faint, though only faint, signs of recovery.

In the first Test match played on the pleasant ground at Manuka Oval in Canberra (aka Stevenage-in-the-Bush), Australia have derived much enjoyment from bullying Sri Lanka, their batsmen racking up, in the sixth Test of a fraught southern summer, four centuries as opposed to none in the previous five.

And their bowlers, notably Mitchell Starc, found a rhythm that had eluded them during the first ever home series defeat against India. On Monday Australia duly wrapped up a 366-run victory without breaking sweat.

This creates its own problems. The centurions – Joe Burns, Travis Head, Kurtis Patterson and Usman Khawaja – built cases that on the face of it would push them into the Ashes team. Because so little first-class cricket is played in Australia, their selectors have a historic weakness to send batsmen on crucial tours on the strength of a couple of performances that may bear little relation to the task ahead.

But big Test innings do create their own momentum and it is always hard for selectors to make intellectual judgments about a player’s potential when they conflict with the evidence of the scorebook.

Desperate phase

In this case, since the Ashes do not happen until August, decisions can be delayed until after the World Cup, an Australia A tour and the return of their two most proven batsmen, Steve Smith and David Warner, at the end of their year-long, sandpaper-related ban, when one assumes they will be not just be hungry for runs but starving.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, having spent more than three decades as the best little country in international cricket, have entered a desperate phase which makes England’s recent success there seem much less shiny.

My policy in nearly half a century of cricket writing has always been to refrain from criticising individual fielders for mistakes unless I could be confident I would have caught the ball myself. Mike Gatting missed a close catch in 1992-93 which came into that category. I can’t remember another. On this occasion Sri Lanka dropped two of that sort in a session, and their overall performance might not have been improved had they been allowed to play 11 backstops.

There is a more exciting interpretation of events in the Caribbean; that West Indies have found a team capable of restoring some of the region’s long-lost cricketing lustre. Only time will provide an answer to that. But we can hope; it is hard to imagine anything that could do as much to revive the game as a strong West Indies Test team fit to take on the world.

It may just be that England’s cricketers are now so entirely discombobulated by playing so many different forms of the game so often in so many different parts of the world in such varying conditions with so little time for practice and acclimatisation they no longer have the foggiest idea what the hell they are meant to be doing.

The early Ashes betting has England as odds-on favourites to win the series. Of the last eight Ashes series, the away team have won one (England in 2010-11), so that might be reasonable. But this rivalry also has a long record of producing upsets.

And look at the names of the young achievers of the past couple of weeks: Kemar, Kraigg, Kurtis, Jhye and Shai. They make an England team of Joe, Joe, Jos, Johnny, Jimmy etc seem very pallid. This is a serious point. English cricketers are now drawn from a relatively narrow, rather conservative, gene pool.

Both teams have problems. The question is which one is in the most acute distress, Australia have had their period of introspection; England are only now starting to have the cockiness knocked out of them. This could well be the most closely contested Ashes since 2005. At times like this, the least hubristic side usually wins.