Ashes HQ ASHES HQ 2009

Normal service resumed

It didn’t take long, did it? The teams were relatively evenly-matched for the first couple of days, and some England fans continued to allow themselves to be kidded that there wasn’t a lot between them this time around, or even that England had the better combination. Well, after four (or, minus the time lost to rain, more like three-and-a-half) days, Australia have asserted their familiar superiority and England their familiar inability to produce their best so long as the opposition comes from Australia, regardless of how good the actual players are or aren’t. And England can be hugely relieved that as much play has been lost as it has already, and will be hoping for plenty of interruption on the final day as well. With a full 105 overs, Australia should be capable of taking eight wickets – or allowing England to gift them – and then knocking-off whatever is set.

That might sound awfully defeatist – and indeed it is vital that the players themselves do not think that way – but personally I gave-up on taking an optimistic line after the familiar foes of injury and dropped catches ruined England’s chances for the umpteenth time in 2001. There’s not been much of that yet in 2009 (though how different things might have been if Andrew Flintoff had clung on to that caught-and-bowled opportunity early in Simon Katich’s innings can only be imagined) but there have been plenty of other familiar failings. Australia’s attack was well below what can be expected for much of this series – only Ben Hilfenhaus, who was remarkably fortunate to be on the park, bowled seriously well – but still England’s batsmen found ways to get out without maximising what was on offer. If a tip-top Craig McDermott, Bruce Reid, Merv Hughes, Glenn McGrath, Damien Fleming, Jason Gillespie or suchlike had been in the side it’s eminently possible England could have crashed for 250 or so, and then it might have been all over already.

True, Matthew Prior did little wrong, merely happened to be facing when the ball of the summer so far (with the possible exception of Fidel Edwards’ exocet to Kevin Pietersen in May) was delivered; true, the lower-order of Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann and James Anderson did their job well (and Flintoff, by his recent standards, put in a decent show). And true, many batsmen would have been duped by Mitchell Johnson’s wonderful slower-ball that disposed of Ravinder Bopara. But the first-innings dismissals of Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss and Pietersen were simply wasteful. How many times in his career has Strauss taken his eye off a short delivery to fend it in the air like that? I can’t recall so much as one. But how many times has Cook been out playing a nothing shot at a nothing ball? Or Pietersen allowing totally unnecessary premeditation to put an end to a knock where his naturally superb playing of the ball on merit has been in full flow? It’s difficult to keep count. Familiar failings, and unfamiliar ones occurring at the worst possible time – a story we’ve seen so many times before. England should have made 550 in their first-innings, and had they done so Australia’s chances of victory would have been almost completely nullified.

If Australia’s bowlers, Hilfenhaus excepted, were off-colour and not fully punished, England’s lacklustre showing eminently was, by Katich, Ponting, Michael Clarke, Marcus North and Brad Haddin. Some England fans have gotten so carried-away with the fact that Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, David Boon, the Waughs, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist and so on are no longer around that they’ve lost sight of the fact that not since 1988/89 have Australia had a side without at least five top-class top-order batsmen. The current order is no exception – all seven are proven quality and none are obviously out-of-nick. Johnson, whose batting is coming along ominously, was not even needed here. England’s bowlers were always going to have to be at the top of their games to work through, especially on such a slow surface as this one, and the near-inevitable fact that no England attack is ever such a thing for very long has cost a very long stint in the field. Let’s not kid ourselves: Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann both turned the ball plenty, they were just unable to bowl consistently enough to take advantage. With Panesar, this is hardly a surprise – he has been doing precisely that for over a year now and should never have played this Test (whether Graham Onions would have ripped though Australia is, of course, an idea that can only be treated with scepticism, but he had a far better case than Panesar to play). With Swann, it is a mind-numbingly familiar case of a new and promising England player (even one in his 30s) performing well below his best when he first comes-up against Australia. He is unlikely to have much further opportunity in the four Tests remaining in this series – none of the grounds are renowned for surfaces that allow the ball to grip much. Stuart Broad may have had some amount of effect against West Indies, but the fact that the same method proved totally unsuccessful here should surprise no-one – the reality is that he is still well short of the requirements of a Test bowler. And James Anderson and Andrew Flintoff lost sight of their own strengths in a wholly overexcited misperception of the opposition’s weakness – or rather that of one batsman, Phillip Hughes. To someone well used to seeing two or three generations of generally good-quality England seamers do the same against Stephen Waugh (who was fruitlessly bombarded with short balls most times England came up against him, roughing-up the ball and nullifying their main weapon, against Waugh and the rest: swing) this isn’t that much of a surprise either.

Of course, even in the likely event that England are well beaten tomorrow, all is not lost. Australia may have been defeated at Lord’s just once in the last 113 years, but each Test is a new one and if they keep their heads and concentrate on their own strengths (and are aided by a responsive surface as they were against West Indies), England’s bowlers can still regain a grip and limit them to manageable scores – good-quality swing and seam renders batsmen even of the highest class vulnerable. The trouble now is that they require Johnson and Peter Siddle to continue to perform below their best, and while this may of course happen, if they locate their modjos and Stuart Clark regains the place he has been absurdly unfortunate to lose, Australia’s attack still holds the aces. What England desperately needed this series was to hit the Australians before they had got going and gain an early advantage. Having failed to do that (their chances of victory are now conclusively gone even if they retain an outside chance of saving the match tomorrow), we might just be about to watch The Men From Down Under click into gear and assert superiority which, to realistically-minded England fans, was always fairly clear.

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