Aussies to Ashes, Test to dust ?

End of play, day 2, fourth test.

England vs. Australia, 4th Test. I choose two points in the second day, one when either team was five down. The scores read 418-5 and 99-5 at those two stages. One side was one of the greatest ever in history, containing three batsmen with career averages above 48, the greatest ever legspinner in history, and only two players who had played less than forty tests. The other side was in reasonably good Test form over the past year (having been unbeaten), but had only one inexperienced batsman with such a career average, and six inexperienced players. Which team, were you to hazard a guess (let us say, on reputation and pre-series form), was at 99-5 ?

This has been that sort of a series. This has, in fact, been that sort of a summer.

The third match they played in England was a 20-20 match where Australia showed their rustiness, not having played cricket in two months. They lost seven wickets in twenty balls, and were 79 all out. The next was a match where the best bowling attack in the world (at least on reputation and past history, perhaps also on current form then) failed to defend 342 in 47 overs against a second division county. It helped, of course, that the batting was helped by Graeme Smith and Sanath Jayasuriya, who launched perhaps the most thrilling counterattack ever played against the Aussies in a limited overs match (at least since Tendulkar's Sharjah innings).

It all culminated in the One-Day Series, when Australia lost the very next match to Bangladesh, to give the Tigers their greatest ever victory. And it wasn't over yet. When Australia lost their fourth in a row to England, it was time, admitted Ponting, to perhaps think of looking for the panic button.

But Australia bounced back. It was then England's turn to lose one, and then Australia denied England their series victory - the final being a thrilling contest that should have been Australia's, when they had England at 33-5, chasing 196 with only Collingwood, the keeper, and the bowlers left. Instead, Australia conceded 34 in the last five, nine off Mc Grath's last over. (England needed ten to win!)

What followed was predictable stuff by Australia - winning two out of the next three matches to win the Natwest Challenge - and clinically ruthless cricket in general. All the talk and hype of England's posing a real, credible threat to Australia in the Tests, started to seem, yet again, like utter nonsense.

Australia came to England having conquered the Final Frontier in India - albeit under Gilchrist, Ponting losing the only match he played in. They came to England on the back of a resoundingly successful tour in New Zealand. England, on the other hand, had also had a fairly good time, winning their first series in South Africa in forty years, and winning everything but two Tests in 2004 (one draw owing to 400* by a certain Mr. Brian Lara, the other draw coming in an unforgettable, thrilling contest at Durban). On reputation and form, Australia were the clear favourites to win the Ashes. Mc Grath made the ominous prediction of winning "5-0, barring unfavourable weather".

And yet I spent a hundred dollars and bought the video package online. If anyone had asked for my honest opinion, I would have said that England have the best chance anyone has had in a long time of beating the Aussies in a series, and the best chance they have had in a long time of regaining the Ashes. And yet Australia were clearly favourites to win the Ashes again - though not 5-0, perhaps.

Among everyone whom I talked to, only my roommate, and a friend back in India, agreed with me in the opinion that England actually had a chance worth talking about, of winning the Ashes. Without exception, everyone else I knew, wrote them off - no doubt on the reputation and pre-series form of the Aussies.

Then came the explosive opener at Lord's - two sessions for which England were squarely on top, and blasted Australia out for 190. And Australia reduced England to 92/7 by stumps. The series had started in dramatic style - and yet, at the end of three days, England were in tatters once again and it seemed all too familiar, the winning margin of 239 runs for Australia. Once again, Mc Grath's ominous prediction seemed all too true, given Australia's reputation and current form.

What followed thereafter was the stuff of legend. England won the second Test after nearly losing it, Australia drew the third Test after nearly losing it, and these are just the facts of the matter. No credible opinion of any value can be formulated by looking just at these facts. Why ? For instance, if this were a Zimbabwe in Sri Lanka series at present, would you not say that you knew what happened, more or less by looking at the scorecard (or even without it)?

Well, let me give you two more examples that I have seen - either on video or on cricinfo. See if you can spot the pattern. In early 2001, Australia had sixteen wins on the trot, including the first Test in an away series. In the second match, four leading batsmen were out with the team following on and still needing to make 42 more to get Australia to bat again.
Towards the end of 2003, the same team toured Australia, and after a drawn first Test, the Aussies piled it on in Adelaide, scoring 556, and reducing the opposition, once again, to 85-4.

The first time, I followed the entire match online, after lunch on the fourth day, seeing that no further wickets had been lost until then. The second time, I woke up at half past five, every single day of the match, and saw it to the end. And watched Australia lose in what are now hailed as two of the greatest upsets in Test history.

Why did I do this ? Because I believed that the opposition (both times India, both times the saviours Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman, of course) had it in them to still come back from the brink of defeat, and go to the summit of victory from there. As everyone knows, the Aussies rarely play for a draw, and still more rarely give anything to the opposition.

What is this mysterious pattern I am asking you to spot here ? Why have predictions and more predictions been made and proved wrong about this Ashes series ? If you had told even the most incurable optimist on either of the previous instances I quoted, that Australia would lose one series, and hang on by the skin of their teeth (and Steve Bucknor's help on the last day in Sydney) in the other, would he have believed you?

There are Test matches and there are Test series. But every once in a while comes a Test series that challenges our beliefs, that is extra special. A Test series that will go down in time as one of the greatest ever played. Both the above examples - and this present Ashes - are three such series.

And why do many of these series involve the best team in the world ? Because it is in these series that the challengers and the underdogs rise above themselves, and do unbelievable things. They forget about the reputation and current form of the supposedly better team, and create their own pressure and their own chances. (Of course, when I spent a hundred bucks, I believed that the Aussies were the stronger team at present - but only on current reputation. If I believed there would be no contest, based on current form, I wouldn't waste my money!)

(Of course, I have also stayed up to see other series, like the Final Frontier being crossed by Gilchrist's team - but while this proves that my judgement of what is an extraordinarily great Test series is wrong, it does not take away from the point I am trying to make here.)

Everyone I talked to was wrong. Well, I was wrong too! I had not imagined the Test series to be this thrilling a contest, gripping though I thought it would be. Anyone can make predictions, based on nothing or on many things. But to predict what will happen in this series, based on reputation and pre-series form (to use this phrase for the umpteenth time), is not going to work. One can do this to a Zimbabwe vs. Sri Lanka series and come out with flying colours. But this series is special. It is one of the greatest ever, no matter what the outcome. And it is utterly unpredictable.

I have a friend who vociferously supports good cricket - and hence Australia. Before the Ashes, he agreed with Mc Grath. When Australia ended the day on 99-5, he said that the series will go down to the wire. Which is about the only sensible prediction that I have heard all summer. All the others have been pure, utter nonsense - because people tried to judge this incomprehensible series of legend and lore, by their own standards of scorecards, or reputation, or the history of past Ashes (though never by current form of the English team - everyone considered only the Aussies' form!). And who can blame them? It is the only way we know of predicting!

Day 3, fourth test.

And yet, how does the scene look now ? The third day of the fourth Test is on, and Australia has been forced to follow-on, for the first time in 17 years. Thorpe has been replaced by Pietersen and no one has noticed, Strauss has taken the catch of the summer, and Flintoff has replaced Gilchrist as the most valuable player in world cricket, apart from cheaply dismissing him several times now. Langer has fallen - yet again to Giles, Bell taking another brilliant catch this summer.

Ponting gets run out and acts like a sore loser as well (he did it in India in Mumbai as well, recently) - cursing the English dressing room, when they are merely being Australian, in staying within the rules of using substitutes for fast bowlers. Gillespie's form is wretched, and he is complaining about crowd flak - an Australian complaining about English crowds, rather than the reverse! No doubt the Aussie crowds are models of politeness and restraint towards English outfielders, when England tours Down Under.

Australia are dropping chances - in the series Down Under against India I referred to, they dropped around thrice as many catches as India did. Mysterious pattern, anyone ? For the first time since then, they have been pressured in a Test series. And they do not handle such pressure very well.

Bastions are being stormed, fortresses are crashing, traditions are being broken, and as Gilchrist said yesterday, "England are doing to us what we've always done to other sides... We didn't under-estimate England, but it's the ultimate challenge and we are under pressure."

As omens go, here's one as good as any: Australia's women have just conceded the Ashes to the English, after a gap of 42 years.

And yet, would I dare predict what will happen in this match, let alone the series ? I can only watch!

My point is, in this series, one has to forget all about reputation, and just look at the current form of the players. Perhaps the predictions will be more accurate. This is that sort of a series. This has been that sort of a summer.