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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Ashes: The (Aussie) Empire Strike Back

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The startling turnaround in result from 1st Test to 2nd Test will no doubt be the result of jaw gnashing in both the England selectors room and for their supporters. Barely a week after they had completed a demolition job on Australia at Cardiff, with celebrations on a grand scale, as well as plenty of comments from the players in the media and from the media themselves, the tide has turned 180 degrees after England's shambolic performance at Lord's. Australia's calm response to their defeat, and England's frenzied obliteration has reopened wounds that the Poms would rather have seen untouched.

The benign flat wicket that was served up at Lord's was an obvious statement with the home team having gone 1-0 up - blunt Australia's bowlers, rack up big totals, and a high scoring draw leaves England in front in the series. Had England won the toss it would have been a ruse worth adhering to. Once Australia had won the toss and taken advantage of it with the bat, the pitch may have played its part in dullening Australia's pace trio, but their skill, perseverance and fitness was enough that it didn't matter, and they were able to dismantle the English batting line up despite the odds against them. The fact that this match lasted less than four days on this type of pitch is a major source of worry for the home team. Not just the fact that their own bowling line-up was completely ineffective due to the nature of the pitch, but that their batsmen were incapable of making a significant score on the same wicket.

Chris Rogers and Steve Smith both thumbed their noses at recent media speculation and again proved their worth at different ends of the spectrum of their careers. Rogers was flawless apart from the chance given to the slips cordon off the third ball of the match - oh how England must look back on that and moan. His value to this Australian team over the past two years must never be forgotten. He came in when the team has a revolving door of opening batsmen and was crying out for someone to be the anchor, and could get the team off to solid starts every innings. In this respect he has been almost flawless, and his fifth Test century was most fitting given his time as a Middlesex player was what earned him his Test recall five years after his lone Test match. When he retires after this series concludes he will be within days of his 38th birthday. Ultimately his Test career may be comparatively short, but the part he has played from turning around the rabble that finished in India in 2013 to now is as much his legacy as anyone else.
At the other end of the scale, Steve Smith continues to pile on the runs. The consistent diatribe from some of those in the England set up that they don't rate Steve's batting, and that his technique won't hold up under English conditions, is beginning to sound even more puerile the further into the series we go. His innings of 215 and 58 were only ended when he decided to chase faster runs in both innings, and gave up his wicket in doing so. If not for that, the England bowlers could well have still been out on that Lord's wicket, bowling to Smith on 1000 not out. As I posted elsewhere at one stage during the game, it's a good thing that the England bowlers have 'worked out' Steve Smith, as they claimed after the 1st Test - otherwise, just how many runs would he have gotten?

Australia's bowling was superb. Everything that was done wrong in Cardiff has been set to right by the bowlers and their coaching staff. What's more, all three pacemen were quick, noticeably quicker than their England counterparts, and this along with their lines and lengths showed that 20 wickets could be taken on a featherbed. Mitchell Johnson is fast redeeming himself from 2009, his aggression with the ball and not so much from his mouth has been superb. his spells visually shook up the batsmen, and even when he wasn't able to secure a wicket it was his spell that would gain one for the bowlers who came after him. Josh Hazelwood is becoming the bowler the selectors have hoped he would become over the past three years, and while Mitch Starc is hampered by injury he has still done a great job in support, especially in the early overs of the innings. Nathan Lyon again prised out wickets on an unresponsive pitch, and while he never looks a match winner he is at least earning his keep.

The two new boys did themselves proud. Mitch Marsh was a surprise inclusion in front of perennial under achiever Shane Watson, and did everything that could have been expected of him. A relative failure with the bat in the first innings was dwarfed by the three wickets he took in the match - top scorers Cook and Stokes in the first dig, and Ballance in the second. He then blasted Australia to the declaration in the second dig in the perfect riposte. More runs will be the key to his success, but if his bowling output is replicated like this every match no more can be asked of him in that regard. Peter Nevill swift elevation after the unavailability of Brad Haddin has proven to be one of the finest debut performances of a wicket keeper for Australia in memory. A brisk and calm 45 in the first innings, which was only terminated by the search for quick runs, showed poise and skill at the crease. behind the stumps however he was a revelation. Seven catches for the match, including a beauty up to Nathan Lyon, showcased his obvious talent, good footwork and neat glovework. What's more, the delight he showed through the game was refreshing. Even when he was denied a catch off Jos Buttler after being sent to the third umpire (a disgraceful decision that once again favoured the home team) he put it behind him and kept up his good work, culminating in the dismissal of Buttler off Lyon four overs later. A wonderful debut.

England was dreadful, and anyone who didn't see the 1st Test would be left wondering how on earth they won that match. Jimmy Anderson bowled terribly, off line and off length, little movement, and generally looked like a player well past his best. they fact he was so ineffective a week after looking the most dangerous of the English attack is a real concern for them, because they appear toothless without him. Even more concerning was the lack of anything from Mark Wood, who a few weeks ago was being hailed as the next genuine pace bowler for England. At Lord's his pace was mostly stuck in the mid 120kph, and with no movement of the ball in the air or off the wicket. Stuart Broad bowled some good spells in the first innings, and at least looked as though he was putting the batsmen under pressure. his tactics again came under question in the second innings, when he appeared to revert to time wasting and negative lines rather than try and prise out the batsmen at the crease. Moeen Ali was ineffective, with the wickets he took only coming from batsmen trying to up the ante. If he is England's best spin option then they are in serious trouble.
Their batting was completely shown up, and while that may have only been a blip for some, for others they may be approaching a dead end. Cook and Stokes were the best performed. Cook though, in order to prove one again he can be a force, has retreated so far into defensive mode that his strike rate is non-existent, and cannot dominate an attack. Stokes is playing with flair and abandon, but can't expect to continue to succeed if coming in at 4 for bugger all. Root was hollowed out cheaply in this Test, and his output for the remainder of the series will be interesting, to see if he can replicate his Cardiff form, if Australia now have his number again.
The rest of the batting line-up is under enormous pressure, and whether any are left by the end of the series will be a talking point. Lyth looks out of his depth. Ballance, as expected, has been summarily thought out by first the New Zealand attack and now the Australians. His technique is a shambles, and surely he hasn't got long to go before shaking hands with his County captain. Bell is a shadow of his best, and needs a score somewhere to secure his future. Buttler looks a T20 slogger and not up to playing a long match-saving innings when necessary. Ali has gone from opener to number 8, but won't get another ball in his half of the wicket this series after his dismissal on Sunday. The biggest problem they have is that there are no ready-made replacements putting their hand up in County cricket to replace the incumbents. Once again County cricket is being dominated by South Africans and Australians and all manner of washed out players from other countries who then appear like world beaters when they play in this competition.

The series lies at 1-1, and while it certainly isn't over for either team, the Australians will enjoy the break between Test more than the English. Barring any unforeseen injuries the only change for Australia will likely be Haddin to return for Nevill. England appears to be stuck with who they have, and can only hope that somehow the shattered batsmen and under performing bowlers can somehow pull themselves together in a week and rediscover what they need in order to compete in this series.
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