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The lions roared at Edgbaston

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Ashes_England_Australia_cricket_TestEdgbaston is an English stronghold. It is not a particularly pretty ground. Well, not anymore. The abominable grandstand has made sure of that. But whatever relics from the past it has preserved retain enough essence to spark an English revival. The Birmingham folk rally behind their cricketers like an army behind an inspirational general. After the decorum at Lord’s, the grunginess of the ground, and the crowd, is perhaps the perfect antidote to the hangovers caused by a hiding at the hands of the Aussies in the home of cricket. It happened ten years ago, and it has happened once again.

After Lord’s, Cardiff seemed like a blot on white paper, an accidental drip when one is not careful enough. On a flat pitch offering little, Australia made the English batsmen prod and poke at deliveries, occasionally flailing their arms, like a drowning man, desperately trying to get out of the way of Johnson's missiles. The scars, they said, had been reopened, as England surrendered. The Australian batsmen plundered English bowlers like the invaders of the Middle Ages. The convicts were having their revenge and the world assumed that natural order had been restored.

The narrative of the three tests- Cardiff, Lord’s and Edgbaston- is quite similar to the one that unfolded ten years ago during the first two skirmishes of that epic series. Back then, on the first morning of the Ashes, England came out snarling and Lord’s, that preserve of mild mannered hospitality, had been transformed into a ground frothing at its mouth, looking to spit fire in the direction of any Australian. England had bowled Australia out for 190 before tea. The visiting captain had been cut open and Vaughn and Co. had made the perfect amphetamine-charged start. It took a solitary McGrath spell of expert seam bowling to suppress English aspirations. The euphoria of the previous day extinguished in the space of 21 runs.

Australia kept to tradition thereon, and gave England their staple of Ashes humiliations. Harmison's hostile burst of fast bowling, the sight of a bleeding Ponting, of Australians made aware of the vicious potentials of the red ball, all seemed a fluke. At least this time around, England could marvel at their cricketers’ maverick qualities for longer than a day.

In the context of the narrative that has emerged, Cardiff 2015 is Day one of Lord’s 2005 expanded. England seemed to have entered a new epoch with their bold cricket, brushing aside a stupefied Australia inside four days. At Lord’s, with its trappings of sophistication, cricket's bourgeoisie and commoners held hopes of a further renewal in England's fortunes, but with the knowledge that Australia would have a lot more fight in them.

On a placid wicket, England were as insipid as Australia were inspired. A 405 run capitulation registered not merely as a statistic, but exposed the English brittleness at the sight of the Australian Minotaur. It was a story that had been oft repeated in the past and was nothing new to the observers. Being a pessimistic lot, the assumptions were that Australia had found their stride and England would do well to win a session of cricket, let alone an entire test.

Australia, in spite of their absolute domination, had a soft spot of their own in Michael Clarke. Woefully out of form and time not being one of his allies, the pressure was on him. England must have noticed this, but were too preoccupied with their own troubles to dwell on Clarke for long. Gary Ballance had been sent back to the wilderness of county cricket to hone his game, and in his place they plucked the free scoring Bairstow from the same wilderness. Local boy Ian Bell, himself out of sorts, would take Ballance's place in a reshuffled batting order. There was much talk surrounding the pitch: the English demanded something more homely, the Australians said they did not care. Give us anything that is 22 yards, they said. It sent a shiver down every English spine.

Enter Edgbaston, the Seattle grunge to the more mellow tunes of Lord’s. If the bacon and yellow pinstripes of the MCC members and the sanctity of the Long Room had been too oppressive for this youthful side, Edgbaston provided a much freer atmosphere. The stands are less imposing, the people more ebullient and, compared to the order at Lords, this was total chaos. After a ballroom dance, England and Australia had been thrust into a cricket rave, much to England's delight.

 

The influence of the ferocious rattle and hum of the Edgbaston crowd could be gauged by a Mitchell Johnson over. Midway through the third and last day, with Australia having resigned themselves to defeat, the crowd’s excellent rendition of 'His bowling is shite' seemed to unnerve him. His final ball was delivered from just ahead of where the umpire stood, well behind the popping crease. It might seem a gentle prank, of Johnson playing along with his pursuers, but I refuse to be so dismissive of the whole incident. That over WAS a bit flat. Was it mere coincidence that the stands were now a cauldron of noise, their chorus of voices reverberating around the ground? I think not! It was a far cry from when Johnson nearly maimed Bairstow and Stokes in one over in the same test.

Steven Finn, on the other hand, seemed to feed off the uproar in the stands. His every ball was ushered in with a prolonged roar, building to a crescendo as he began his run up. Although his 8 wickets will not assume the mythical proportions of Flintoff's over to Ponting, due to his lack of the sheer cult of personality that Flintoff had, the ground tends to shake to life any inert hostility that a fast bowler requires to bring opposition batsmen to their knees.

Although I’ve never bowled myself, I have a feeling that a wildly enthusiastic crowd is the most perfect encouragement a fast bowler can get. Sometimes, bowling is a primal act, where the right rhythms get the bowler in the groove. And on the second afternoon of the test at Edgbaston, Steven Finn and 20,000 people formed one destructive rhythm, a force of sporting nature.

It will be interesting to see if Trent Bridge can recreate the same sort of frenzy, whether it can elevate Steven Finn and the other pace bowlers the same way Edgbaston did. It is a more subdued crowd, a less participatory bunch who are well aware of the line that separates them from the field of play. The Barmy Army cannot play their trumpets in Nottingham, and Mitchell Johnson might as well get a reprieve from the musical that follows him around on English shores.

England also have an annoying win-loss pattern which is indicative of what makes them so charmingly unpredictable, but they can take courage from the memory of how the Edgbaston test kick-started a heady summer of cricket ten years ago. The recent trend indicates that England will lose, but a nugget of history suggests otherwise.

Irrespective of what Bayliss' boys think of either trend or pattern, a win in Nottingham will win them the Ashes. They must, however, do so without the imperious presence of Jimmy Anderson.



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