I have been following Ashes campaigns closely for over half a century now. The first Ashes Test I followed was a famous one - Old Trafford 1961. I remember listening to the radio commentary as Richie Benaud spun out England as the home team slid sharply from 150 for one to 201 all out to lose by 54 runs and hand Australia the Ashes.
Ever since then I have been aware of the capacity of the Australians to fight back. The Aussies are traditionally the toughest team in international cricket. The phrase ''no match is lost till it is won'' applies more to Australians rather than any other combination. No outfit is more dangerous when cornered or underestimated.
The history of cricket is replete with classic examples of Aussie gallantry and fortitude in adverse circumstances, how they have turned potential defeat into a glorious victory. In 1964 Bobby Simpson’s side were written off as no-hopers as they arrived in England. But showing true grit and determination the seemingly emaciated visitors won the series against seemingly invincible opposition.
Sure, there have also been the occasional colourless and spiritless Australian sides over the years, but I can honestly say that I cannot recall an Aussie side so meekly surrendering as Michael Clarke and his men currently touring England. It is quaint to talk of Aussie heroics but at the moment it is out of place for I am convinced that Clarke’s side is the worst to tour England.
There have been a few touring squads that have not measured up to the highest Aussie standards and this is borne out by results. The 1977 team in England lost three straight Tests while losing the five-match series 3-0. The 1981 and 1985 teams went down to England 3-1 in six match contests.
But the only parallel I can think of where the present squad is concerned is the 1978-79 series ''Down Under'' when England won the six-match series 5-1. That of course was an Aussie squad hopelessly depleted by defections to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. And unless there is a remarkable turnabout and the visitors raise the level of their game several notches England could well make a clean sweep of an Ashes series for the first time after being at the receiving end themselves in 1920-21 and 86 years later both in Australia.
I always thought that Australia were exceptionally lucky in going down to a narrow defeat in the first Test at Trent Bridge. Despite some phases of a typical Aussie fightback England were clearly the superior team and had Ashton Agar being given out stumped when on six in the first innings – as he was in my view – the match would have ended much earlier with England winning by a comfortable margin.
There was no escape route for the Aussies at Lord’s though and as though to make up for the good fortune they enjoyed at Trent Bridge they had to endure one of their worst defeats in Ashes history.
While previewing the series I had written about how the Aussies’ recent record left a lot to be desired, how inexperienced the squad was and how the batting and in particular the bowling did not inspire confidence. Two Tests into the five-match series and the weaknesses have been badly exposed.
If there was any hope that the current squad would pull off an upset victory against a well oiled England machine it has been quickly squashed. Is this really an Australian team or are they Bangladesh in disguise?
There are virtually no redeeming features about the visitors and the Ashes series thus far has made for sorry viewing. The essence of a contest has sadly been lacking as the England batsmen have made easy runs against a weak Aussie bowling line-up even as their bowlers have comfortably found themselves among the wickets.
It is always sad to see a once great team break up and then slide from one defeat to another. We have seen it in the case of the West Indies and now we are seeing it in the case of Australia who in fact dethroned the Caribbeans and took over at the top in international cricket in the mid 90s.
For over a decade they were the team to beat as they mowed down all opposition, twice setting up the world record of 16 victories in a row in the process. Like in the case of the West Indies, retirements of great players took its toll, the replacements were not good enough and quick on the heels of a 4-0 rout in India, Australia now have lost the first two Tests of an Ashes series for the first time since 1978-79. In England this has not happened since 1890. Yes, that’s 123 years ago.
What has been really pathetic to watch is the lack of fight and the absence of technique, temperament and skill. There have been the occasional crumbs of comfort but overall this has not been a performance in keeping with Australia’s lofty standards. There are still in the rebuilding process following the retirement of the several stalwarts and indications are that it will be a very long time for an upswing in Australia’s fortunes.
In the meantime, chief interest will now revolve round England and whether they can complete a clean sweep for the first time in Ashes history. They have a realistic chance for they are playing good cricket, the batting and bowling is equally strong and Alastair Cook is gaining in confidence with every match as captain.
That’s about the only interest left in what could well be one of the most disappointing and lop-sided campaigns in Ashes history.