The England team in this Ashes series so far has resembled an aging boyband embarking on a greatest hits tour where they try to recapture the old magic but can’t quite hit reach the high notes anymore.
First of all, we had the Edgbaston 2005 cover version. Australia set 282 to win, only one more run than on that famous occasion with two tailenders bravely eking their way towards the target, except this time Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon achieved the victory that Brett Lee and Mike Kasprowicz so agonisingly failed to 18 years ago.
The nation has seemed so focused on recapturing that magic of the summer of 2005, it has become almost a fixation for the media and even some of the England players. Every article in the press seems to be about how the country is captivated by cricket on a scale not seen since that fabled summer. Even the England players, notably Stuart Broad, have talked about it. The whole idea is plainly nonsense. The same articles were written in 2019, with everyone from Ben Stokes to Tim Henman debating whether a World Cup and Ashes win would “eclipse 2005”. English cricket has become obsessed with reaching the heights of 2005 in the same way that every generation of English footballers is tasked with living up to “the boys of 1966”. Both targets are completely unachievable. The past exists in our minds as an unattainable place, a hinterland where we can relive our greatest moments without the cumbersome cares of our current lives. It is a remote island that can never be revisited. Indeed, we wouldn’t want to if we could because the realities of it would spoil our perfect memories. Let 2005 remain a beautiful memory, it will never be repeated.
Next on the greatest hits tour was a far more recent, but no less momentous, event, Headingly 2019. That last idyllic summer of cricket before the Covid pandemic, The Hundred and the Yorkshire racism crisis robbed us of our innocence. The similarities between that Sunday afternoon and today were uncanny. Ben Stokes batting with the tail, facing a seemingly hopeless cause in pursuit of an insurmountable target. Stokes even admitted afterwards to modelling this innings on that famous one four years ago, going into his shell and focusing on staying at the crease before unleashing the fire when joined by the tail. However, there were a few important differences this time around. First of all, the target required when Stokes began unleashing his waves of sixes was far greater than that attained that day in Leeds. Secondly, he was facing an Australian team at once wiser and more streetwise than the nice but naive outfit of Tim Paine, more fixated with repairing Australia’s reputation after Sandpaper gate than winning back the Ashes. Pat Cummins’ men were never going to be similarly obliging, as the ruthless run out of Jonny Bairstow showed.
A word on that controversy. Australia was well within their rights to appeal. In that one moment Australia showed that the hard-nosed Aussie way of playing was back. Cummins and his charges can talk about playing a nicer brand of cricket, they can preach endlessly about their activism but when backed into a corner they revert to type, the ruthless “junkyard dogs,” to use a phrase from their former coach Justin Langer, who would do anything to win. In Alex Carey’s underarm throw unto the stumps at Lords one could see the spirit of Trevor Chappell’s underarm delivery to New Zealand’s Brian McKechnie in 1981.It might not be a popular opinion but perhaps England could learn something from their ruthlessness.
It is worth remembering that none of the great days of the past were hampered by the pointless machismo and carelessness of Bazball, the ideology that the most mindlessly attacking option must be taken in all circumstances. Without this reckless risk taking this Ashes series would be, at worst, 0-0 and, at best, 2-0 to England. Sadly, it is 2-0 to Australia and the sessions in which England have irretrievably lost Test matches are, as Ben Duckett said on Friday night, dismissed as “just the way we play”
English cricket fans have been so disillusioned by the divisions and arguments of the last few years that they so want to believe that inspiration is possible, that Stokes’ team can unite the nation and create memories like those of ’81, ’05 and ’19 that we will relive for years to come.
However, it is an oft quoted maxim that “you can never go back”. The nostalgia tour is over, and England will have to face the reality of a team that is 2-0 down in a home Ashes series for the first time in 22 years. It feels a long way back from here.