Cricket: Australia rekindling their sense of self-worth in captivating match
Michael Clarke's team have triumphed by merely achieving relevance again, writes Dion Fanning
In the most urgent fashion, the first Ashes Test at Trent Bridge has demonstrated the futility in cricket of jumping to conclusions.
There were no certainties at Trent Bridge last week. Even the Decision Review System became part of the chaos, bringing uncertainty when it was expected to deliver answers.
If Australia can win today, although it seems unlikely, then the questions about their team will be answered and the Ashes will be off to the most vibrant start. The series begins with back-to-back Tests and last week the back-to-back series also commenced. Three months after the final Test at the Oval this summer, the Ashes will reconvene in Australia and it is Michael Clarke's side which had to demonstrate its capacity to compete.
On Wednesday morning, the great Australian bowler Glenn McGrath rushed under the Radcliffe Road Stand in this wonderfully historic ground. McGrath was needed on the field as Australia looked for somebody to present their totemic baggy green cap to their latest debutant, a man who didn't even appear in the match programme, Ashton Agar.
When McGrath handed Agar the cap which symbolises much more than a debut, he told the 19-year-old – Agar's mother would recount later – "Never give up" and if the words were a hoary bromide, their weight came from the man who was uttering them.
Australian cricket is at a stage where it can't escape its recent past. Collectively, they can't shake comparisons with those great teams and when an individual rises, as Agar did last week, he will be seized upon as a great new Australian hero.
The reaction to Agar's selection revealed the shakiness of Australian cricket and the ecstasy that greeted his astonishing debut might have done just the same.
For some, Agar's selection was a sign of panic, confirmation that the worst Australian side in recent memory was indeed as bad, if not worse, than everybody thought. On the first two days, this view was toyed with. First it was rebutted, then confirmed before being made to seem like an understatement, then a gross exaggeration before sometime late on Thursday afternoon it became an irrelevance.
By then, Agar had altered Ashes history and saved Australia from humiliation. There was a series to play for. Astonishingly, even yesterday afternoon, there was a Test match to win.
If Agar and Phil Hughes hadn't batted as they did on Thursday when Australia were 117-9 then the crisis would have been immediately upon them. Instead it may simply have been postponed.
Australia are trying to regain the Ashes but they are also trying to become Australia again. For a generation, they had a team of imposing characters and great cricketers. Men like McGrath, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting – who made 169 in his final first-class innings for Surrey at the Oval last Thursday while Australia's batsmen were struggling – and Shane Warne remain a presence, an example and an appendage to the words "the next . . ." which will be used whenever a cricketer of promise comes along.
Agar is a different cricketer to Warne in nearly ever respect but he, too, is a spin bowler and so, for some, he became the next Shane Warne, especially once he added a couple of wickets to his 98 runs.
"Is Warney here?" one Australian journalist asked on Friday.
"No, he's still in Vegas," was the strangely inevitable reply.
Warney will be here this week when he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame as Australia head straight to London for the Lord's Test, which starts on Thursday.
If the Australian spirit is as brittle as some fear then that match may come too soon. If Agar hadn't batted as he did, there would have been no hiding place.
Two weeks before the Ashes began, Australia dismissed their coach Mickey Arthur. Australia were struggling on the field and they had suspended David Warner after he punched England's batsman Joe Root in an Australian bar in Birmingham.
Arthur was replaced by Darren Lehmann, a coach who is said to possess an astute cricket brain, but who could also be spotted over the past week at Trent Bridge enjoying a beer on the pavilion balcony or found sneaking a quick cigarette beyond its walls, habits which form part of his image and maybe aid his astuteness.
Arthur had been caught up in a crisis in India when four players had failed to complete a questionnaire – their homework. Lehmann was different. 'The Headmaster of mateship," The Age called him when he was appointed.
Agar's surprise selection was vindicated but when five Australian wickets went for nine runs on the second morning, there were more problems.
Agar along with Phil Hughes and Steve Smith were the three players who scored more than 50. Smith had been another contentious selection. He bats inelegantly, looking at times like a man trying to stop a pancake from slipping out of a frying pan.
Peter Siddle's five wickets on the first day were a triumph for the familiar Australian virtues which are not always evident in this team.
Shane Watson may be representative of the new Australian cricketer. Watson, the great Australian cricket writer Gideon Haigh wrote, "seems to exist in terror of his body's susceptibilities".
He is capable of scoring runs but he is viewed almost comically by many Australians, particularly since he was one of those who failed to hand in homework in India.
Watson started well yesterday afternoon before feeling unlucky to be given out lbw on 46, but it was another failure to carry on from a player who has made 19 Test 50s but only two centuries.
Watson has earned millions from the Indian Premier League and the pursuit of riches in a game which is radically different to Test cricket – although perhaps not that different to the first two days of this Test – has had a profound impact on this team.
Agar has been schooled in more traditional forms of cricket but while some linked his technical ability as a batsman to his failure to play any of the brasher forms of T20, it may be a question of luck rather than planning. Last week, some were already making noises about his potential for Indian franchises.
"We are moving in uncharted territory and administrators are just as much at sea as the rest of us," Haigh said at Trent Bridge.
The players, too, are changing. "They need a lot more positive reinforcements," Haigh said. "They're not as confident in communicating individually. I'm theorising here but a lot of their bonds are established by social media rather than direct interaction. They don't like sitting around at the end of the day's play talking about what they've done wrong and what they've done right in a way that Australian cricketers historically have."
There will be plenty to discuss this week. By yesterday afternoon, Australia was sucked into another debate about its contribution to the game. Few things provoke an outbreak of 'whataboutery' like a contentious decision given against Australia.
When Stuart Broad edged Agar's ball to Michael Clarke on Friday afternoon, the Australians were sure they had taken a key wicket. Broad did nothing and, more importantly, umpire Aleem Dar did nothing. Clarke, having used up his referrals to the third umpire at the same frenetic pace that marks all other aspects of his captaincy, could do nothing either.
On Friday evening, as people wondered about the evaporation of the spirit of cricket, a spirit, like the holy spirit itself, which is no more than a feeling, many felt the Australians had brought this on themselves.
After all it was the Australians who had imagined an alternative spirit of cricket, a game of ferocious intensity where morality was on the side of those who never took a backward step. They couldn't complain now, Geoff Boycott said, even if, within the Australian dressing-room, the mood was summed up by Siddle who asked, "How many players walk?" Broad and the Australians can point to WG Grace, the game's emblem, if they want to enlist historical examples of a man who wasn't distracted by the spirit of the game. "They've come to see me bat, not you umpire," he said once as he replaced the bails having been given out.
Broad had no obligation to walk but, as the BBC commentator Jonathan Agnew pointed out, if a player doesn't walk – especially to a decision as clear-cut as Broad's was – he must be prepared for the consequences which involve some questioning his sportsmanship.
If Broad had walked, some in the dressing-room might have questioned other virtues prized among professionals ahead of sporting behaviour. Some suggested England were due their good fortune as they had been victims when the third umpire made a couple of baffling decisions that allowed Agar to stay and Jonathan Trott to be given out.
Broad stayed in the middle on Friday and England continued to bat as they asserted old Test match values which had begun when Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook were brought together at 11-2 on the second day.
On a slow pitch, both men understood the need for patience, not surprising from Cook, but more of a shock from Pietersen.
On Friday evening, Pietersen met the press at the end of the day when he had scored 64 runs but there were other issues to address. He had said he'd only do one interview this summer and then stay silent and some wondered why he was here. Pietersen is the outstanding genius of the England team but if his problems within the squad have been overcome, his appearance in front of the press was prickly.
He was also there to defend Broad, which he did.
"Each and every player that plays for their country, club side, county, province or franchise has the opportunity to wait for the decision the umpire makes, and you respect the umpire's decision," Pietersen said, and only a few cricketers – maybe Watson among them – would have added 'franchise' to the list of ties that bind.
Pietersen's defence was evidence some said of the repaired relationships within the dressing-room. Last summer, Broad issued a statement stating he had nothing to do with a fake Pietersen account on Twitter which had been set up by a friend of Broad's and which was followed by a number of England cricketers, something which upset Pietersen as he is not only a man of great talent but great sensitivity.
He seemed less sensitive to the feelings of the press during his tense few minutes addressing them but that was an irrelevance.
England appear to have more character and reliable talent in their team but there is the sense that nothing can be relied upon after the first four days in Nottingham.
Yesterday the match had seemed lost for Australia but this game has been so remarkable that nothing is ever lost for long. Last week Michael Clarke's Australia wanted simply to be relevant again. Even defeat won't alter that.