x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Heading into the Ashes, England cricket fans are wary favourites

For England fans at Trent Bridge or watching on television, this is for many a new and bewildering time – going into an Ashes series as favourites.

England were the holders but Glenn McGrath, left, correctly predicted Australia would be successful in the 2006 Ashes series. Tim Wimborne / Reuters
England were the holders but Glenn McGrath, left, correctly predicted Australia would be successful in the 2006 Ashes series. Tim Wimborne / Reuters

The first day of any Ashes series is always an exciting experience.

But for England fans at Trent Bridge or watching on television, this is for many a new and bewildering time – going into an Ashes series as favourites.

You have to go back to 1989 for the last time England were considered the side most likely to prevail, when Allan Border's tourists were rather foolishly, as it turned out, expected to be lambs to the slaughter of David Gower's England side.

It took just 178 overs of the first innings of the first Test at Leeds that year, as Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor went to town to make a score of 601 for seven, to ensure predictions of English domination were misplaced.

Mother nature proved to be England's best performer that summer, helping them draw two Tests and prevent a whitewash as Border's men cantered to a 4-0 win in the six-game series.

What largely followed in future Ashes was Australian domination, with some occasional hope for England that was more often than not quickly lost.

A false dawn came in 1997 as England defeated Australia by nine wickets in the first Test at Edgbaston.

England fans were jubilant. Was this it? Was this the resurgence long hoped for?

Hope is often a cruel mistress in sport and it was no different here.

Glenn McGrath's eight for 38 skittled out the hosts for an embarrassing 77 at Lord's in the next Test and it was normal service from then on.

Gallows humour had been the crutch for England supporters to lean on in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Cases where that came in handy included laughing at Phil Tufnell's fielding, dealing with batting collapse after batting collapse, and watching Australian after Australian hit spinner Robert Croft around the ground at their leisure, with wicketkeeper Alec Stewart's desperate pleas of "Yes, Crofty" and "That's the line" to his bowler fooling precisely no one.

Easier to be amused and joke about it rather than face the despair of another monumental beating head on.

When England did finally win the Ashes, in the epic 2005 series, they had not been favourites going in.

The English players, fans and media knew Michael Vaughan's side were good, but they were still rightly fearful of a team with players of the stature of McGrath and Shane Warne.

Even when England, for the first time in 20 years, went into a series in 2006 as the holders of the Ashes, they were not confident, though in fairness injuries had meant there was every reason for the weakened English to fear what a revenge-seeking Australian side would do.

McGrath had predicted, as he done in the two series before, that Australia would whitewash England in the series, and that was exactly what they did.

Just to confuse things even more in the current climate of competitive cricket, the now retired McGrath yesterday admitted Australia were the underdogs for this series, making England fans possibly wonder what had happened to the world as they knew it.

England have won the past two Ashes series, but there were few confident predictions of victory from the English media before either campaign.

Once it had become apparent in Australia in 2010/11 that England had the upper hand, some swagger did appear, but not before then.

The team's travelling support, "the Barmy Army" have always been vocal, but never more so then on this trip, with some of the songs aimed at the misfiring Mitchell Johnson reaching a crescendo.

Ian Botham, the former England captain, this week trumpeted that he expected England to whitewash Australia in this series and repeat the feat in the winter when the sides meet again in Australia.

It was weird to read that. Confident conviction based on the fact that, over recent results and current form, England have on paper, the better team and that all signs point to a third successive series win and Alastair Cook lifting the urn successfully next month at the Oval in celebration.

It may be different for the younger generation of England supporters, who came into the sport post-2005.

But for those with longer memories, there will always be a sense of trepidation from the past traumas.

Australia could accidentally field an Aussie Rules Football team against England and there would still be some small part in every English supporter who would not be surprised if a couple of world beaters emerged from their ranks.

Too many past disappointments mean that it will only be the actions on the pitch, starting today, that will convince England fans they truly are favourites for the Ashes.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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