Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Last Laugh

By Shane Thomas

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." - Mike Tyson.

In the summer of 2013, Engand trounced Australia to win the 2nd Test by 347 runs to take a 2-0 lead in the 2013 Ashes series. In his post-match press conference at Lord's, Australia captain, Michael Clarke declared his belief that his Australia side could win the final three matches of the series to regain the Ashes. This statement elicited bouts of derisive laughter from the press, and likely many England cricket fans.

The mocking didn't seen misplaced. Australia's preparation for the series was shambolic, and despite a dogged performance in the 1st Test, which England narrowly won, the beating they had taken at Lord's represented what many pundits felt was a marked lack of quality between the two teams.

However, England's eventual 3-0 success to retain the Ashes always had a caveat by it. Where normally they could savour the win, and keep the urn safe for at least a year, it would be mere months that England would have to head to Australia to defend them.

And while England had shown the whip hand over Australia since 2009, there was a growing feeling among cricket observers that this England team had peaked, and was on the downswing. Much like an experienced champion boxer, England had been winning contests through craft and nous, rather than with swiftly assertive cricket.

It seemed that the Australian players and coach, Darren Lehmann were acutely cognisant of this, as they felt they had the approach to knock England out of their comfort zone. It was to use the familiarity of their home conditions, and go on the attack, playing cricket aggressively, and pressuring England from the first ball.

This was best typified by David Warner and Mitchell Johnson. Warner has a past litany of falling foul of team disciplinary rules. However, he also remains one of the most destructive batsman in world cricket - one could see from his debut in a T20 match vs. South Africa that he had a bit of something about him.

Johnson, meanwhile was previously described by former Australian fast-bowling great, Dennis Lillee as a "once in a generation" cricketer. And his fearsome spell against South Africa in 2008 backed up those words. However, he struggled when playing against England, the pressure of having to lead the attack seeming a burden to great to bear, and ended up being a regular target for derision from the England fans.

But Lehmann and Clarke knew that both Warner and Johnson had the ability to rock England if used right. And given that Warner was the highest run scorer in the series, and Johnson the leading wicket taker, it clearly succeeded.

Johnson's performance in the series was the real revelation. While Clarke entrusted him with the new ball, rather than be relied upon to exert the control normally required from a strike-bowler, Johnson only had one responsibility; bowl fast and straight.

Used only in brief spells, Johnson's role was as "shock-bowler". And using the hard Australian pitches, Johnson would often get the ball rearing towards the England batsman's chests, rib-cages, and throats. It was the proverbial "punch in the mouth" that they couldn't plan for, and the subsequent mental tremors shuddered throughout the psyche of the England players throughout the series.

Johnson's devastating bowling in the 2nd Test at Adelaide was proof positive that the England batsman had allowed the Queenslander to get inside their heads. The impact of Johnson's displays had so disturbed their equilibrium, that they were too busy trying to recover from the initial impact to focus on the next salvo.

England batsman were like zombies, going from ground to ground in a daze, unable to reconcile what had happened, what was happening, and what was going to happen. They may have had ringcraft, but Australia exposed their glass jaw.

He who laughs last, laughs best. And after whitewashing a demoralised England 5-0, and what he dealt with in that aforementioned press conference last summer, you can be sure that Michael Clarke laughed best of all.

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