The Ashes demons 

Australia had lost five wickets. They hadn’t crossed a hundred. In both innings. Australia’s biggest demon was back again.
The man who usually strode out was this little nugget of Australian. A hero to his team-mates. A villain to the opposition. A man who chews gum and abuses the opposition in the finest tradition of masculine Australian cricket. A man who once claimed a bowled when his hands took off the bails. A man who once saved Australia four out of five Tests in one Ashes. A World Cup winner. An Ashes winner. A member of the world’s No. 1 Test team. Their vice-captain. Their team man. The gravel in their gut, the spit in their eye. Brad Haddin.
But instead came out a little known man. Many called him Phil. They used a superfluous ‘e’ when writing down his surname. He barely has a Wikipedia page, and it’s full of Brad Haddin mentions. If it was properly updated, it would have been even more.
Peter Nevill made his debut at Lord’s, in an Ashes Test, with Australia 1-0 down after coming in as favourites. Then, his second Test came as Australia A selected a younger wicketkeeper with two Test centuries to his name, and amid calls from Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne and Ian Healy for him not to be in the side.
The Australian website Mamamia said Nevill was in the side at Edgbaston because “an Australian legend has been fired for being a good father.” That kind of ignores the fact that Haddin has not been dropped because he left the team to tend to his family, he had been dropped because he had made one fifty since winning Australia the Ashes 18 months ago. And maybe even because he had dropped Root at Cardiff.
But when Nevill batted on the third and final morning of the Edgbaston Test, all that was going on behind him, whispers at his back, in front of him was a giant Steven Finn and a tiny Australian lead.
It could have been Mark Wood. Wood had shown enthusiasm, freshness and raw pace in his Tests this summer. His 14 wickets have come at 39, but often he has made an English attack look more potent, even when not getting the wickets himself. But Wood was overbowled, and his ankle couldn’t stand up. They had always said that might happen.
With two allrounders, that makes the third bowling position even more important.
Moeen Ali has been attacked badly and then milked well. After playing a huge part with the ball at Cardiff, he is still taking his eight wickets this series at 45. He has the spin, but not always the control. As Nathan Lyon looks more and more like a Test bowler, even willing to stare down David Warner for over 10 seconds for a fielding error, Mooen still looks like he is learning, and that he doesn’t quite believe yet.
But his biggest problem isn’t belief; it’s pressure, maintaining it. He can’t maintain pressure for long enough to be a frontline bowler. But with the bat, at No. 8, twice he has played innings that have sapped and ruined Australia’s chances. Higher up the order he had struggled, and he still doesn’t always seem to know how to bat at No. 8, but his two fifties are very important. If Moeen makes runs, doesn’t make runs, takes wickets, doesn’t take wickets, someone will say he isn’t good enough.

There were many who thought this would be Ben Stokes’ Ashes, at the moment he has as many fifties as he does wickets. But when Stokes makes an impact, everyone feels it. His fifty at Cardiff was like a series of punches; his fifty at Lord’s was the only time England looked like a quality Test team.
When Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc had put on 28, there were English nerves just starting to twitch when Stokes came on. Stokes is not yet a consistent Test match performer. He averages less than 40 with the bat, more than 40 with the ball. But, he has moments. When things aren’t going well for England, it always feels like he could change that. When he took Hazlewood’s wicket, it was one of those moments. Without James Anderson, with Finn and Stuart Broad overbowled, Stokes had to do something.
Stokes bowled as quickly as he could, threw himself through the crease and took the edge of Hazlewood. Then he hit Lyon’s pads for two huge shouts and threw himself into the appeals. Later a drive is clocked back at him, he throws himself at that. He is throwing himself at this Ashes. Mitchell Marsh is the same player slightly earlier in his career. Both can change games through sheer force of personality, both have had troubled off-field beginnings, that they are trying to put behind them as they play in Test cricket while they are still developing their game.
Either could end as legends or punchlines. Test allrounders, sadly, seem to only have those two options in cricket mythology.
The man that Marsh replaced is destined to remain in the second bracket, despite having all the skills required to be in the first. Shane Watson was often a tragi-comic player, and now out of the team, it’s more tragic. How could someone so naturally gifted be a batsman who couldn’t make big scores and a bowler who barely bowled? How could he end up so derided, so unliked, so humiliated? So out of an important series. Is that it, has Watto walked that sad trudge off the field for the last time? That’s what they say.
And is he even the only one. Ryan Harris never even made it out on the field. Haddin might never play again. And Michael Clarke.
There seems to be more talk about whether he will retain his place than his stats suggest there should be. With Clarke, there has always been more talk. Since the Ashes he has made two magnificent Test hundreds, one with a broken arm, one with a broken heart. They are also his only two scores over 50 since he last won the Ashes. The whisper mill has it that the team is not happy, that Cricket Australia is not happy, that there is something amiss with Clarke’s leadership. This talk occurred before, during and after their World Cup win. Then there is his back, which has hounded him as much as Australian public opinion, and now seems to have now changed his actual technique.
And that drop. Clarke is a brilliant fielder. That drop of Ian Bell might not have cost the match. Or the Ashes. It does make the rumoured divisions louder, it makes his form seem worse, and it all adds to the normal pressure of being 2-1 down in an Ashes you were favoured to win.
Alastair Cook was once a 50-50 chance in the slips. Those days are long gone, he has made himself a better catcher the same way he has made himself a better batsman, by refusing not to be. He has done the same with his captaincy. Cook was a lead-from-the-front captain. He made runs, set defensive fields and waited for things to happen. Everyone had an opinion on his captaincy. They always have. Winning in India didn’t change it. Winning an Ashes didn’t change it.
In this series Cook’s only runs have come when England needed them the most, but when they counted the least. But he has led this team. More than he has ever led before. He has spent months under pressure, losing the ODI role, losing a coach, having his friend and former captain back in charge of him, drawing with the “mediocre” West Indies, and then drawing from in front with the New Zealanders. He’s been barely floating in a sea of negativity, and yet now, even with a top four that has for most of this series, been extremely flammable, has a lead.
Cook’s opening partner Adam Lyth made a hundred in his second Test, Edgbaston was his fifth Test, his career average is 22. His second-highest score is 37. His average in the Ashes is 12. He is only 27. He might be dropped. He might be back.
Adam Voges made a hundred in his first Test, and in his fifth he is averaging 40. His top score in this series is 31. In this Ashes he is averaging 14. He might be dropped. He probably won’t ever come back.
Voges has spent his whole career not being the chosen one. Being a fill in. Not being rated. Then he finally had his golden summer. He forced his way into this team without media hype or flashiness, just by being so much better than the other middle-order contenders. Nothing has come easy to him. His international career has been paved with potholes, when paved at all.
But then, this old man, this discarded ODI specialist, strides to the wicket for the first time in whites for his country. The team is in trouble, he bats on, the batsmen all go, he bats on. The tail stay with him, he bats on. And then the tail go out, and he stands unbeaten on 130. A match-winning innings in his first Test.
He has played four Tests since, he has not scored over 37 since. And the worst number is his age, 35. The only number that matters is the 2-1. But at 35, you have less time, Voges knows this every time he walks out to bat, and every time he walks back. His career might finish with a golden duck.
Chris Rogers is the other side of Voges. He came in when Australia was desperate, and now he might be leaving while they still are. He started the tour with an embarrassing ticket scandal and also had some speculating on his place. This was because he had missed the Tests in the West Indies after being hit in the head. With Shaun Marsh making runs, and in form, suddenly Rogers was barely holding onto his place. All this while in the middle of a world record run of scores over 50. So Rogers did what he has always done, went about making runs any way he had too.
Rogers, 37 and 334 days, of Australia, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Middlesex, Northamptonshire, Victoria and Western Australia, is the leading run scorer in this Ashes. The same Chris Rogers who thought the Lord’s pavilion was moving, who sat mid-pitch staring into a void none of us could see. Who retired hurt on the verge of another half-century. Who almost missed this Test because of his inner ear. Who will, in two Tests time, be entering a permanent Test cricket void, while in the greatest form of his life. His long life. His 24,365 first-class runs life.
Ian Bell’s form seems to rage between effortless grace, style and time, and looking back at the pitch in a confused mess, trying to work out how it all went wrong, again. His fifty at Cardiff was important, his fifty at the end of Edgbaston iced the game. At times his 33 years of age have been discussed like he is 43, has a limp, and hands made of cheese. At his best he can drive Starc down the ground like the world was invented just so that can exist. Then he can slap through point like he’s painting the world’s prettiest picture. And then he can play an angled shot straight to second slip. As England won at Edgbaston, he rested on his bat handle as Joe Root hit the winning runs. He could have been just as easily in a corporate suit watching on.
Beautiful and frustrating, like a significant other that is too damn sexy to give up, and too damn infuriating to stay with. They will be talking about his beauty, and his failures, until they stop talking.
Starc is much the same. There is so much upside. If you close your eyes and think of Starc you see hooping inswingers smacking into stumps. If you open them you see him failing to maintain line or length. The difference between his best and worst is as wide as some of his deliveries. There is a world beating force of nature in ODIs, and there is a lost guy trying to work out how to bowl consistently in Tests.
If he wants a role model, Mitchell Johnson is right there. Johnson has travelled every road Test cricket can offer. He’s lost a Test, at the WACA, with Shaun Tait and Brett Lee beside him. He’s burned through South Africa as much as any modern bowler, and he’s trashed the Ashes, for good and bad.
Few cricketers make as many demons as Mitchell Johnson. Few cricketers have as many demons as Mitchell Johnson. At Cardiff the demon whispered in his ear. At Lord’s he became a demon. At Edgbaston the demons howled at him.
Can he do this in England? Can he handle their mouth? Can he handle their pressure?
At one stage he fumbled a simple single, and he jumped back to get the ball and flung it back in with panic. He was worried about letting through a run, but he look terrified of giving the crowd more to abuse him for. When he came on, that was all they needed.
By the time his last over was in full flow, and he was trying to get a wicket caught at leg slip, the Hollies stand was at full growl. There was no holding back, they had already stood up, as they were, in their words, 2-1 up. They had already sung the Mitchell Johnson is s***e song. They had already chanted Mitchell, Mitchell. Johnson’s second last ball was a low full toss outside off stump. It was a horrible ball. No one in the crowd didn’t remind him of it.
The crowd was at full bark. Johnson abandoned the next ball as he got to the crease. When he delivered the next ball, among the hooting and hollering, he did it from next to the umpire and well behind the crease. Perhaps he thought it was funny, or a prank. But the crowd had produced that, whatever it was. The bad demons were 2-1 up in Johnson’s mind. It will be his last competitive ball before Trent Bridge.
Steven Finn went for a while without bowling competitive balls not long ago. On Friday he bowled an hour of them unchanged. Working over Nevill. Looking for that one more wicket. To make up for the wickets he lost. To make up for all the talk about him being finished. To erase the word unselectable from the front of his name.
In Alice Springs, Finn had run in like a man worried the crease might explode had he got there. Now, with run-up kinks and psychological scars, he ran like a man trying to take his sixth wicket, to close Australia down.
Stuart Broad is in the middle of another quality spell of wicketless bowling. James Anderson is off the ground with people guessing whether his side is actually Glenn McGrath’s ankle.
Finn has to take the wicket. If he doesn’t, Australia’s controversial gamble on Nevill might pay off. Finn proved to himself he was ready earlier this season. He proved to the selectors he was ready before this Test. He proved to his captain in the first innings. He proved to the world in the second innings. But, with his leader down, this was his time.
Finn could have bowled one of those occasional hoopers he had produced. He could have got one up off a length as he sometimes does. He could have replicated one of his many unplayable seamers from earlier in the Test. Instead he sprayed one down the leg side.
Nevill could have missed it, he could have glanced it to fine leg, and he could have flicked it for four. Instead, the man who batted like he was validating the faith in him, just found an edge. Perhaps one so fine that he didn’t even feel it.
Finn took his sixth wicket of the innings. Nevill walked off with Australia’s last chance of a defendable lead. Steven Finn left the field with his head held by, the same one he had in his hands so often the last time he was in a Test squad. This time Edgbaston stood for him.
His demons were quiet.
Australia have lost two Tests. They haven’t lost the series. But their demons are whispering.

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2 thoughts on “The Ashes demons 

  1. Messy Jez says:

    An interesting set of observations. As an Australian, I feel as if it would be handy if Clarke could stand aside for “personal reasons” and give Sean Marsh a go. What surprises me is the lack of any discussion of Jos Buttler’s position. With Bairstow in the side, and Buttler having scored just 67 runs at 13.4, what is the point in having two decent keepers in the side, but no full time spinner?

  2. ironduke99 says:

    As they say in Aussie ‘you cannot beat a good Root’

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