Captain who sparked old enemy’s Ashes dominance explains why he believes this summer’s series will turn out be a lot closer contest than people expect
Should Sir Ian Botham’s forecast of a unprecedented 5-0 England whitewash of the Ashes come true, then Piccadilly Circus will be the site of the spectacle of the summer.
“Look,” says Allan Border, Australia captain for three Ashes series’ victories between 1989 and 1993. “I’ll piggyback Beefy round Piccadilly Circus if England beat Australia 5-0. England deserve to be favourites. But Botham’s 5-0 just won’t happen, it’s going to be a lot tighter.”
Recent Australian performances suggest Border is being optimistic and he agrees that England’s 48-run triumph in the Champions Trophy match on Saturday has given the old enemy the “first psychological edge”. He also confesses that seeing Australia bowled out for 65 in a one-day practice match against India four days earlier made him “very disheartened”.
But he points out that the batting line-up for the Tests will be very different and he is certain that English talk of Australians now deserving charity will only galvanise his countrymen.
“The best way to motivate an Australian side is to grab a few of those headlines and stick them up around the dressing room,” he says. “It’s amazing how it puts a bit of fire in the belly.
“That was the case in 1989. England had a very good side and the headlines then were very similar. Before the First Test, I grabbed a few of those headlines and it riled our blokes enough. It’s just amazing how you get motivation. And we all know what happened in ’89.”
We do indeed. Then, as now, Australia arrived having lost two successive Ashes series. Border, captain for those back-to-back defeats in the Eighties, says: “We won the First Test of that series at Headingley, almost from nowhere really, and it’s amazing how things can turn so quickly. Everything we touched turned to gold.”
Australia collected so much of the cricketing yellow metal that, not only did they win the 1989 series 4-0 but they kept the urn for another 16 years.
Even as he holds out this hope, Border is aware of the contrasts between the summers of 2013 and 1989.
Australia had won the 1987 World Cup, beating England in the final and, says Border: “By the time we got to England, we’d got a fantastic team spirit. It’s always hard to put a number on team spirit but I’m a big believer that it really helps in tight situations.”
That can hardly be said about the present team who, during their 4-0 drubbing in India, saw three players, including vice-captain Shane Watson, dropped for failing to submit a report explaining what was going wrong. It has left the 57-year-old Border, who captained in 93 consecutive Tests, mystified.
“That all seemed very minor, not performing homework,” he says. “I’d like to think that it wouldn’t have happened to Australian teams in the past. Hopefully, lessons have been learned and they get back on track.”
But, even if the Australians recover their team spirit, the more difficult problem, admits the Queenslander, is whether they can find their batting form. “That’s where Australia are most vulnerable,” he says. “The batting is not settled and that’s the area they need to really shine if they’re going to give England a good run.
“For Australia to win they need runs from their top three or four in the order. If you do that, it’s amazing how you can build those 300 to 400-plus scores, which is what we did in ’89.”
That summer, four of the top five in the Australian order averaged more than 70: Steve Waugh (126.50), Mark Taylor (83.90), Border (73.66) and Dean Jones (70.75). “Taylor was just freakish at the top of the order, Jones and then Steve Waugh just came of age and it all just flowed on.”
The problem for Australia now is they have so few talented players who can come of age that the selectors have recalled Chris Rogers, a 35-year-old who played his sole Test match five years ago. But, for Border, selecting the Middlesex captain is no handicap.
“Rogers has had good [county] form in England in recent years,” says the Sky Sports commentator. “Australia need someone to blunt the English attack at the top of the order. He’s my man to open with David Warner.”
Border would then have Phil Hughes or Ed Cowan at three, Usman Khawaja at four, Michael Clarke at five and Watson at six. But, even as he sketches out this potentially viable batting order, he is keeping his “fingers crossed” that Clarke will recover from his back problem. “He’s been Bradmanesque in the last 12 to 18 months and we need a fit Clarke.”
However, even if Clarke makes it, Border admits: “The English bowling will cause Australia some concerns, they are very good. Graeme Swann is the best around.
“In England, Australia, South Africa, you don’t often see off-spinners winning a Test match but Swanny’s just been fantastic. The Australians will have quite a number of left-handers in the team, so Swanny must be licking his lips in anticipation.
“Swanny and his partner in crime, Jimmy Anderson, have really come of age and they lead from the front. The Australians also have a very healthy respect for Stuart Broad and [Steve] Finn. If they’re fit, the Aussies will have to be really on their game.”
However, while the English bowling attack is expected to trouble the Australian batting, Border says it’s not a one-way street.
“We’ve got some very good fast bowlers that should worry the English batsmen,” he says. “James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc give you that variety, that combination of fast bowling which is very capable of taking the 20 wickets you need to win Tests.”
Border sees in Siddle and Pattinson a touch of Merv Hughes, “the young enforcer” of his 1989 side. “Once you put the ball in Merv’s hands, he was just fantastic. He’d run in and give you 100 per cent all the time, hard to bat against because he would bowl a lot of bouncers and be in your face.
“Siddle and Pattinson can ruffle feathers, a bit of the old sort of larrikin and Aussie fast bowler-type spirit about the way they go about things; not shy in saying a few words, irritable out on the field. It’s always good to have those guys up your sleeve.”
He also has confidence in Ryan Harris and Jackson Bird. “They are really good line and length bowlers.”
What has boosted Border’s confidence even more is England’s batting in the two series against New Zealand, the first of which the Black Caps were unlucky not to win. In a hopeful tone, he asks: “The Kiwis had their moments, didn’t they? There were some encouraging signs that England can be got at, a little bit of vulnerability.
“In saying that, they’ve got some great performers. Alastair Cook’s been brilliant, I’ve got a lot of time for [Ian] Bell and Jonathan Trott is one of those guys who’s a 100 per cent competitor.
“But I get the feeling they’re missing Kevin Pietersen. He has the x-factor, the guy who can take a game from the opposition very quickly. So it’ll be interesting to see what shape he comes back in [after a knee injury]. The middle order is where the Australians can really attack England with some good fast bowling, make England vulnerable.”
Border is so confident of the Australian bowling he does not understand the fuss being made about Fawad Ahmed, the 31-year-old Pakistan-born leg spinner whose citizenship has been fast-tracked to include him in the Aussie A team.
“I’m not so sure we’re not jumping the gun and hoping he’s going to be our Ashes hero. I haven’t seen enough of him to get overly excited. And is it undermining Nathan Lyon [the only spinner in a 16-man squad] who hasn’t been that bad for us?”
But, for all these optimistic noises, Border agrees his country’s sporting decline means: “We’ve probably got to go back to the drawing board.”
But should Border not be at Cricket Australia’s drawing board? He is frustrated not to be involved and says: “I’d like a role somewhere there.” However, for that call to come, he may first need to carry Botham around Eros.
Enjoy all the big events live on Sky Sports this summer including the Lions Tour Down Under, the Ashes, Formula One and US Open golf.