(I know I don’t often write about cricket, or any sport, on this blog. If you don’t follow cricket, skip this post.)
Some thoughts following England’s drubbing at the hands of Australia in the first test of the 2013/14 Ashes series.
Firstly, an explanation for the mediocre batting performance from England during the last Ashes series in England, offered up by the commentary teams, was that the pitches had been prepared for Graeme Swann, i.e. slow and sluggish, and the English batsmen were struggling because the ball was not coming onto the bat, which was apparently how they like it. One match into the next series, and the pace and bounce of the pitch seems to be posing major problems for England’s batsmen. So which is it? This question will take some answering.
Secondly, this is no blip, as a lot of commentators have now realised. England got cleaned up 3-0 by Pakistan in 2012, got spanked by a superior South Africa in England, narrowly avoided defeat in New Zealand, and won the last Ashes series despite consistent failures on the part of the English top order thanks to Ian Bell and Australia also being rubbish.
Thirdly, England used to boast that they analyse every player and have a plan of how to get every player out, and in the past when it has worked it has been impressive. In the last test, I can only assume whoever was preparing these plans went to work for the Australians sometime in September. Australia had a plan for every English batsman that usually worked after about 10 deliveries; England, with the exception of dismissing Watson (who these days is a walking wicket) and the 1st innings short ball to Clarke, seemed to lack any kind of plan. I’ve not seen England out-thunk by an opposition team in this manner in years.
Finally, England’s biggest problem is they currently cannot seem to post big scores. On paper they have the firepower to do so, but have not delivered for quite some time. The main reason India got beaten so badly by England in 2011 was that they never managed to score more than 300 runs in an innings. That large scores win matches, and ensure you do not lose, is obvious. England at present can be relied upon to go past 300, but haven’t gone past 400 in 18 consecutive innings (which includes the previous Ashes). By contrast, Australia posted 527 and 492 when they played in England last summer, and put up 401 in this latest test.
However, I think the Australian batsmen would crumble if faced with 450+ on the board. At least, how they would respond is very much unproven. The biggest target they were set in the last Ashes series was 361: Australia folded for 128 in reply. For all the praise about Warner’s ton – and conceding that he did look good all match and he amply did the job required of him in the second innings – he started with his team effectively in a position of 160/0. Let’s see him to that when facing an uphill climb of 8-10 hours at the crease just to even the score. Clarke can do it because he’s brilliant, but I have serious doubts about the rest. Australia have shown they can dig themselves out of a hole having found themselves underscoring either in an opening innings or in response to a mediocre English total, but in 6 matches England have never set the Australians an enormous score to beat.
So, here’s what England need to do in the next match: win the toss, go into bat, and post a huge score. For that, at least two players need to score centuries, with one making a daddy hundred in the 150-200+ range. That gives the late order batsmen room to smash out and put the game beyond reach, and – more importantly – time for the English bowlers to rest. If I was Anderson or Broad, I’d be less than impressed at having to go out and bowl again only a few hours after finishing 25 overs each. In theory, they have the batsmen to do it. Australia’s bowling is good, but it’s not unplayable. I’ve seen every English batsman play better bowling than this, and score heavily from it. They just need to recover that lost form and stop getting out.
If they don’t manage this in Adelaide, I think the series will be very difficult to save going into Perth.