Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Adelaide's lament

Strauss rolling the wrists. See: he can do it!

Well, there are some small hours of the morning last weekend that I'd quite like back if that's OK. From the moment I heard that Steve Harmison had decided that Freddie was a bit under-employed as captain, number six and strike bowler and thought he'd let him audition as wicket keeper as well I had a presentiment that things would not go entirely to plan. The scale of the humiliation was something of a surprise admittedly, but cricket seems recently to have by-passed subtelty in favour of ramming the point home. Last summer, for example, Sri Lanka were skittled cheaply and were set 400 odd to avoid the follow on. Result? They ended on 550-9 at close over three days.

Equally, Australia did not so much beat England as pulverise them. The question is where England go from here. The next Test, in Adelaide, starts in the early hours of Friday night on a pitch that is traditionally brown, slow and low. Martin Crowe, the former Kiwi batsman, used to say that only three things in life were certain: death, taxes and a hundred at the Adelaide Oval. In this light, England have made noises to suggest that they will play both spinners, presumably instead of James Anderson who looked as toothless as he always has since Graeme Smith tucked into him in 2003. If I were in charge, I'd have picked Jamie Dalrymple, batted him at 6 and played him instead of Giles. He's only over the way in Perth, so there's still time. Last tour it was in Adelaide that Harmison broke Giles's hand in the nets. I'm obviously not advocating such behaviour this time, but...

If England are to have any chance of winning they need two things: to win the toss and bat first, and for Steve Harmison to look like a bowler rather than an embarassment. Michael Vaughan managed to bat first in every match in 2005 save the first, which we lost. Flintoff's loss of the toss in Brisbane may not have been the critical factor last week, but there is no doubt that it played its part. England only win in Australia when a fast bowler excels (cf Snow, Tyson, Dilley and Larwood). If Harmison can't re-tune his engine we might as well hand the urn over now.

There are, however, four reasons to be cheerful:

1. Aging Aussies. There was a revealing photo taken in the Aussie dressing room in the aftermath of victory. All the Australian team except Hussey and Stuart Clark were sitting holding ice-packs to various parts of their anatomies (I'm not going to say where Warnie was holding his). This is a veteran team, whose two principal bowlers are aged over 75 between them. Glenn McGrath has been unable to bowl thanks to a bruised heel, Shane looked tired and frustrated at Brisbane, his victims largely dismissing themselves. There is a chance that 'Dad's Army' might be fragile. But then, of course that's what the Aussies said in the Rugby World Cup.

2. Batting Quality. You don't become a bad player overnight. The two players considered most vulnerable in the England line-up, Collingwood and Bell, both contributed the highest scores in the England innings, Collingwood in the second and Bell in the first. Strauss's dismissals, although careless, were the product of a specific technical error that he is too smart a cricketer not to correct. Cook looked solid in the second innings, and even Jones looked like a batsman. There is no reason they should capitulate again as they did in the first dig.

3. World Class. England have two world class cricketers in Flintoff and Pieterson. Both of them are capable of turning a game on its head in a session. Flintoff bowled well, for long spells, without a recurrence of his injury. Pieterson batted both sensibly and aggressively for 92 in the second innings. If these two fire, England are in with a shout.

4. Next Time? Even if England prove unable to draw or win the series, it's worth reflecting that the next time Australia come over here in 2009, they'll almost certainly be without McGrath (38), Warne (39), Hayden (37), Langer (38), Martyn (37) and Gilchrist (37), with an option on Lee (34) and even Ponting (35). So, 7 out of 11 of their starting line up would be over 35 if they toured again, while even Lee and Stuart Clark would be a long way the wrong side of 30. In contrast, barring injuries and unforeseeables, the only England player likely to be over the hill by the time the Aussies land at Heathrow would be Ashley Giles, who despite his nickname of 'Grandad' would be the third youngest player in the Australian side.

So, chins up eh? And Straussy? In Australia you either hook downwards, or get out. Mental note.


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