Oz mind games could just bag them the Ashes

2009-08-15 00:00

GIVE credit where credit is due. The Australian cricket team, and their associated imbongi, have been playing their English counterparts like a fiddle during the past couple of weeks. By word and deed, they have delivered nothing less than a masterclass in messing with the heads of the opposition.

The Ashes decider starts at the Oval on Thursday and the home team appear in disarray. This does not necessarily mean Andrew Strauss’s side will fail to win the final Test and so reclaim the little urn — nothing is certain in a series long on drama but short on quality.

However, the odds against an England triumph are continuing to lengthen by the day.

It was Steve Waugh, the archetype tough Aussie ocker, who patented “mental disintegration” in the 1990s, and his successors in the baggy green caps evidently share his conviction that close encounters are generally won and lost in the head.

A fortnight ago the tourists were struggling. They worked hard to escape with a draw at Edgbaston; then, still trailing 1-0 in the five-match series with two to play, Ricky Ponting launched a textbook counter-attack. “You have to say Andrew Flintoff is a genuinely fantastic player,” the Australian captain told any journalist who would listen, and many did. “It’s no wonder he is so popular wherever we go. He has that special ability to change the course of a game either with the bat or with the ball. He really is a massive part of this England team.”

When the teams gathered for the fourth Test at Headingley, Flintoff was nursing an injured right knee, but he made it unequivocally clear to the English management that he reckoned he was fit to play. Maybe mindful of Ponting’s artful remarks, perhaps over-eager to prove they could win without their much-praised folk hero, coach Andy Flower and Strauss jointly decided the all-rounder would not last five days and ruled him out.

“We’ve taken the emotion out of the decision,” Strauss said.

Flintoff drove home in a huff. Australia dominated the Test match from the first ball and almost won inside two days, eventually securing victory by an innings and 80 runs soon after lunch on day 3, levelling the series and effectively leaving their needing only to draw at the Oval and retain the Ashes.

Next day Ponting could not help himself. “England obviously missed Freddie,” he said, “and it won’t be easy for them to decide whether to risk him in the fifth Test or not.”

Other voices joined the chorus, conceivably on cue.

Former opening batsman Justin Langer described England strike bowler James Anderson as “a bit of a pussy if he is worn down” in a previously confidential dossier sent to coach Tim Nielsen before the tour, but timeously leaked to the Sunday Telegraph as the Australian onslaught continued.

Within hours Matthew Hayden, another name to rekindle English memories of recent Ashes disasters, was emerging from obscurity to appear in all forms of media, fuelling feverish speculation about how the English selectors would respond to the batting collapses at Leeds (102 all out and 120-7). “Obviously Ravi Bopara is a huge talent, but he’s out of form,” said grinning Matty. “Maybe they’ll bring back Mark Ramprakash or Marcus Trescothick, but it won’t be easy for either of them.”

The ravenous dogs of doubt were let loose through English cricket and, two days later, Trescothick withdrew his name from the hat, explaining he had suffered a nightmare about being named in the team for the Oval and somehow being unable to get his kit out of his bag before the start of play.

Ponting followed up with a newspaper column, saying it was “amusing” to watch England in disarray about Flintoff and the batting line-up. Even the previously toothless Peter Siddle began to resemble a lion cub gambolling over the carcass of his first “kill”, telling reporters the spectacle was “entertaining”.

A prominent South African was recently asked to give his opinion of Australians. He pondered for a moment and then replied: “Well, let me put it like this: when Australia play England, we really don’t know whom to support.”

Like them or loathe them, we should look … and learn.

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