The England’s Odyssey and the Dazzling Triumph of Australia

Reminiscing the Ashes 2021-22 from the spectator’s point of view.

By Elena Vassilieva

“Oh, the Ashes, you always lure and you always break hearts!” – The super wolf blood Moon, 21 January 2019. Image and words by Elena Vassilieva

Many cricket lovers might still be sitting and ruminating on what exactly prevented England from performing as well as during the Ashes on their home soil in 2019, when they found themselves as fit as their Australian rivals, or maybe even slightly better? This time, the quest to regain the Ashes turned out to be a series of unfortunate events for England, alas. It started when the English cricketers declared an interest in bringing their families along. Australia, unattainable to the rest of the world, allowing only very few Australians at a time to return to the continent, miraculously (and thank God!) had granted entry to the British cricketers and their families. Briefly, it became a matter of debate and controversy. I wonder whether the wives had ever been in the ‘should I stay or should I go’ quandary? In retrospect, it must have been helpful for the cricketers to have their loved ones nearby to console them, but I fear it was also very difficult for the wives to see their husbands suffer like never before. On the other hand, had they decided to stay at home, they would’ve been a true Penelope and her friends, praying and waiting impatiently for their husbands to return, no matter with the trophy in their hands or without. Perhaps it would’ve been even better this way, as their other halves would have concentrated solely on the series with no concerns for their families because of the constant threat of the virus, but with a stronger motivation to win the Ashes instead. Of course, it’s a private matter and it should stay private, after all, it was the cricketers’ own decision. All things considered, it went exactly the way, mitgegangen – mitgefangen (think of the then coach Silverwood); under the circumstances, the support Penelope and her female friends might have provided was invaluable. But had I been a Penelope, I would have refused to join Odysseus on his journey, out of fear to distract my beloved husband from already a difficult task. But I’m not the Penelope, so the worry is not mine, and thus irrelevant.

Once settled in Australia, it had been decided, as if by the one and only voice (Vox populi? Vox Dei? Guess whose?), that the best bowlers in the team, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, should be omitted in the first test. Whether they might have been saved for the later matches because of the injuries, wasn’t entirely clear. But the fact that in Melbourne, Jimmy fought like a tiger who had been kept in a cage for too long made it clear that he definitely should have been selected for the game already in the earlier test. Although Jimmy Anderson appeared at the very right moment of urgency, particularly at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, even his magic couldn’t spare England from losing the test. Stuart Broad felt sorrow about not having been able to influence the course of the game as much as he could or would have, had he been engaged in the game from the very beginning. “We’ve got a couple of caged tigers coming into this [Sydney] match, Ben being one of them and Stuart Broad is another,” the then assistant coach Graham Thorpe said. Eventually, Broad was able to apply all the preserved energy and impatience of his, flying over the field like a very dangerous osprey, handsomely supported by Jimmy Anderson, known as the King of Swing and the Burnley Express. It was a delight to see their elegant synchronicity.

The next unfortunate event came when the then head coach, Chris Silverwood, and his family had tested COVID-19-positive and were immediately sent into isolation in Melbourne, leaving the burden of logistics and tactics on the shoulders of Graham Thorpe and the captain. Thus England test captain was multitasking, very often taking a role of a coach and helping his teammates prepare for the next two tests, in Sydney and Hobart. I don’t think he or anyone else in the team had ever experienced anything of the sort, one blow after another, something that was completely out of their control, as if what they had been through at home during the pandemic weren’t enough, the circumstance that severely and fatally impaired their training, preparation and mindset for the series. For instance, the fast bowler Jofra Archer couldn’t join the expedition because of the injury, and everyone fondly remembers his swiftness and the diamond-cut precision of his throw in the last Ashes in England. He was as dangerous and unpredictable then, as he could have been here, and, of course, he was much missed during this Ashes.

Quite a few England cricketers came to Australia whilst still recovering from injuries and pandemic-induced maladies, yet hoping fully to contribute, even if it would cost them dearly in the end. Despite it, they managed to make a notable and respectable contribution. Think of Ben Stokes, who fought heroically, completely forgetting himself, despite his knee and badly strained side, in Sydney. “People will have seen me rubbing my knee from time to time when I was in the field, but rest assured I’m fine,” he said to The Mirror. No wonder the England skipper regards him as a superhero, which he is indeed. That fellow with the Hercules’ physique is always fun to watch, even when he’s just standing there and wondering how on earth the Kookaburra ball had just touched the stumps, but missed to upset the bails, while the astonished Steve Smith and David Warner had been inspecting the stumps, in case the bails had been glued onto them? Eventually, everyone decided it was Fortuna who had played a lovely trick on Ben that day in Sydney, lifting up his and his mates’ spirits. Think of Jonny Bairstow and his right thumb, that fellow had showcased a majestic century to such astonishment that many began to wonder whether his specialty shouldn’t be batting from now on? Think of Jos Buttler and his broken left index finger, Buttler had been in such an excruciating pain and with worries about his future before heading home after his devastating injury. And I’m not mentioning England captain here, as this topic deserves its own chapter. For now, one thing only: The captain had been there for his teammates, rain or shine, always the first to board the ship and the last to leave it.   

But despite all the misfortune and dark mood, England stoically continued to play, often engaging in truly beautiful and sparkling moments of joy with their rivals during the tests. At one point, Stuart Broad daringly confronted the roaming about FoxSports camera, then ran to the deep end and dived in, as if turning the pitch into the pool and making the stadium roar with laughter. The lustrous and agile Marnus Labuschagne, who is ordinarily focused to a T, decided to try a new idea of his, some intricate pas de chat, right in the middle of his batting, bringing himself out this way. Or when Steve Smith with a solemn expression on his face and a concentration of a gladiator did strike a pose, as if warning his opponent: “Now, you dare to slay me, you really do!”, cheering everyone up. Interestingly, the Kookaburra ball had been immensely attracted to Joe Root’s lower body this Ashes. He even was reported to have had a minor injury in his abdominal, yet was there to fight soon afterwards. And he really had to guard himself vigilantly, as the red ball kept flying into the forbidden zone. Mark Wood did his best to play breathlessly, driving the usually inaccessible Marnus Labuschagne three times, the seasoned Steve Smith twice and the canny tough cookie David Warner once out of the field. Wood impressed everyone in Hobart with a haul of the 6 wickets.

Not surprising at all that their strong opponents greatly appreciated England’s courage, persistence, healthy self-esteem, and unselfishness. “They’ve sacrificed quite a lot to come over here. Two weeks of quarantine, time away from families, some restrictions on what they can do, opposed to pre-pandemic. They’ve had some positive cases, the coach being away from this game, it’s been really tough for them. We are really thankful they are out here as part of the series.” The Australia new captain, Pat Cummins, commented after the game. I don’t think Australia could’ve dreamt of a more suitable captain than Cummins. The optimism and pragmatism of his response to any situation on the field is quite astonishing, and so are his ardour and firmness as leader. Not to say that the England captain is no good, on the contrary, as good as it gets: rational, resourceful, liberal, thoughtful, and sanguine. He is a dreamboat for any team. Throughout the years, Joe Root has established himself as an excellent and generous leader. During this Ashes, he had to endure so much criticism on top of everything else, yet remained faithful to himself and his teammates. Not everyone would be able to withstand such a storm of viciousness without being crushed, it requires enormous will and strength of character not to. But he had handled the difficult situation with pride and dignity. Judging by his actions, his motto seems to be “Here to help!” which means placing the needs of others before those of his own. At times, it might be too dangerous for such a generous personality, as it may easily distract him from the very priorities of his. Shall he decide to add some toughness of steel to his captain’s armoury, that would do, and it wouldn’t turn him overnight into a despotic beast, whose shadow is lurking in the minds of those who ruthlessly shredded Joe Root for his captaincy during the Ashes.

I wish all those who are given a voice in the media had kept silent, at least till the end of the series, in order not to demoralise and dispirit the team even more than they already had been by misfortune. Clearly, the critics are thirsty for a despot, an autocrat, a big macho tough guy-ruler, who, naturally, despises democracy, as if there were no other way of winning the next game. But that cruel captain wouldn’t do for the England cricketers or be the right man for me, the spectator. The England test players are too individualistic, they require a dialogue, a collaboration, not a monologue or slavery with orders given to them. On the other hand, the head coach might have been delegated too much power at the moment. That needs urgent reforming, so that he isn’t the only one to blame for the wrong selection of players or any other awkward moves on and off the field. He too needs good collaborators with clarity of their minds and positive attitudes. The appropriate work ethic in times of the pandemic should also be sought desperately. Australia may be a source of inspiration in that regard.   

And now back to the very beginning of the series of the unfortunate events. The preferred batting upon the toss win in Brisbane, is another thing, that was perceived by all the experts as a serious mistake, given the external conditions (e.g. heat and humidity about to kill) that appeared to be disagreeable to England. And thus it didn’t do at all, causing a chain reaction for the future events which prevented England from playing the game the way they did play in the 2019 Ashes, for example, and having as a result Melbourne Cricket Ground, one of the most prestigious and legendary arenas in the world, their final coup de grâce. Filled with so many Australian cricket lovers, the MCG sounded like a great hive of bees with the deafening noise. One can only imagine psychological hardship of playing there as a visitor. Supported by the thousands of their fans, Australia took over the field almost immediately, bringing onto the field, as if straight out of the magical chest, some really frightful game changers, terminators, if you will, e.g. the debutant, Scott Boland, who must have meticulously studied the technique of the England cricketers, including their finest batsman. In fact, so much that Joe Root must have been on his mind even when Boland was sleeping like an angel after a hard day of training. This impressive and intimidating his aggression had been. He did attack his opponents, one after another, Bairstow, Root, Wood, and Robinson, with the might of Polyphemus who stood in the Odysseus’ and his men’s way. Even the usually very collected, sensible and steely, with the light footfall of his and with the air of the divine unreachableness around himself, Joe Root seemed to have been taken off guard. He also seemed to have been depleted of his mellow and well-balanced, pulsating and inspiring energy, as if he were battling insomnia, when not on the field, and that, sadly, affected his game, not allowing him to play fully to his capacity and known brilliance. He, nevertheless, played solidly well, and towards the end of the series, especially in Hobart, he had definitely found the right key how to respond to Boland’s bold attack and how to resist his almost cyclopean aggression. No doubt, Joe is going to work hard on that in the meantime.

After all, Boland is not as much a threat technically as psychologically. His style of bowling is very heavy, yet precise, and it seems as if he were throwing a cannon ball at his opponent. But once Joe goes through his routine with Boland strategically, the tactical moves will come on their own, and Joe Root’s air of magnificence will reign over the wicket and the field again in the future. It will be a pleasure to see them fight again. Amazing is how quickly Root had grasped Boland, that seemed certainly to have shaken Scott’s confidence in Hobart; at least, the England captain had tested the waters before the end of the series, and his memory won’t fail him to practice the defense in a proper fashion until it’s polished to become a reflex, let’s name it the Boland reflex for the next Ashes. Usman Khawaja, another very strong and interesting Australia player, straight out of the magical chest, made it look so easy to bat two centuries for his team. He looked as if he came there not out of necessity but out of idleness. He seemed to have surprised even himself. He and Joe Root had shared pleasant and funny moments together, when Root was in a really playful sort of mood, bowling the rockets. To his credit, Khawaja, even if not sure whether he would be selected for the Ashes, did his homework diligently, and it didn’t fail to pay off.

The new Australia cricketers must have staggered England quite a bit. But in turn Australia old-timers, e.g. Pat Cummins, Steve Smith, David Warner, Mitchell Starc, and Nathan Lyon, must have been equally startled by the difference of England’s preparedness and armoury for the game, compared to the Ashes two years ago, when England appeared to be, in my view, more confident than Australia, both technically and psychologically. Unlike this time, when not only the new skillful players had been put on display by Australia, but also how quickly they retained the Ashes, practically in the middle of the series, despite all the sincere efforts of resistance from the English side. Playing in the Ashes in Australia must be for England teams at all times quite a traumatic experience anyway, let alone in time of trouble, the pandemic. By no means am I an expert in the game of cricket and therefore have no right to give any advice on the matter, but as a spectator I believe the path to victory lies not only in a great deal of tiresome drilling with the red ball and in rejuvenating the traditional side of the cricket game in England, especially with the younger players, as it was suggested by the England captain and some other experts as well, but also with the focus on a mental readiness, which should eliminate any Angst of failure and any anxiety of error. A thorough and close examination of all the strategic tricks of their opponents and spending more time together as a team are the basic elements required for success which the pandemic has obviously prohibited them from practicing more intensely. On the other hand, I’m quite puzzled and amazed how on earth Australia were able to do all this, as they too had many months of restrictions for the very same reason? How wonderful it would be to see both teams equally fit, splendid and victorious again. The good news is that England exhibited their ability and talent to be competitive and zealous, they just seem to be in need of more confidence, togetherness, steadiness, and somehow find a way to have uninterrupted and focused training and haptic experience with the traditional red ball before the next Ashes, the finest form of cricket game that has ever existed. It’s very soon, and all I can say: “Godspeed, my dearest cricketers! There is no time to lose. Per aspera ad astra!”

Written on Sunday, January 30, 2022, the day of the snow storm, in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.

Copyright © 2022 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.