I am going to savour every moment of this Ashes tour as it might be my last chance to play against Australia. Apart from losing the series in 1998-99, I really enjoyed everything about the trip: the quality of the pitches, the conditions, the hotels, the nets and having the chance to talk to the likes of Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell. They are the factors that ensure the country produces great cricketers.
Let me be blatantly honest, however. If we are going to beat Australia, we need things on and off the field to go for us. We need all our big guns fit, available and firing, whereas they can afford to lose one or two players through injury. At some stage we have to put ourselves in a position where we are halfway through a series and we are close to them, something we have not done for 16 years, and then the pressure will hopefully start to affect them. After three or four Tests this time, we need to be in with a chance of winning the Ashes.
Australia target opponents from ball one. They did that in England in 2001, and I know our players will be mentally prepared for it. With his first ball, Glenn McGrath is not going to run up to Michael Vaughan, bowl a loosener and say, ‘Good morning Micky, how was your flight'’ And it will be the same when they bat: Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden will not play for their off stump, leave a few and say they are going to be 50 without loss at lunch — they are going to come right at us.
We have batted well for a year or so now, since the Australians left. We have scored 500 on a regular basis and our openers are in good form. Mark Butcher is playing well, so am I, and John Crawley has come back and scored heavily. We have a good young player in Robert Key, Alec Stewart is firing down the order while Andrew Flintoff’s batting is coming on.
We will miss Graham Thorpe, of course. It was only after a lot of soul-searching that we picked him, but he is a key player and we will be weaker without him. It was better he pulled out when he did, however, than to have a repeat of last winter in India when he left after the first Test.
The major challenge for us against Australia is taking 20 wickets and keeping their scoring rate down. It is crucial how we cope when we have reduced them to 200 for five, only to see Adam Gilchrist walk out to bat. We need to make plans for each of their players and stick to them, and we must think on our feet when they come at us. Maybe stopping them scoring is one way of playing against them. But it will be a faster game than the one we have been playing against India this summer, and you have to stick with the pace.
I admit this summer took its toll on me and I was tired. Continually trying to work out how to take 20 wickets on flat pitches with half your bowling attack unfit left everyone drained, but we continued to play well and after a few weeks off after the ICC Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka I am refreshed again.
It is an overstatement to say that this tour is a matter of life and death, but it is very important to beat Australia, and I know fine players like Mike Atherton, Robin Smith and Angus Fraser unfortunately never enjoyed that. But what is vital to me is that we are at least in a position where we can beat them. That is something I have not experienced before.
We have beaten them in the odd Test, at Edgbaston and Melbourne, for instance, but I have not been in a series with them where they are actually worried about losing. I want to be able to end my career and say I was playing against Australia and Steve Waugh or Gilchrist was coming out to bat worried about losing the Ashes. I look forward to that moment, whether that happens this time, or with me as a supporter in Vaughan and Trescothick’s generation.
I am convinced Australia do not have a psychological hold on us, and the likes of Thorpe and Atherton have always relished playing against them. The bottom line is that they have played better than us since 1989. You have to remember it is a simple game and you have to do the basics well, and they have been technically superior and have caught all their catches. You certainly will not find me saying we are going to make them grovel, like Tony Greig told the West Indies.
The Australians deserve far too much respect for silly one-liners like that. I also do not want to go down the line of telling everybody what a great side they are, and what fine batsmen the Waughs and Gilchrist are. We have been there and done that. This time let us take that for granted, and try to work out a way of beating them.