Reflections on the Ashes 2013 so far from Chester-Le-Street
I was lucky enough to have very good seats for days 3 and 4 of the 4th Ashes Test at Chester-le-Street last Sunday and Monday. It gave me a chance to assess properly how these teams are doing at the moment, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on the matter.
Australia didn’t lose because of their 2nd innings batting, throwing away a winning position, as some people have suggested. 300 is always a big score to chase batting last and that wasn’t an entirely easy wicket to bat on either. What they needed was for two batsmen to bat exceptionally well and Rogers and Warner almost did that. But they made 49 and 71, not 69 and 121 and so Australia fell short by 70. But, like I said, it was always going to be too much for them (it would have been the 10th highest in test match history). It just seemed more like Aus threw away a winning position because the two batsmen that came good were at the top of the order, making the loss of the wickets, when they did eventually come, more dramatic than would have been the case if the big partnership had happened further down the order. If there had been a couple of early breakthroughs, then a big partnership before England polished off the tail, then you would not have thought for long that they were going to make it.
In fact, Australia lost the test on the morning of the 3rd day. Overnight they were 222-5, 16 runs behind England’s 1st innings total with 5 wickets in hand. Rogers was not out with a century to his name and Brad Haddin was at the crease, 12 not out. They were on course for a significant first innings lead. But England bowled beautifully, with everyone playing their part. Swann trapped the overnight batsmen and, despite some very good hitting from Ryan Harris, Anderson and Broad finished off the tail. If they had finished even 80 runs ahead rather than the 32 they did manage, the pressure on England’s batting would have been that much greater and, in a relatively low-scoring game, it would almost certainly have been too much.
By way of contrast, in an almost identical situation at the start of Day 4, in their second innings, England – also with an overnight centurion and a wicketkeeper batsman still to come – went from 234-5 to 330 all out (adding 96 rather than 48 for the last 5 wickets on the next morning). Bell got out early and Harris skittled Prior first ball but Bresnan and Swann smashed the bowling around a bit in a brave and necessarily belligerent counter-attack to set up a 4th innings target that was always too big, despite the hard work of Rogers and the dashing stroke play of Warner. Australia’s inability to drive home a winning advantage in the first innings cost them dear. England (to reiterate) in a parallel place in the 2nd innings, put the game out of reach.
And so what’s going wrong? Australia have a good bowling attack with Harris and Siddle as genuine quality frontline bowlers and they have sensibly picked horses-for-courses to back them up. Jackson Bird, for instance, is a wicket-to-wicket, rhythm bowler and was thus a good choice for a slow, low wicket at Chester-Le-Street rather than the quick but wild Mitchell Starc, who was dangerous on the faster track of Old Trafford. Lyon is OK, better than Agar. They don’t appear to have a better spin bowling option.
Batting-wise, they have sensibly changed their order and are getting towards finding the right combination. Watson is an aggressive and potentially dangerous batsman, but whatever the stats might say, on this tour against this home bowling attack at least, he does not have the technique nor the mindset to open. Sensibly, they have moved him to 6, where he prospered in the 1st innings at Durham, providing Rogers with support and giving the innings impetus once the new ball had gone and the bowlers had tired.
Khawaja is clearly a talented batsmen. There is some talk around of him being un-Australian. Not in a racial way (at least I hope not) but in that his technique is too good for a typical successful batsman from Australia, who have, from Bradmen to Border to Steve Waugh, produced auto-didact, non-textbook, not necessarily overly graceful batsmen. There may be something to be read into that lineage, but regardless, what they have in Khawaja right now is a good bat with a lovely technique. He is not a number 3 though and it is irresponsible to put them there right now in his career before he has settled in the team. He should bat 4 or 5. Michael Clarke must come in first man down. He may have made more runs at 5 (averaging 63.95 – with 20 centuries from 98 innings) but in this current line-up he does not have the luxury of waiting around while others take the attack to the new ball bowlers. There are no Waughs, no Ricky Ponting, no Martyn, no Lehmann and so Clarke must step up. There is no one else. (I see today that Khawaja is batting at 6 against England Lions at Northants where he was out for 4, so shows what I know).
Clarke’s captaincy is good, changing the bowling regularly and setting challenging and interesting fields. The team are still finding their feet and are perhaps short on confidence. But if they continue to make the slow and necessary adjustments in selection until they find their right unit, the return series in Australia will not be so easy for England. It is worth noting that touring is a lot harder than it used to be in this regard. Before the pressures of television finance, there would be one team on tour for the whole English summer and they would play every English county in between the 5 test matches, allowing much more time to work out who is playing well and where they should be playing.
Much has been said about England winning without playing their best. Some have even suggested this is a positive thing because it suggests more to come. The potential is great, doubtless, but the worry is whether they will find a way to fulfil it. Regardless of what anyone says, Cook is not a very good captain. His field settings are never inventive, he discusses with Prior and the bowlers in a manner that suggests he is not sure of himself in coming up with plans. His one moment of genius in Durham was to take off Swann, who had taken the only two wickets to fall and who looked like the best chance of taking more, and to bring on Bresnan who immediately produced a very good ball indeed to remove Warner. I have my suspicions about this, however. Swann was bowling an unusually large number of rank long-hops (a ploy that worked on Khawaja, whom he gifted a four and then trapped with a beauty – though I very much doubt it was deliberate) and he couldn’t seem to be able to produce for every ball his customary rip and corresponding drift that makes him so effective. I saw him retreating to the boundary pulling on his arm and stretching something. I suspect Cook took him off because he had to.
There is a conservative strain within the team that doesn’t bode well for close matches against more settled opposition. It goes deeper than Cook though. Strauss wasn’t much different. This current Essex-flavoured Flower-headed set-up seems to put the team in a low-risk mindset, which paradoxically increases the risk. It is no coincidence that in the last twelve months this team has let Tino Best and Agar hit what should be highly unusual 90s from number 11. As soon as they see a few fours flying about, they take away the close fielders and go on the defensive, taking off the pressure, rather than accepting that a tailender on a good day is going to hit a few runs but eventually edge one or miss one. When the edges come, there is no one there to take them.
When England came out to bat in the first innings at Durham, they were horribly wrong-headed. Cook and Root were scoring at less than 2 an over and, although the captain ground out a 160-ball fifty, the younger man only made 16, which he could have made in a few thick edges through third man if he had felt free enough to play his shots. The pressure goes back off the opposition bowlers to keep the runs down and they can keep plugging away while the batsmen refuse to play at anything outside off and wait for the bad balls, which, with the confidence of maidens and low-scoring behind them, become increasingly less frequent. Obviously, you have to be watchful and play a proper test innings and some batsmen are constitutionally suited to this kind of game. But players who are natural stroke makers like Root, Prior and Bairstow should not be shackled in this manner. It especially doesn’t help them as they don’t know how to do it. In the 1st innings, Pietersen and Bell tried to compensate for the lack of scoring that had been going on before them and made a pigs ear of it. Trott is a little different. He is out of form and is trying to take the attack to the bowlers, quite literally, by walking down the pitch, going forward and across from outside leg stump to off stump. This works for a while, until something happens which means he is no longer in the right place to play. For instance, in the second innings, he got a short pitched ball from Harris going just down leg which Trott tried to leg glance from his customary position on the walk on off stump, only to find he had the length all wrong and that he should have been back (impossible given his start) and so followed the ball upwards and upwards, succeeding only in gloving it to Haddin. He is taking the right approach mentally and getting quick 40s, but he is not going to score big, batting like that.
When they came out in the 2nd innings, they seemed to have freed themselves from their mind-forged manacles. Cook looked his old self for a while, prodding and pushing and nudging his runs, leaving well, and without looking to play big. Then for some strange reason, he wafted at one from Harris, lost his head and did it again only to edge behind with an embarrassingly expansive cover drive. Root was all at sea and never got going. Trott once again was commanding … for a bit (see above).
Bell is batting beautifully of course. Him and Pietersen played excellently when the pressure was on in the second innings at Chester-le-Street. Bell is a definitive team man. He plays an innings suited to the situation. In the past, he was a fidgety batsman – picking his shirt off his shoulders, spinning his bat a la Alec Stewart, walking to square leg – and this obviously nervous body language translated into a few fidgety nervous pushes outside off stump which could lead to an early downfall. He seems to have cut this out (both between balls and at the moment of shot selection) and is prospering gloriously in this series. The scores he has made have all been important ones. So much for not being able to score a century unless someone else already has done so! He is not a slogger, but guides and pushes and straight bats and late cuts balls that rarely do more than touch the boundary rope. He scores an unusually high number of 3s as a result, always running the first run hard like the dutiful boy he is. (In fact, it was at times comical to watch him with KP, whose swagger and notions of self means that he tries to stroll singles as lethargically as possible, making the point to the opposition that he is not and will never be struggling and straining for runs) This series, Bell has limited his cover drives, knowing them to be risky, but unlike some of the others, he has still found ways of keeping the score board moving. In his 2nd innings partnership with Pietersen, coming together again at not-a-lot for 3, they found a way for 33 overs to keep on getting runs, often off the last ball of an over. Clarke brought on Watson, the king of economy rates, but even he failed to contain them completely, bowling only 1 maiden in the 6 overs he bowled before he was injured. It is not easy to find a way to score so regularly off the 6th ball of an over. Bell used the late cut to perfection, always keeping the ball down and scoring heavily through third man. In desperation, Clarke set a deep third man for him to cut off the boundaries, but he never played in the air, and it was never a risky shot. Pietersen, even with two men close in to stop the shot, found a way of forcing his leg glances through. It was absorbing cricket, for cricket geeks at least. Other parts of the crowd were enjoying the communal atmosphere, launching Mexican waves, stacking up plastic pint glasses and singing songs that were, usually, amusing (Rule Britannia isn’t really to my taste, especially given that all cricket-playing nations are former colonies of the ex-ruler of the waves).
Bowling is good of course. Anderson and Broad are guarantees. Jimmy hasn’t had a pitch to his liking for a while and hasn’t taken the bucketload of wickets that we thought he might do after Trent Bridge, but he always bowls well and tests the batsmen with the new ball. Broad bowls fast and straight from a good height and enough movement. When the force is with him, he is something to be reckoned with. Of the rest, England are lucky to have a collection of very good bowlers, all about the same quality. Pick any one from Bresnan, Finn, Tremlett and Onions and you should get something out of them. It is thus strange to me that they haven’t picked ‘horses for courses’. Bresnan bowled very well at Durham, able to produce balls that bounce dangerously from just back of a length. However, it was a wicket that was crying out for home-boy Onions with his niggling wicket-to-wicket accuracy and little movement. At Old Trafford, on a hard wicket, Tremlett would have been ideal – big, strong and fast. In fact, 5 bowlers wouldn’t have been a bad idea on that pitch – 2 spinners even. Panesar could be added to that list of very good back up bowlers. (They won’t pick him now even if Swann is injured, after he pissed on a bouncer who had thrown him out of a Brighton nightclub on Pride weekend. Though, personally, I think this has nothing to do with whether or not you pick him for a cricket game) Although it would be cruel again on Onions, who has been in the squads, been sent away, taken 7 wickets in an innings in a losing cause against Middlesex, I would pick Tremlett for the Oval. He hasn’t got impressive figures in county cricket but I think he has been coming back slowly from injury and from what I saw of him playing v Notts at his home ground, he will cause batsmen problems with his pace and bounce in South London.
What we have now, is an academy Team England, bred from early years, plotted, managed and then centrally contracted. Root should not open. Whatever his virtues, he is not hardened enough, either by life or by cricket, to go in 1st in Test matches. He is getting in a muddle. Put him back at 6. I am not, incidentally, in the bring-back-Compton camp. It is not a question when selecting of how batsmen get out, but how they are in. And he did not look like he is capable of being more than one-paced – another grinder in a batting order already well equipped on that score. Taylor would be no better. There is a natural foil to Cook floating around, older but super athletic and quick in the field, also left-handed but capable of quick scoring and aggressive batting when needed and that is Michael Carberry. He should play.
Bairstow has not really impressed so far. In the 2nd innings at Durham at least, with the backs-against-the-wall, play-your-shots mentality, you could at least see what the point of him is. In fact, I think he batted better there for his 28 then he did for his 67 in support of Bell at Lords, which never looked that fluent to me. This, remember, is the man who scored 95 against Steyn, Mokel et al, boldly hooking and pulling the most hostile attack in the world. He has got guts and could fill the Collingwood role nicely.
Imagine, then, if we had 1990’s selectors dealing with this 21st century England cricket team. Anyone remotely out of form would have gone and they would have looked around the county circuit for replacements. I thought I’d end this ramble by imaging what they might come up with. It would be unnecessarily cruel on Trott and Prior, but there we go:
Root or Bairstow
Reserves: Kerrigan, Stokes, Tremlett