In 2010 Manic Street Preachers released the lead single from their latest album, entitled It’s Not War (Just The End Of Love). It was crap. It wasn’t Motorcycle Emptiness or A Design For Life, it was just the latest insipid and lame song from a once-great band. A metaphor on so many levels for the first Ashes Test.
Following a selection of spats, including Michael Clarke’s verbal warning to James Anderson’s ulna and radius, Alastair Cook opined that the series had become a war. Well, as wars go, this one looks all rather lovely. As hard as a 5-and-a-bit ounce leather ball is, and as fast as Mitchell Johnson can sling it down a pitch, batting at the ‘Gabba wasn’t, as far as we could tell, directly comparable with the Gallipoli Campaign, the Battle of Megiddo or the Seige of Leningrad. Yes okay, Cook probably doesn’t think this either, but to us the use of such terminology is a bit naive. Meanwhile, the aforementioned threat to break Anderson’s arm resulted in Clarke being fined for “using language or a gesture that is obscene, offensive or insulting during an International Match”. That is fair enough, but we suspect that obscener language gets used fairly regularly in the battle of a cricket match. Oops, a slip of the keyboard there. We meant in the sporting arena of a cricket match.
Of course, the petty and silly worrying about what has been said by players and written by the media has been overshadowed by this morning’s news from Australia. Like everyone else with any interest in cricket whatsoever, we wish Jonathan Trott a speedy and full recovery from his stress-related illness. But also to note that nobody outside of a close circle of people will know the extent of that illness and what recovery in this sense actually means. It also serves to reinforce the point that cricket, as much as people love it, as much as it can be a force for good and as much as it can at times seem incredibly important, remains eleven blokes playing against another eleven.
The news of Trott’s illness also affects the ability to objectively review the match itself. We won’t know whether the illness influenced how other people performed (and quite rightly too), but conversely neither should England’s batting form and performance be brushed over in light of this. Experienced players did not perform to the best of their abilities and within the set-up they may need to re-assess their outlook and technique, much like what the Manics should do about their songwriting these days. England can certainly draw on the experience of winning in India last year, but on the other hand there could be similarities with the defeat against Pakistan in the UAE. Mercifully from their perspective, there is a tour game between now and the second Test, which may give them the time to do what they need to do to readjust to the situation. Certainly Australia would have loved to get back at them within a few days, rather than wait another ten.
As for Australia, well they seem to have seven players in some kind of form for the first time in a long while. Nathan Lyon is still probably singing the team song 36 hours after the match finished. But everyone knows the cliche about form and class. These seven players were excellent in victory – and meant the lack of meaningful contribution from Rogers, Watson, Smith and Bailey wasn’t fundamental. If Australia had lost the first Test, it would have pretty much guaranteed England would romp home in the series, but winning the opener doesn’t have the reverse effect. It is true that the series outcome now looks a lot less inevitable than it did a few weeks ago. But there is a lot of cricket to be played, a lot more narrative to be written and plenty of time for things to change around (or be accentuated further).
The cricket will be intense. The remaining four Tests could define the careers of a lot of players, across both sides. This is what sport is – and what Test cricket in particular should be: challenging, difficult and testing. But even if it’s 2-2 going into the final day at Sydney with all four results possible, even if everyone is hooked on cricket and players have been bloodied, bruised and buggered, let’s not forget that it is not a matter of life and death. It’s not war, it’s just cricket.