Ashes 2015: does a Don Bradman history lesson explain how series can be seized?
THAT’S 2-1 AND ANYONE’S FOR THE TAKING
As Red Smith once wrote of Babe Ruth, “he must have admired records, since he created so many of them”. Goes double for the Don. One of Bradman’s more obscure marks is in the news again this week. There have been 14 Ashes series in which the score was 2-1 going into the fourth Test, and only once did the team trailing go on to win the series. The captain? Why even ask. Bradman. The nonpareil. That was in 1936-37, his very first series as captain. He was an unpopular pick, too, at least among some of the players. They preferred Vic Richardson for the job and let Bradman know it.
Gubby Allen’s middling England side won the first Test by 322 runs, the second by an innings and 22. Bradman’s scores in those matches, 38, 0, 0, 82. The series turned in the third, at Melbourne, . Bradman declared while Australia were nine down to force England to bat on a sticky wicket. Allen then returned the favour, and declared England’s innings while they were still 124 runs behind. So Bradman flipped his batting order. He sent his Nos 9, 10, and 11 in first to kill time while the pitch dried out. He came in himself at No7 and made 270. He followed that with 212 in the fourth at Adelaide, and 169 in the fifth, at Melbourne again.
Jack Fingleton batted for six hours with Bradman while he was making that pivotal 270. Later, looking back, he picked it out as a turning point in Bradman’s career. The moment when “Bradman the batsman became subservient to Bradman the captain”. Fingleton remembered that at Melbourne Bradman “refused to take a single risk because of the state of the game”, and that he would play that way again often “in the series of 1938, 1946-47, and finally this last season of 1948 in England”. Time was, Fingleton reckoned, when no one would have gone to the bar while Bradman was batting. But he allowed that, in these later years, a glass of beer would sometimes have been a welcome diversion during Bradman’s innings.
So far, this Ashes has seemed unlike any in the competition’s history, which is one reason why it’s been so hard to parse. It is only the third series, for a start, in which the leading team has won the first and third matches, and lost the second. That see-saw pattern suggests the matches should be close, as they were, early on at least, in the 1907-08 series, when Australia took the first Test by two wickets, England the second by one, and Australia then swept the remaining three. But this year all three Tests have been entirely one-sided. The two teams haven’t spent any time in reconnaissance, there have been no jabs, only knockout blows from the get-go, each putting the other flat on their back.
The Bodyline tour is the only one at all akin. Then, England took the first Test by 10 wickets and the third by 338 runs, Australia the second by 111. But Bodyline, like Bradman, should always be the exception to the rule.
If there is a similarity there, it’s that machismo played a part in both. So far this series, the batsmen are rattling along lickety-split at more than 60.37 runs per hundred balls. An astonishing rate, that, almost unprecedented. Among series for which we have full ball-by-ball records, there has only been one of three Tests or more that has had a higher scoring rate. That was between India and Pakistan in 2005-06, when 15 centuries were scored in three Tests all played on flat pitches.
In these three Tests, on the other hand, there have been only three centuries. Unless there’s a spurt of run-scoring in the last two Tests, we will likely end up with one of the lowest total number of hundreds in the modern history of the Ashes. In the past six series there have been 11, 9, 12, 10, 12 and eight centuries scored. At the same time, the 2015 Ashes has already seen 23 individual scores of 50 or more. Which is well above the average. There were only 25 in all five matches of the last Ashes, and in the five before that, 26, 27, 30, 23, 23.
Add all these titbits together, and you find that this is a series being played between two skittish and jittery teams, equally fragile, equally aggressive. The batsmen are swinging, always scoring quickly, but are seldom far from the next dismissal. The exceptions being the centuries made by Joe Root at Cardiff, Steve Smith and Chris Rogers at Lord’s, all match-winning innings.
Early as it is to make a diagnosis, it feels like there may be three reasons for this. The first is that so many of the younger batsmen belong to the T20 generation. The second is that both teams, but especially England, have been encouraged to attack by their coaches. And the third is that the bowlers either haven’t been able, or haven’t wanted, to try to bowl dry. Jimmy Anderson is the only man on either side with an economy rate anywhere near three runs an over.
It’s all felt a little bewildering to watch. Reminiscent of the first day at Edgbaston 2005, when England scored 407 by stumps. Freddie Flintoff took 14 runs off a single over from Brett Lee just before tea. That took England to 284 for four. And up in the commentary box, Tony Greig turned to Geoff Boycott and said: “You don’t understand this, do you?” “You’re right,” Boycott replied. “I don’t.” And then, in a flash of schoolboyish enthusiasm, he added: “It’s fun, though.”
Circling back to Bradman. Typically, any time he’s the only man in history to have done something, most players would have precious little hope of becoming the second. But there are lessons there, for those looking for them, in the way he bent the 1936-37 series Australia’s way by refusing to take undue risks.
The 2015 series is waiting to be seized, by one side or the other. England are up, but are still vulnerable. And as we’ve seen so far these two excitable teams seem so short on resolve and resource that any batsman who can make a hundred will, most likely, win the match for his side. Whether Smith or Root, Cook or Clarke, Rogers or Ian Bell, one long innings would do it. Two in back-to-back matches could seal, or steal, the series.