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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Deja-Vu All Over Again

So. The First Test has been run and won.

The media have been whipping up this series as the most “anticipated” clash between these two nations in almost two decades. The England players pledged that they would not be “bullied” by the Australians, and that they would be just as hard and focused as their opponents were. Former England captain, Nasser “Send 'Em In” Hussain, was quoted as saying that Shane Warne was ten years past his prime. English bowler, Matthew Hoggard, was quoted as saying Australia's pace attack was too old. England captain, Michael Vaughan, refused Ricky Ponting's goodwill notion before the start of the Test, in which Ponting suggested that the batsmen take the word of the fieldsman in any disputed catch situation. Vaughan was quoted as saying that over the past eighteen months the umpires had “seemed to get it right on most occasions” - while blatantly ignoring his own refusal to walk when caught by Justin Langer in Adelaide in 2002.

Is it just me, or is anyone else beginning to believe that the Poms got everything they deserved?

It was all and good for the England players, management, commentators, media and supporters to show a united front, take a hard line, and not take a backward step. To be positive. But it appears as though they went just a little too far. Because they seemed to forget that they still had to defeat Australia, because Australia were not going to roll over.

England bowled aggressively on the first day, hitting all of Australia's top 3 with painful blows before dismissing them. England commentators regularly reminded us that the home side had the fastest pace attack of the two sides, and that they would not be afraid to use it - “in the same way Australia has in the past”. No question, and no argument. On a pitch providing some encouragement, they bowled very well. At tea, it was almost inconceivable that they would not hold the upper hand at the conclusion of the first day.
Come the second day, and the second Australian innings, and things didn't seem so simple. Harmison aside, the fastest pace attack found taking wickets a tad more difficult. Suddenly, just bowling the ball was not good enough to take wickets. They had to find a plan of attack. Did they have one?

The Australians took 20 English wickets for less than 350 runs. Each batsman faced a bowling plan that had no doubt been worked out well in advance of the match. McGrath, Warne, Lee and to a lesser extent Gillespie just kept plugging away, making the batsmen play almost every delivery, until they made an error, and were dismissed.

England's batting must be a concern for them. Andrew Strauss gave Damien Martyn a huge send-off in the second innings. One can only wonder what was said to him after the dreadful shot he played to be dismissed by Lee on the third afternoon. Vaughan has been clean bowled twice. Both Andrew Flintoff and Ian Bell have been bowled by McGrath and deceived by Warne.

To some extent, the performance of Australia's elite papered over the cracks of their few concerns – the form of Gillespie number one. He did not bowl poorly, but he also did not appear to trouble those he bowled to. He will play the 2nd Test, and sooner or later will take wickets again. As long as the other three keep dismissing their opponents, Dizzy can continue to be carried.

In the end, it appeared that during all of the huffing and puffing before the contest began, the English forgot to respect the Australian's position as best cricket side in the world. They are rated that for a reason. By taking what appeared to be an antagonistic position, England allowed Australia to quietly and methodically take control of the contest after tea on the first day, and not let go. It is hard to believe that the English bowling line-up, as it currently stands, could ever bowl better than they did in the first two sessions of the 1st Test. The fact that they lost the Test convincingly despite this must be frightening for them.

The doomsayers are out, of course. Can England come back? What do they have to do? For years, their biggest problem has been taking 20 Australian wickets to win matches. They achieved this in the 1st Test, and must believe (rightly or wrongly) that they will do it again. Despite what the media appear to be peddling, it wasn't the dropped catches that cost England the Test. It was their mediocre batting. But how do they strengthen what appears to be the best batting line-up they can put together? (perhaps apart from the now-retired Graham Thorpe).

Most people appear to be favouring the selection of another specialist batsman to play at number six, relegating Flintoff to 7 and Geraint Jones to 8. This appears sound on the surface, although the name being touted to be this replacement is Paul Collingwood, another bits-and-pieces allrounder. Surely if England tread this path, they must find the best English middle-order batsman, and play him A difficult task these days, with so many overseas imports playing County cricket, and taking up the best positions in each team!

If this was to happen, whoever they chose to fill the number 6 batting slot, you would think that it would mean Matthew Hoggard heading back to County cricket, which for England would not be such a bad thing. He still appears to be a non-threatening bowler to the Australians, and his figures flattered his performance in the 1st Test. If the ball is not swinging, Hoggard becomes a medium paced trundler, and there are plenty of those plying their trade in the United Kingdom. He was the least dangerous of England's four pronged pace attack, and none of the other three deserve to lose their spot.

Many are also questioning Ashley Giles' continued inclusion, and have actually earmaked him to be the bowler dropped to make way for an extra batsman. This would be a ludicrous decision. Despite the fact that he appears to have no answers as to how to bowl to the Australian's in Test conditions, he does at least provide some variety. Going into a Test Match without a recognised spinner would be fraught with danger, especially if they got Australia on a fifth day wicket chasing a target for victory. If he is the best spinner in England (and, more's the pity for them, it appears that he is), then he must be retained.

The Australians will know that the job is not yet done. Langer and Hayden will be dissecting their 1st Test performance, looking for ways to break away from the threat Harmison and Flintoff have with the new ball. Michael Clarke, after his sparkling 91, will know he needs to follow it up with more scores to consolidate his place in the side. Adam Gilchrist will be receiving a week of net bowling from around the wicket. Jason Gillespie will know that he must rediscover the art of wicket-taking before Michael Kasprowicz, or even Shaun Tait, starts climbing over him.

Solutions will be thrown around for the next seven days, until we kick off the second round. England have it all to play for. They need to throw everything they have at the Aussies now, rather than waiting until they are 2-0 or 3-0 down. They simply cannot afford to lose.

As an Australian, you can't help but sit back and smile contentedly.
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