While the Australian media have been winding up England — witness the spats with Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad yesterday — some of their former players have taken a different line with the old enemy.
Okay, there has been no let up from Shane Warne spinning his usual line about Alastair Cook’s captaincy but, in these pages yesterday, former Aussie skipper Allan Border described England as a “ very good cricket team”.
Now David Boon, who was part of Border’s side which won the Ashes in 1989 to spark an era of Aussie dominance, is also talking up England.
Twenty-fours years ago on the flight that brought the Australia team to England for the Ashes, Boon made history by drinking 52 cans of lager.
Now, talking to me from his home in Tasmania and sounding as if he has not had a drop to drink for ages, he says: “I’d be extremely un-Australian not to pick a score line like 2-1 in favour of us. More realistically, even if its one-all and we are really competitive, then we can take a hell of a lot of confidence out of this summer.”
One-all would mean England retaining the urn but, for Boon, this would show that the “wheel of cricket”, which has been turning in England’s favour, is ready to reverse.
“When I first played for Australia in the Eighties, England held the Ashes and were playing really good cricket. Then the wheels started to turn in our favour for a number of years and now it’s gone back the other way. That happens. Yeah, England are quite formidable: a very good team, good balance, very good players. But this summer is probably going to be quite critical to see how long that cycle goes on.”
With less than 48 hours until the series begins, Boon hopes the younger members of the Aussie squad have learned from their 3-0 defeat in England a few months ago.
“Overall, when the real big moments came in those Ashes Tests throughout the summer, England managed to succeed, Australia didn’t. A lot will hinge on the First Test. If Australia can get off to a good start, either winning the Test or being on the winning side of the draw, then it’ll give them a lot of confidence to go into the rest of the summer and be extremely competitive.”
Boon also has a message for the older players and the selectors.
“I would like to see some stability and a squad of players that take Australia through this Ashes with confidence.
“There are a number of senior players who really need to stand up this summer and lead the younger blokes by example. And start those performances right from day one, not leave it to the end. It’s time for Usman Khawaja to stand up and be more consistent at No3, for Shane Watson to be a leader in the batting.”
Australia have long hoped for that but Watson’s tendency to play round his front pad has made him an ideal lbw target for Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad. However, Boon takes heart from Watson’s innings in the final Test at The Oval: “Shane has always been a really hard worker. I heard that [before the Oval Test] he went away and worked hard on that [problem] and he made 176. When any batter goes out, if you can work them over in the right areas in the first couple of overs, you’re going to have a chance. Watson has just got to get over that little start, same as when Ricky Ponting played. He was a little bit at the ball when he first went in. But, if you didn’t exploit that in the first few overs, look out.”
And it is batting, says Boon, that Australia must look to if they are to prove that Ian Botham is wrong to argue the home bowlers are not good enough to dismiss England twice. “Beefy is stirring the pot but I disagree. The key is our batting, the top six must be able to make enough runs against this [England] attack so our bowlers get some time and comfort to take those 20 wickets. That is the big job in our summer for the batters. If the bowlers can relax and perform, rather than worrying about runs all the time, they will be able to stick to their game plans and bowl England out twice.”
However, Boon concedes that for that to happen the Aussies cannot afford any injuries to their bowling unit.
“I have a little bit of difficulty with our inability to keep young very talented bowlers on the park at the moment. James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Patrick Cummins have got enormous talent and have all shown it on the international stage. But then all of a sudden they’re breaking down. It’s disappointing and, obviously, very frustrating.”
Even more frustrating for Boon is the Australian refusal to lay the ghost of Warne even though it is six years since the leg-spinner played his last Test — against England in January 2007.
“Yeah, a lot of people in Australia will keep harking on about Warne but we’ve got to look at reality. We won’t see another Shane Warne in our lifetime. But, given a little bit of time and a few games in a row, I don’t think Nathan Lyon [an off-spinner] is the worst. Nathan can be quite successful at Test cricket.”
What Boon would like is for Australia to learn from the old enemy on nurturing young talent, particularly batsmen. “Young guys like Joe Root made their name last summer, forced their way into the side and performed very well along with the more experienced guys. I was quite impressed with him and he’s got a very bright future.”
Root’s success has led to much debate about where he should bat and Boon, declaring himself “very old fashioned”, says: “I wouldn’t go looking after Joe and playing him where he wants to play. He would definitely be in my top six but he bats wherever’s best for the team.”
But even amid this praise, Boon cannot entirely forget he is an Aussie and he strikes a warning note, saying: “He’s going to have a lot of nerves in his first Test in Australia. We’ll see how he does on our wickets.”
However, he has no doubts that Cook will prosper in Australia. The captain had a dismal time with the bat against Australia last summer: no century and 277 runs at an average of 27.7.
But, says Boon with genuine warmth in his voice: “Alastair Cook should come to Australia with enormous confidence because, the last time he toured here, it was just like somebody had bowled a machine at him and he just made runs [766 runs averaging 127.67]. As an ICC match referee, I have seen him play a couple of times and he just looks like he’s got his game under total control. This summer in England against New Zealand I saw him up at Leeds where he played beautifully.”
But even if Cook (above) makes runs what about his captaincy? Surely Boon agrees with Warne that Cook is too negative?
“The criticism at times has been unfair,” says Boon. “At times he can probably be a little conservative but he’s not the only one who makes that decision, it’s a collective. He’s an English captain who holds the Ashes, so how can I argue with his captaincy?”
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