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Victory or heist at the Oval?

Nick Bryant | 21:23 UK time, Sunday, 23 August 2009

Fast gaining traction in certain corners of the Australian media is the theory that England has just staged the "Great Ashes Heist": that Andrew Strauss and his team were a pretty average outfit who won the series through time-wasting, dodgy umpiring, the assistance of foreign-born players and a doctored pitch at the Oval.

Just as the CIA tried to see off Fidel Castro with exploding cigars, the ECB tried to kill off Australia's hoping of regaining the Ashes by ordering up an exploding pitch. So for the more populist wing of the Australian press, Bill Gordon, the groundsman at the Oval, has become public enemy number one; the central figure in a carefully planned conspiracy.

England players celebrate Ashes victory at the Oval 23 August 2009However hard the Aussie media tries to peddle this line, I'm not sure how many of their compatriots will buy it. Victory may have been the default position here for much of the past 20 years, but Australian cricket fans now regularly have to countenance defeat - in India last year, against South Africa at home earlier this year, and now in England. Most supporters aren't looking for excuses, and realise that Ricky Ponting and his men were authors in many ways of their own defeat.

Time-wasting at Cardiff in that match-saving final wicket stand? Why, ask mystified Aussie fans, did Ricky Ponting persist with bowling a part-time spinner, Marcus North, at the death rather than handing the ball to one of the quicks?

A doctored pitch at the Oval? It was the same track for both teams, and it was Australia, having studied the wicket, who decided not to go into the final test without a recognised spinner.

Bad umpiring? It evens itself out over the course of a series, and not many people would regard the lamentable decisions which went against Marcus North and Stuart Clark in the first innings at the Oval as pivotal moments in the match.

As for foreign-born players? Had he been fit in body, mind and spirit, the Australians would surely have loved to field the once-dynamic all-rounder, Andrew Symonds. He hails, of course, from Birmingham.

More persuasive in the "Great Ashes Heist" theory are the statistics from the series. As Jonathan Agnew has already noted, Australia scored eight hundreds to England's two and it's an Aussie bowler, Peter Siddle, who sits atop of the wicket-takers list. And if you made up a composite side, Andrew Strauss would be the only English batsmen sure of his place in the top five (although it's worth remembering that had Kevin Pietersen been fit, he surely would have been a dominant presence).

Michael Clark and Ricky Ponting after Ashes defeat by England at the Oval 23 August 2009What will happen now to Ricky Ponting? There is universal regard for his batting here in Australia, but his captaincy has always attracted criticism. This is a huge blemish on an extraordinary career: only the second Australian to lose two Ashes series in England, and the first for more than 100 years. I've long thought Ricky Ponting gets an unfairly bad press, and have always found him charming, accessible and interesting in private. But there are times when he contributes to his own stereotyping, with some fairly peevish behaviour on the pitch, and he won't be able to rely on a groundswell of public goodwill.

I suspect that many of the callers to talk-back radio over the coming hours will be demanding his scalp, and asking how it is that country which only two years ago was the world's sole cricketing superpower has now slumped to four in the global rankings.

I am more than happy to include a flavour of the coverage that prompted this blog, and more than happy to say that much of the coverage has been admirably even-handed and generous. For what it's worth, I reckon that in Malcolm Conn and Mike Coward, Australia has two of the best cricket writers going, and in Gideon Haigh it has the undisputed champ.

So here's some of the coverage which prompted the blog:

On the criticism of the pitch and the groundsman/curator, here's some of the coverage, and some more.

And this is interesting.

On the South African theme, there's this. Curiously, there's also one on
Trott's Aussie connection.

On the future of Ricky Ponting, The Age asks: 'Is this the end of Ricky Ponting' and The Australian is conducting an online poll.

But Malcolm Conn is defending Ricky Ponting, as, err, I did in the blog.

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