30 October 2017

The almighty Ashes series returns to the SCG

The Daily Telegraph's Ben Horne previews the upcoming Ashes series as part of the SCG's Around the Grounds magazine. 

Darren Lehmann might have been nursing a sore head the morning after Australia’s whitewash at the SCG, but his delivery was perfect.

“Ashes memories last forever.”

The coach’s hangover was sure to pass but the meaning of what his team had achieved in the shadows of stumps on January 5, 2014 would never abate.

Only hours earlier – a few minutes after a second rendition of the team song was raucously staged on the stroke of midnight – Lehmann had strode from the iconic SCG pitch, back towards the dressing room, arm-in-arm with Michael Clarke. The man they call Boof clutching a stubbie and the skipper a bottle of champagne; a beautiful moment of sporting reflection that will always bind the pair together, whatever their differences.

For Steve Smith, celebrations for only the third whitewash in Ashes history actually started earlier than he desired. As Ryan Harris launched into his run-up for what would prove the final ball of one of the most memorable series of all-time, David Warner was already hugging the skipper-in-waiting in the slip cordon.

Smith tried unsuccessfully to fend Warner off, only for his grinning future vice-captain to come again and embrace him once more.

Seconds later, England debutant Boyd Rankin edged sharply to Smith’s immediate right, and Clarke took the catch to make history. At age 28, Smith has already achieved so much in the game, but it’s this epic whitewash celebration that remains his most vivid and treasured memory.

Mere moments after the final wicket fell, the Australians formed an emotion-charged huddle on the pitch, and for the first time ever, sung their team song, Under the Southern Cross I Stand, in front of a capacity day three SCG crowd and millions watching on television.

Shane Warne in commentary knew what lyrics were coming but still couldn’t stop an expletive going to air as the cameras honed in on 11 cricketers jubilantly relishing in the moment of their careers. This moment, which will be etched into the minds of Smith, Warner and Nathan Lyon as they return home today, symbolises everything that makes the Sydney Test match so great.

It was proof that there’s no such thing as a dead-rubber, particularly in an Ashes, when every single battle means something. The SCG is the exhaustion Test which separates ironmen from cricketers. Before that famous final session four summers ago, Ryan Harris turned to fast bowling partner Mitchell Johnson in the sheds and conceded “I’ve got nothing left.”

Five Tests in seven weeks with the same XI had taken its toll on two old warriors. But the pair urged and cajoled each other on, and the record books tell the story of how Harris, on two bad knees, lifted himself off the canvas and engineered a seven-wicket capitulation.

Sydney is where cricketing dreams are either made or broken. Ashes deciders are rare, but when those once in a lifetime moments spring forth, they happen at the SCG. Tensions can flare and blow-ups are never far away in the baking Sydney sun, when two teams, sick of the sight of each other after a long summer, continue to put their foot to the floor even though the fuel gauge might read empty.

The SCG is the stage of some of Australian cricket’s most extraordinary fairy tales. It’s where Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh retired as giants of the game back in the summer of 1984.

Twenty three years later another trio of luminaries bowed out under the shadow of the grand old members stand, as Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer said goodbye in the glorious aftermath of an Ashes whitewash.

These celebrations linger long after the sun is down and the memories – as Lehmann said so prophetically – last forever. The SCG is the home of cricket folklore. Like a tastefully renovated house, Sydney is not too big and not too small. Not too ancient and not too modern. It has never compromised on what it is to Australian sport.

Smith came here as a boy with his father, making the long journey from Alfords Point in the west of the Sutherland Shire, to watch his cricketing heroes. By age 17, he had joined them out in the middle with the world at his feet, making his first-class debut for NSW.

Smith remembers where Western Australia’s Justin Langer was fielding that day and every stroke he made in a 33-run innings that he still laments “left a few out there.”

The Australian captain, like Steve Waugh and many others before him, feels something at the SCG that can’t be explained. Now he gets to feel it as an Ashes Test match general.

“It does feel different. As a kid growing up I got out to the SCG on a couple of occasions to watch some games and those were the only games I watched live so it was always like, ‘I’d love to be out here one day playing myself,’” says Smith.

“Now to be doing that is pretty special. I’ve had a lot of success individually here and as a group. The end of the Ashes when we won 5-0 that was a special moment.

“Singing the song out in the middle as soon as we finished the game, I’ll never (forget that). I’m really excited about captaining in the Ashes. It’s the big series where you really want to step up and lead from the front."

The nexus of this summer’s Sydney Test will be the colossal match-up of Smith and England counterpart Joe Root. Modern cricket is currently playing host to a live action battle of the titans, with a handful of destined to be all-time greats at the height of their batting careers.

The records of Smith, Root, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson are incredible. Not only that, but these are Hollywood performers who stop at nothing to find another level when they meet face-to-face.

Australia lost in India early last year, but Smith’s defeat of the great Kohli was a technical knock-out. Smith made three hundreds and 499 runs in four Test matches, almost single-handedly lifting his team to what would have been a historic triumph on foreign soil.

Last time Root came to Australia with high expectations he crashed so hard he was dropped by the time the series got to Sydney. But the Yorkshireman has come a long way since then and he possesses the bravado and ruthlessness to turn England cricket around.

The Australian skipper doesn’t see it as Smith v Root, but he knows that outside eyes have them on a collision course where there can be only one.

“I’m just trying to do the best job I can for the team and I don’t really think of it as me versus Joe or me versus Virat,” Smith says.

“(Root) has to be right up there with the best players in the world in all formats. He understands his game really well and plays to his strengths. His record over the last couple of years has been magnificent.

“He’s a dangerous player but hopefully we can find a few deficiencies in his technique. He obviously doesn’t have too many the way he’s been playing the past few years, but he got dropped last time he was in Australia.

“The wickets have a bit more bounce and a bit more pace than in England so hopefully we can exploit a few things there and keep it as similar as we did in 2013.”

However, the history books say that whitewashes are the exception rather than the rule. The 2013-14 meek surrender in Sydney was one of the darkest moments in the history of English cricket, and there are a band of players led by Root determined to ensure that this time, they fight to the death in front of their traveling fans. Their last visit might have been a nightmare, but the SCG is far from a graveyard.

England has tasted success in Sydney as recently as their famous 2011 triumph – which both Alastair Cook and James Anderson were a part of – as well as an incredible win in 2003. The SCG is Australia’s field of dreams, but the spoils are there for the team that wants them the most.

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