19 December 2006

Ashes 2006/2007: The Third Test

So that's it. 463 days after earning the rights to the Ashes, England surrendered them to a rampant Australian side motivated to new and ruthless heights by the injustice of last year's defeat. Defeat at the WACA put England 3-0 down with 2 to play; on the 15th day of the series Ricky Ponting raised his fist, and the urn (well, OK, a replica) aloft in triumph after a thumping 206 run win. A 5-0 whitewash is a very real possibility for the series now, such is the dismal showing from the visitors. For England to take much of positive note from this tour they must show, in the two dead matches to come, the willingness to work at what was ailing them, and the vision to build for the future.

Now is the perfect time to make changes to the team and give people a chance: Ed Joyce, called up as cover when Trescothick left the tour before the first Test, must play. 5-0 or 3-2 makes not a whit of difference any more - the Ashes are gone for at least another 2 years - and it should now be about the future benefit of the team; this means blooding players who have very real prospects in the series to come in 2007, 2008 and, perhaps most crucially, 2009.

There are two key changes to be made: Joyce should play and Chris Read should keep wicket. These changes would also mandate a change to the balance of the side. Mahmood was so obscenely underbowled that he may as well not have been playing. Had a sixth specialist batsman (Joyce) been playing instead of a fifth bowler the extra batting may have meant the series was still alive heading into Melbourne, even if only theoretically.

The 5+5+ keeper formula held up as a holy grail by England of late has, in this series, been a contributing factor to their undoing. Jones, the 'keeper supposedly picked for batting prowess (but actually picked because he's "in" with Fletcher and Freddie) has been woeful with the bat, and poor with the gloves thus not supporting the top 6 as required by the model. Flintoff has underperformed with bat and ball this series, burdened as he has been by the captaincy and a heel that is clearly not fully-healed. Not only has he not merited a top 6 batting slot, but his bowling has been a far cry from the deadly variety unleashed in 2005. Worse, the other bowlers have not performed well and the fifth bowler has not helped either ease the workload (Mahmood in Perth) or capture wickets (Giles and/or Anderson at Brisbane and Adelaide).

All of this, to my mind, calls for a change of approach. The batting line-up England picked for this Ashes tour is not short of part-time bowling talent and if, as at the WACA this week, the fifth bowler is not going to be used to attack or to rotate colleagues and keep them fresh with a regular workload (Mahmood bowled just 10 overs of 112 in Australia's second innings, whilst his teammates were being carted all around the park under extreme temperature conditions) then the bits and pieces provided by Collingwood and Bell (both very serviceable medium pacers) and Pietersen (underrated finger-spin) would be plenty to give the four main bowlers a little rest here and there. If one considers that the batting addition to the line up would - in ideal conditions - be Michael Vaughan, who is himself a decent off-spinner when called upon, then England have four credible options from which to make up the fifth, under-used, bowler.

Certainly in dry or dusty conditions having the extra spin options is a fine thing, and in English conditions a medium pacer with control of the swinging ball can be troublesome: consider that Bell has a First Class bowling average of less than 32 (from 47 wickets) in county cricket. Collingwood has regularly been employed by England in one-day cricket, and whilst (I believe, my search-fu is failing me) he holds the unenviable record of most Test deliveries before picking up a wicket and his First Class average with the ball is the wrong side of 40 he is perfectly capable of sending down a few controlled overs here or there to allow the big guns a break. Pietersen started his cricketing life as an off-spinner, and it would really pay England to help him further re-develop this side of his game as an extra weapon.

A fifth specialist bowler is all well and good as an attacking option if that bowler is getting his share of overs in and doing the job - just look at Simon Jones' performance in 2005 if there were any doubt - but if they are not bowling and not taking wickets then the side would be better served with the extra batsman and the runs they provide. The other benefit that a sixth specialist batsman would bring would be the end to the ludicrous notion that England should pick a 'keeper who cannot keep because they might score a few more runs. Specifically, it would allow Flintoff to drop to 7, which is a much more natural batting position for him, and allow Chris Read to come into the side at 8, where worries that he is not a top-level batsman have no founding.

I've stated before that I feel that Read should be the England 'keeper. I felt this in 2004 when he was dropped and, despite his replacement's good form that summer, have felt it ever since. It goes double now: Jones must go.

It can be said no clearer than that. He has been woeful all year, was rightfully dropped during the Pakistan series, then bizarrely reinstated before Brisbane. Actually, his reinstatement was not all that bizarre if one thinks about it, and one of the reasons my hate-on for Jones is so strong is that he embodies everything that is wrong with the current England set-up. But that is for another post. For the purpose of the above it is enough to say that the best 'keeper could be picked, regardless of batting potential, if the team select 6 specialist batters. Flintoff, when fit, merits a place in the side on his bowling alone, and that is why he should be played as part of a four man attack, or not played at all if unfit to bowl that much.

It is ironic then that as England having used 5 bowlers as a model for the last few years display the reasons why 4 are plenty, the Australian team are going the other way (as the inclusion of Symonds over Voges - which I called - demonstrated). But Australia have been lucky to have two of the all-time great bowlers operating in tandem for the past decade: McGrath and Warne will both go down in the annals of history as legends, their newer options arriving on the scene now are not possessed of such class, and there will undoubtedly be a period of change for Australia as their older heads make way for the next generation. That is not to say their future side won't be as complete or as able to compete with, or dominate, their opposition. It is not a slight on the likes of Shaun Tait or Mitchell Johnson. It is a sign of the class of Warne and McGrath. But again, that is deviating away from the game itself.

As for the game? It, too, summed up all that was wrong with England on this tour: able to control individual days or sessions, but not matches. At Adelaide one never had the feeling England were in complete control, even when they declared, and their lack of control was shown up, and exploited, in expert fashion by Ponting's baggy green army. In Perth, England fired on day one; Monty Panesar showed why he should have been picked from the off, and the Steve Harmison we all know lurks somewhere in that languid body showed itself for the first time on the tour. At the end of the first day, on a decent pitch, England were on top. The second day shaped the match - had England made 350 or more they would have fancied themselves to win. When Australia restricted them to a miserly 214, ensuring a lead where there should not have been one, the game was as good as over. England knew they would face Warne in the fourth innings, and knew in that moment that without the comfort of extra runs in the bank they were on the back foot. England have shown in this series that when they are back there, they crumble. It happened going into the first Test at the Gabba (through the 3 unforced, unnecessary and most of all negative changes); it happened at Adelaide too and sure enough it was repeated in Perth.

Langer's duck aside, England never looked like restricting Australia's second innings and Gilchrist's ferocious hitting was the icing on the cake for the hosts. Communications mix-up or no, the performance of the Aussies' veteran 'keeper on that third evening was something else. and doubly impressive given England's relative hold over him not only in the 2005 series but thus far in this one too. So what went wrong? Well it appears the pitch got slower and easier, but that doesn't tell the whole story. As mentioned above the captaincy was poor - at least insofar as the fifth bowler was (not) employed - but largely the game was won by a solid batting display by Australia, with the entire top order, Langer aside, contributing heavily and leaving England with a thoroughly unenviable task.

The declaration with 2 days to go was telling: despite the magnitude of the chase I do not believe that Ponting would have handed England the opportunity to collect 550 has the teams been playing on a similar level. In two days and more 550 is eminently get-able after all (as England showed in Adelaide and Australia had in Brisbane). Yes it was a fourth innings and yes it would have been a world record chase, but the pitch was getting better not worse, and had there been any doubt in Ponting's mind that England could buck their ideas up then it left plenty of time for the visitors to prod and push their way to the mammoth target. It might sound odd, but following Ponting's declaration an England win was more likely than a draw, simply because there was so much time available. Had England offered a real threat to Australia all series, I do not believe the charity of a sniff at victory - however remote - would have been offered. As it was, England were a beaten side before Gilchrist's onslaught and a truly broken one after it; the chances of them winning were bigger than the draw, but much, much smaller than the Australian win that would clinch the series and the urn. Strauss - unlucky in this series with umpiring decisions - was lost before the close and it looked like it would end on day 4.

Indeed I woke up on Sunday morning and turned on the radio. I was immensely surprised that the game was still live: at that point Cook and Pietersen were together, and it was looking like there was an outside chance of the most remarkable fightback in Test history.

No, I didn't believe that then either. Cook was out shortly after I woke up and Hoggard followed, failing in his role as night watchman. Flintoff came in and survived to the close with KP but it was all over the second Cook fell - his dead bat prowess to sure-up one end was the only real hope England had. Cook, and Bell, deserve great credit though. Both prospered in a situation where it would have been easier, and forgivable, for them to fail; in this, at least, not all hope is drained. Two young players batted for hour upon hour in a manner that confirms that they will form the spine of an England team for a long time, and both will have learnt a lot from this tour.

Flintoff had a welcome knock on Monday morning and KP showed he can be more restrained when it is called for, but there was always an air of inevitability about the result. Flintoff went, and then it was all over. Jones failed, and KP resigned himself - declining to farm the bowling has been cited as a sign of resignation. Perhaps it was, but it was also realistic and pragmatic; I cannot bring myself to criticise Pietersen for his handling of the tail in a situation as hopeless as that: if they couldn't stand up to the bowling the game was over anyway, and Australia thoroughly deserved their win.

As for the rest of the series... whereas previous Australian sides have been known to ease up in dead rubbers, I suspect this one will not. Winning back the Ashes was only one goal: 2005 hurt so much that the only way to really erase the memory is to inflict that most embarrassing of ignominies, the whitewash. Of course, the hosts' efforts are aided by the incompetence and inconsistency their guests have displayed as well as the very rife off-the-field issues that radiate from the England camp, but laying the blame for the prospective clean sweep entirely at the foot of England's mismanagement is belying a truth: Australia have proved their greatness, yet again. Their team has been more driven and more cohesive as well as more talented and ruthless. There are signs that the older gears are creaking, and time will soon split this team of champions - realistically 2009 will see a very different Australian team take the field - but the old stagers have done everything asked of them, everything that was needed to regain the urn. The task was surely easier than any dared believe or many fans anticipated, but they stuck to their guns and shot them true.

It is only proper, then, that I sign off this post with a tribute and deserved congratulations to the team that recaptured cricket's biggest prize (the World Cup be damned!): Well done - you earned it (and yes, it does hurt to type that so soon).

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