…and there I was thinking I was the only pessimist around.
This morning’s piece by Simon Barnes of The Times
I remember when an old friend met the love of his life. “I know I’m going to make a mess of it, because I always do. But at the moment I can’t see how.” That was as near to optimism I have ever known him (and no, he didn’t make a mess of it). But that’s what it’s like being a lover of England cricket. You simply can’t do optimism.
Not, at any rate, when England are playing Australia. So there were Australia, asked to make the highest fourth-innings score not only in Test matches but in all first-class cricket, and still every English person in the ground feared the worst. It was as if we expect Foinavon to win the Grand National every year, as if we expect Australia to win the lottery every week.
The figures simply didn’t stack up. There was no way England could fail to win this match. Well, maybe one way . . . and ooh-er, off we go again, because anything can happen when you are playing 11 supermen from the outback with nerves of steel and blood-flavoured chewing gum, people who are capable of anything.
If you had done the maths, yesterday should have been a day of celebration right from the start, an all-day gloat. But, of course, it was nothing of the kind. It was a day of fear and dread, leavened with occasional shafts of hope — hope that was almost instantly suppressed, as being far too risky a thing.
This mood of desperate defeatism must have absolutely boggled the Australians, who simply can’t understand the culture of self-defensive pessimism it springs from. So the question at the ground right from the beginning was not “how long will it take to finish these people off?” but “in what way are we going to make a mess of this?”
It was a mood that spread out on to the field of play, as moods tend to. The England players had the chance of their lives to make a spot of cricketing history and yet, on this day of days, they went through flat periods, they went through going-through-themotions periods as if they, too, were unable to believe in victory as a serous possibility.
They also dropped a few catches just to keep Australia in the hunt, with Paul Collingwood, of all people, responsible for three of them. England couldn’t quite believe in victory, couldn’t quite bear to finish the job. It was the same story four years ago — the two victories and the final draw being long drawn-out agonies of flickering and faltering belief.
There was a long period yesterday as Ricky Ponting, the Australia captain, and Mike Hussey were batting together, when it seemed England would never take another wicket, that Australia would cruise to the target of 546 while the Gloucester Old Spots spiralled and curvetted in the sky above. A clear sky, but a cloud of gloom blotted out the bright sun of good cheer. On such a day, surely only England could fill a ground with doom and gloom.
There’s an ancient cricket joke about these terrible, hopeless periods of impotent bowlers bowling to invulnerable batsmen. It’s called “bowling for run-outs”. And so, in a glorious and surreal passage of play, one that lasted a miraculous six balls across two overs, two run-outs came at once and the day and the match were more or less sorted out.
First Ponting hesitated at the non-striker’s end before setting out: Andrew Flintoff — a muted figure for most of his final Test — gathered the ball, swung the mighty shoulders and brought off a direct hit. Ah, that Freddie should live to see such a day, emulating no lesser cricketer than the great Gary Pratt.
Half a dozen balls later, Michael Clarke flicked Graham Swann to leg and set off for a well-deserved off-the-mark single. Alas, he didn’t see that the ball had rebounded off Alastair Cook’s boot at short leg and Andrew Strauss at leg slip underarmed the stumps down.
Of course, it wasn’t that order was restored instantly and that all fear was banished. This is still England for God’s sake, playing Australia for God’s sake. But a more balanced appreciation of cricketing probabilities began to infuse the ground and as the subsequent wickets were laboriously prised out, finally coming in a great and glorious rush, the mood had changed to one of rejoicing.
But it was a peculiarly English kind of rejoicing, one that was more like relief. There was relief that England hadn’t, after all, made a mess of it. There was mild surprise that the team who outplayed the other lot throughout the match were actually capable of winning it. So on, then, with the celebrations.
England have regained the Ashes, a glorious summer has reached a joyful conclusion.
Never in doubt, was it?