(Photo: Getty Images)
By Guy Williams
If England are to retain the Ashes and skipper Joe Root is to return as a conquering hero, he’ll have defied history and join the handful of post-war captains who achieved lasting fame by winning an Ashes series in Australia. Only five have earned that distinction: Len Hutton in 1954-55, Ray Illingworth in 1970-71, Mike Brearley (1978-79), Mike Gatting (1986-87) and Andrew Strauss in 2010-11.
Nearly 50 years after his triumph, Illingworth, now 85, and universally regarded as one of England’s shrewdest captains, has overcome a heart attack, and retained his Yorkshire expertise and outspoken opinions which have not always found favour.
Illy may not like many features of the modern game (“the pink ball is atrocious”), but watches it regularly on the telly at his home at Farsley near Leeds, also attends matches in the Bradford League and still puts down the whitewash on the boundary at Farsley CC. He remembers clearly his success based largely on the feared pace bowling of John Snow (31 wickets) and the runs of Geoff Boycott (657), John Edrich (648) and Brian Luckhurst (with 455).
So as Root prepares for the biggest leadership challenge of his career so far, how does Illingworth rate England’s chances of winning in Australia?
“I think they are 50/50. To be quite honest, Australia have as many problems as England. Their batting is very fragile. Whilst our batting is not completely settled, we have a lot of depth and England will take a lot of bowling out.
“Australia may get five out and think they’re OK, but then you’ve got Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali coming in who can tap you around for a quick 100 partnership.
“As regards Joe as captain, he’s not had a great deal to do yet. It will be harder out there when good partnerships get going. He’s an experienced cricketer now and I agree with Dickie Bird that Joe is the most stylish and best Yorkshire batsman since Hutton, and if Joe does better than Boycs on my tour, he will have proved that point.
“My advice to Joe is that he’s got to make his own decisions and he’s capable of that. I don’t like to see a team meeting at the end of a bowler’s run-up and everyone chatting. Occasionally you might want a bloke to confirm something, but if you’re talking to four blokes, you get four different pieces of advice. That would never have worked for me. Intuition is a big thing. It’s what you feel as a captain at that time.”
If England are to repeat Illy’s glory, Root needs his strike bowlers to deliver match-winning performances. Does Illingworth feel that Jimmy Anderson (a record 506 wickets) and Stuart Broad (388 wickets) can reproduce Snow’s Ashes winning form?
“No. There’s always something the matter with Broad. That’s what worries me about him. He’s got the height which is good for Australia, but I’ve looked at Broad’s pace and half the time he’s bowling at 78 mph, and if he does that all the time, he won’t get a lot of wickets.
“Anderson will keep going and seems to be fit. He remains a steady bowler and Anderson will swing it in Australia. There’s no doubt about that. The Kookaburra ball hasn’t as big a seam and you don’t get movement off the seam, but I’ve found it has always swung and if Anderson is swinging it, he’ll get wickets.
“[If he goes]Ben Stokes will take wickets. He gees people up, gets up to the middle 80s and has got aggression. He might be a bit underbowled, he’ll give a few runs away by experimenting, but Stokes is quick enough.
“On my tour we played two spinners, myself and Derek Underwood and we got more than 20 wickets between us. England now should play two spinners, but I don’t think they will. They could because England have enough batting. It depends on the wickets. They might play two spinners at Sydney.”
Of course, Root’s attack requires decent totals to bowl at and that depends to a significant extent on the class of Root and Alastair Cook who enjoyed a memorable series in 2010-11 by scoring 766 runs averaging 127.66, but was far less prolific as captain in Australian in 2013-14 (246 runs at 24.60) when England were slaughtered 5-0.
“If England score as many runs as we did back in 70-71, we will win the series, but Australia have some useful bowlers and if they have everyone fit, they have three or four capable of getting up to 90 mph. Mitchell Starc is a good bowler and swings the new ball and you fancy him getting a couple of wickets with it.
“In support, you have off-spinner Nathan Lyon whom I think has done marvellously well. He keeps it there, spins it, has a high action and if there’s turn there, Lyon will make England struggle.
“England rely a lot on Cook and he’s had good and dodgy tours out there. If Australia bowl at the right place to him, they can get him out. In my Yorkshire era, I’d like to see Fred Trueman and Tony Nicholson bowling at Cook. They would have done him because he doesn’t get forward much. If you bowl outswingers around off-stump, coming in a bit, and bowl across him, I think you’ll get Cook out.
“Joe’s a good player, gets forward and uses his feet well. If I were bowling to Joe, I’d try to do him with a slightly quicker ball because occasionally you’d catch him on the back foot when he shouldn’t be. That would be my assessment.”
Readily admitting that traditionally it’s hard to win in Australia, not least because the crowds are intimidating-90,000 at Melbourne on Boxing Day – Illy also says England face alien conditions.
“The wickets are different because of the bounce. It’s a different game, particularly in the first hour. You can’t go out there and just push forward because the bounce makes that difficult, but if you are a good back foot player, that helps in Australia.”
The media in Root’s reign is a constant presence and Illy hopes that Joe is treated better than he experienced.
“Joe won’t find the media any tougher than I did. He won’t have the problems of Jim Swanton (Daily Telegraph) and John Woodcock (The Times) who wanted Colin Cowdrey as captain. Most of the press will be on Joe’s side.
“At my first press conference, Swanton said: ‘Would you be prepared to leave yourself out if you weren’t doing so well?’ I thought that was an unreasonable question before the first match, but told him if I was doing badly, I would drop myself. Luckily, the normal press were good with me.”
Like the media, the way in which England are run has undergone a revolution since Illingworth’s era, but one aspect he and Joe have in common is their Yorkshire heritage, and like Hutton and Illy before him, Root shares their hardness in battle and a willingness to give nothing away to Australia.
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