Sydney: At the instant Australia’s Ashes sweep was completed and a sapping 10-Test marathon concluded, this unchanged, united and all-conquering team split briefly into a couple of cliques. As Michael Clarke, his deputy Brad Haddin and the rest of the batsmen converged in the middle of the SCG, the final wicket-taker Ryan Harris entered into a tight embrace with his fellow bomb hurlers Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon.
Their moment was fleeting but significant, for a triumph plotted in England and consummated in Australia had been achieved on the back of a bowling attack that repeatedly laid waste to the tourists, in doing so proving themselves the fittest, fastest and perhaps even the best of any Ashes bowling ensemble. Clarke had no hesitation dubbing his men the best pace attack in the world. A little private party was certainly merited.
Australia’s achievement is stunning in its enormity, and should be lasting in its impact. England have been left a smouldering wreck, not so much a team as a group of once proud but now bedraggled cricketers. Australia have a platform from which to push for the sustained success so craved by Clarke and all those above him on Cricket Australia’s chain of command. To be No. 1 in the world seemed a ridiculous ambition when the Ashes still sat in English possession. It is a rather more realistic goal now, largely because of the bowlers Australia can call upon.
Six months ago, at the outset of these dual series, England seemingly held most of the advantages. Theirs was a hardened, experienced and talented team, led calmly by Alastair Cook and managed with rare precision by Andy Flower. They had stability, confidence and possession of the Ashes urn on their side, with memories of victory over Australia at home and away to help sustain them through the ensuing trials.
In the other dressing room at Trent Bridge, Australia were a team struggling to find themselves. They had a new coach in Darren Lehmann, a captain in Michael Clarke who had to wrestle with his own back ailment and the deficiencies of his off-field leadership, and a motley group of players sorely lacking in confidence after a mauling in India or, in the cases of Brad Haddin and Chris Rogers, re-establishing themselves in the team at a time many had considered past their best-before date. There seemed very little reason to expect the Ashes would be changing hands in the near future.
Yet there was one reason for Clarke and Lehmann to harbour some hope, and also to take a longer view of the contest to come. While England’s success had been based on strong foundations, their bowling attack could not claim to possess the same level of depth or surfeit of speed Australia had to call on. The visiting pace sextet who posed at Nottingham castle in the days before the first Test looked a strong one, and as yet did not include Mitchell Johnson, deemed surplus to the squad selected.
The narrow English victory in that opening match was achieved through a superhuman effort from James Anderson on the final morning, but it had been notable how Haddin battered Steve Finn and Graeme Swann to get the Australians close. Their fates that day became more relevant the longer the contest went on, as Flower did not feel Finn capable of playing even one more Test, while Swann faded gradually to the point of an early retirement.
Thus, England’s bowling was neither as deep nor as fearsome as their counterparts, who despite losing James Pattinson to serious injury in the midst of a dire showing at Lord’s did not slacken noticeably in pace or direction all through that series. Harris, finally able to play more than a couple of Tests in a row, was a particular revelation. Siddle provided the sort of uncomplicated but highly committed back-up once offered to Allan Border by Merv Hughes, while Mitchell Starc, Jackson Bird and James Faulkner all played their part.
Australia’s selectors took some time to establish their own opinion as to the best attack. Ashton Agar was flirted with ahead of the somewhat under-appreciated Nathan Lyon, while Starc and Pattinson were at the forefront of team planning until injury forced them to wait for future battles. Johnson had to push his case through limited-overs duty, showing in fleeting glimpses that his pace and direction were building to a crescendo as welcome as it was unexpected. Haddin’s approval, from his gloveman’s vantage point, was significant.
“In all honesty I was actually shocked when I arrived in India with the one-day series,” Haddin said. “I’ve played with Mitch for a long time but we hadn’t played together probably for a good 12 to 18 months and when I saw how fast he was bowling on the Indian wickets and how comfortable he was with the ball coming out of his hand, it was actually quite scary the pace that was coming out.
“From that moment on I remember sending a message back home ‘Mitch is right to go’. He was flying then. And the pace he was bowling was a lot different to when I’d played with him previously.”
Lehmann had also brought significant change to the outlook of the bowlers, despite inheriting a group of high quality. He cut back the previous extremes of team rotation, simply stating that fully fit bowlers would continue to be chosen unless they were unable to do the job set out for them. Preventative resting from Test matches was scrapped, though strategic non-selections were not – see Johnson’s early withdrawal from the India ODI tour.
Australia’s support staff, too, was refined. Out went the Victorian strength and conditioning coach David Bailey to be replaced by Damian Mednis, who had worked alongside Lehmann at Queensland. Ali de Winter, the bowling coach, was also moved aside, as Craig McDermott returned as mentor to the Test bowling attack. Happily, McDermott found little need for last-minute remedial work, being particularly impressed by Johnson’s attitude and self-reliance when meeting him in Perth after his return to the job.
So with a bowling attack deep enough and fresh enough to renew their efforts in Australia, Clarke and Lehmann had the weapons at their disposal. Moreover, the loss of the series in England provided valuable knowledge and the basis for plans that would prove so spectacular down under. Visiting batsmen were attacked with precise blueprints for their downfall, visiting bowlers harangued with a brutal barrage of short stuff. Simple but effective.
“We spoke before the start of the series,” Clarke said. “We had set plans to individual batters, we had set plans once No.8, 9, 10, 11 walked in to bat. From ball one of this series we knew we were going to hit them as hard as we could. We planned that before a ball was bowled in this series and I think most importantly, we executed it. It’s easy to have plans; it takes skill and courage to be able to execute them. As I said to the boys before a ball was bowled in this series, in my opinion, they are the greatest attack in the world at the moment and I think they’ve just shown that over five Test matches.”
The final afternoon of the series provided a fitting and murderously swift reminder of exactly how successful Australia’s planning had been, and how pre-eminent their bowlers had become. Hardened physiques and alert minds combined to raze England one final time, though with a hint of counterbalance to the rest of the series. The catalyst for the final English death dive was Nathan Lyon, much as he had been for the first one in Brisbane. And the the destroyer of the tail was not Johnson but Harris, finally collecting some cheap wickets to fatten his tally. Clarke, their tactical ringleader, was a fitting taker of the final catch.
When Australia’s celebrations had moved from the field to the SCG dressing room, a few of the players took time to speak publicly about the series. The toll on Australia’s bowlers was revealed. Harris has had knee fluid build-up in his calf, a hip screaming out in pain, and numerous foot blisters. Johnson conveyed his exhaustion, eyes hollowed out above the Mephistophelian moustache. No one, on either side, truly wants to contemplate a repeat of this 10-match odyssey. But were it to happen, Australia’s bowlers would doubtless bring about a similar final result. It is by their fitness that Australia have not only survived, but thrived.