Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ashes to Ashes...

It doesn't really feel like seven years since I last wrote about England getting a hammering Down Under. England then were a poorly selected team, indifferently led, blown away by the world's greatest side's last hurrah. Annihilation seemed not only inevitable, but fitting. This time round, only a few weeks after a comprehensive stuffing had gone the other way, is if anything more depressing. Are there any lessons that can be drawn from it? Well, as it happens yes there are.

The first is that no-one should, on any account, listen to Peter Oborne. His recommendations are that England should drop Kevin Pietersen and fire Alistair Cook (and replace him with Paul Collingwood! Paul Collingwood! The retired, 37 year old Paul Collingwood, who was only ever a journeyman Test match cricketer, and who was well past his best 3 years ago). Having got that out of the way, what can we learn?

The first thing to note is that although England have been stuffed, the difference between the sides is not so dramatic as the scorelines suggest. The difference has been that when England have had Australia in trouble in the first innings (132-6 at Brisbane, 174-4 at Adelaide, 143-5 at Perth) Brad Haddin and somebody else have dug them out of it. As the ball goes soft and the strike bowlers tire, Australia's lower middle order have cashed in. In contrast, England have collapsed from not disastrously worse positions (82-2 at Brisbane, 110-4 at Adelaide, 190-4 at Perth). Why is that? England, after all, have what ought to be a strong lower middle order.

Well, Prior is in a form slump (and has been all year), and Broad and Swann, who are not mugs with the bat (or even chickens against quick bowling) have been blown away by pace. Because that is the crucial difference between the sides. England have one bowler (Broad) who can get it up to about 90 on a good day, and two others who bowl at 82-85. Australia have Mitchell Johnson up at 95, and Ryan Harris up at 91. On very hard bouncy wickets, that's tough for a lower order batsman.

What to do? Well, firstly not panic. England are still a good side. People are questioning Kevin Pietersen's desire to play Test cricket in his 100th match, in which he scored his 8000th run. People are shaking their heads over Anderson's career a few months after he took his 300th wicket. Sure, there are players in this England side a good deal closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, but this cuts both ways. Take a look over the way: of Australia's side at Perth 7 are over 30. In the 2015 Ashes, Rogers, Haddin and Harris (all 35+) will have retired. Clarke's knackered back and Watson's myriad injuries make them old at 32, and Mitchell Johnson will either have imploded or slowed down (the number of men bowling 95mph at 34 is pretty small). This series really is not a historic watershed of a diminishing old side being overtaken by a thrusting young one.

Secondly, England entered this series with three big question marks over their side: who should open with Cook, who should bat six, and who should be third seamer. The first has been a problem since Strauss retired, the second since Collingwood retired and the third is a hardy perennial. We do at least seem to have an answer to one of these now. A player who can score fourth-innings hundreds at six, and bowl at 87-88 mph is something of a discovery.

Thirdly, England need to think what their game strategy actually is. As Alex points out, before Trott's decline in form and subsequent departure, the plan was to bat long and slow for the first and second wicket to blunt the opposition's attack, step it up through Bell and Pietersen, and then let Prior and the tail slog easy runs against demoralised opposition. Without the first element of this, the whole plan falls through. Is Trott coming back? let's hope so. But if he doesn't, England need either to form a replacement (and Root may be the man) or adjust their plan.

Finally, England need to remember that they aren't playing Lillee and Thomson on a corrugated pitch - Australia are vulnerable (it was enlightening to see how much worse Australia started bowling when Bell, Pietersen and Stokes started taking the attack to them), and England should play with some of the self-belief that they showed in the summer. Whatever Oborne says, the final tests are not meaningless, and some proper cricket from England would be appreciated. There's no disgrace in losing in Australia (and this series shows, if nothing else, what an achievement 2010/11 was), but there is disgrace in capitulation. The final innings at Perth showed signs of some proper fight. Let's hope there's more to come.

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