28 November 2006

Ashes 2006/2007: The First Test

Well that was a disaster. Right from the off nothing went right for the England team in their bid to retain the coveted little urn.

In my mind the game was always likely to be lost going in, from the moment the negative selection decisions came to the fore. As much as I respect Jonathan Agnew's views and knowledge of the game - as well as his TMS commentary - I do not think the majority of those who called for Monty Panesar to play in Brisbane actually believed that England's cult figure would bowl the side to victory, and for Aggers to call those who would have rather seen Monty play than Ashley Giles deluded is bordering on insane. For me, the selections of Giles - who had not played any cricket at all for the best part of a year - and wicketkeeper Geraint Jones, ahead of Monty and Chris Read respectively, smacked of negativity. It smacked of fear and failure. In this respect I think the mental high ground was ceded before a ball was bowled. It certainly had been ceded after the first ball that was bowled - Harmison's horrendous double-wide set the tone for the match. A tone the Australians made sure lasted long into Sunday. It was only on the fourth day, as Cook, Collingwood and Pietersen started to show England could score some runs, that the visiting side - the holders of the trophy - actually even remotely resembled the team that won the 2005 series.

Why, then do I feel the advantage had been given over? Because both Jones and Giles were picked for their batting in a tacit admission that the England dressing room did not think their top six were up to the mark. This is, I think, a ridiculous suggestion; looking at it on paper, and even given captain Michael Vaughan's absence through injury and the pre-Test loss of Marcus Trescothick England's batting is clearly the stronger suit than their bowling. Ian Bell had been scoring for fun in the last 12 months, Cook has looked every inch the accomplished Test batter since his debut in India, Collingwood has been steady and reliable and everyone knows what Pietersen and Flintoff can do. The sixth man - or the first to go by the scorecard - is Andrew Strauss who has been less consistent of late (and threw his wicket away twice in Brisbane - a worrying sign) than previously but still has a pretty fine record.

Compare that with the Bowling: Flintoff is consistent and deadly but he had no support at the Gabba. Harmison is woefully out of form, and has not produced reliably for a year or so now, on top of which he is known to dislike travelling and touring. His mental state is clearly not right for the top level when it comes to touring (and I do feel for him here, more than some would at least), the 7-12 against West Indies in 2004 aside. What is worse is that to rectify the lack of form Harmy needs to bowl, but it has been seen consistently that the England management do not recognise this as he is wrapped in cotton wool and prevented from getting overs under his belt. An Ashes Test is most certainly not the ideal place to be searching for form, doubly so if mentally things are not right! Behind these two "spearheads" comes Matthew Hoggard - reliable, accurate and knowing his role in the side. Hoggard is a great team man. But for all that, how dangerous is he ever going to be on Aussie wickets? By all accounts he was unlucky once or twice at the Gabba - and this is far from unusual with Hoggard, he seems to court plays and misses and dropped catches - but generally the conditions surely will not suit his gentle swing. Once that is nullified... well, Hoggard is hittable, as his woeful ODI record shows. Then, in Brisbane, we had Giles and Anderson - a defensive spinner who had not played the game for a year or so, does not spin the ball and will never win a game for England on any surface (though to be fair to him he did have a wonderful series at home against the Windies in 2004) and a quick who had missed the entire 2006 domestic season through injury and who has failed thus far to live up to potential in the Test arena. What is worse is that from there the back-up is even more slight - Sajid Mahmood really does not look Test class to me, he's wild, expensive but admittedly does have the potential to bowl the unplayable deliveries batsmen fear - it is just that he will bowl any number of gimmes before that one comes! Liam Plunkett looks tidy enough but I do not believe the Australian batsmen will be quaking in their boots if he comes on to bowl. Finally there is Monty. Monty, who debuted against India in India and bowled well, never over-awed and consistently able to trouble the batsmen described as most adept against spin. Monty, who has performed admirably in every Test since then - all against good players of spin (Sri Lanka and Pakistan) - and scalped Younis Khan with a truly unplayable ball on an English track. Monty, who cannot bat but really if the top order did their job he should not need to. Monty, who is definitely more threatening than Giles, but who may lack the canny wiles and defensive control of his elder teammate. From the above it becomes painfully clear just how much England are missing Simon Jones whose pace and reverse swing were arguably their primary bowling weapon in 2005 (for all of Flintoff having Adam Gilchrist in his back pocket all series).

Now, having denounced Aggers' view above, I do agree with him on one point: Monty would not have bowled England to victory in Brisbane. Frankly, short of a finding a British Glenn McGrath, I do not think anyone could have done that. I do believe, however, that if England were truly positive about retaining the Ashes then they would have picked their best bowlers and best 'keeper - after all neither Read nor Monty made any errors to justify their dropping in the matches against Pakistan. Sacrificing the spin bowler as an attacking option in favour of lower order batting just heaped more pressure on Harmison - and on Flintoff who already carries the team, and that is before taking his captaincy (in Vaughan's absence) into account! On this basis alone I think dropping Panesar for Giles was a negative move; you cannot win a Test without taking 20 wickets (unless the now almost unheard of sporting declaration comes into play). Furthermore Giles had not bowled in such a long time, and was remodeling his action - the first Ashes Test is not the right arena for that. Panesar has, in my mind, proven he is the better spin bowler. A positive team would have picked their best bowlers and trusted the batsmen to do their job; England were not positive, and paid the price of cracking first mentally.

Arguably, though, the selection of Jones over Read was more bizarre and backward thinking. I'll make no bones about this - I've been anti-Geraint Jones since he was picked initially, and firmly in the pro-Chris Read camp. I feel the latter has been treated very poorly - especially in light of good displays against Pakistan in the last Test matches England played before the Ashes began. Yes, Read did not cover himself in glory during the ICC Champion's Trophy in India, but then neither did the rest of the team, and if we are using a few poor performances in ODI's as a marker, then Jones should have been dropped an enternity before he was! People blather about how the difference in 'keeping skill between Read and Jones has lessened whilst Jones remains the stronger batter. I would disagree - not on principle, Jones has improved with the gloves, but is still prone to awful lapses (vis a vis Phil Jacques in the warm-up match) - but on evidence of First Class batting averages. Read had consistently batted well for Notts in the years he was absent from the England setup, whilst Jones really has not shown the form with the bat in Tests that justified picking a 'keeper who spills chances and generally keeps wicket untidily. At the very least, I feel Read deserved a run in the England team, not a consolatory couple of Tests.

I really don't believe that Shane Warne was bluffing when he voiced his opinion that England would be a stronger side with Monty and Read playing, but I'm convinced he figured his words would be seen as that and used as an argument to play Giles and Jones. But in the end the selection was made, the uncertainty and lack of belief in the England squad showed and the Aussies - ruthless as always - jumped on it and did not let up. I am not seriously going to claim that my favoured personnel changes would have made the difference in the game once it began to take the shape it did, but I do firmly believe that England gave their opponents a sniff of weakness by settling on the side they did; and on such things series hinge.

Given what happened in 2005 it seems presumptive to say the series is as good as over. However, as Justin Langer has been heard saying many times in the intervening time, it was not the result of the Lord's Test that he carried with him into the next four, but the after-effects of Harmison's opening spell on that July morning. The first over set the tone; if the same is true for this contest then England truly are on a hiding to nothing.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

I think you were right when you said that I wouldn't enjoy cricket. I don't. It's slow. And I still like ice hockey.

But, I got myself a cricket hat 'cause I needed a hat for the sun. Oh well...