A Summary, Ashes 2013/14

I was going to write a review of the fifth and final test of the 2103/14 Ashes series in the same way I did the other four, but having watched nearly every ball I fear I would just be repeating myself.  This often happens in a test series, but I have never seen matches repeat themselves to the same extent they have in this one.  The first test in Brisbane set the template, and with the exception of Melbourne where England batted first (with the same result), each subsequent test has been a carbon-copy of the first.  However, a summary review of the series is in order.

Firstly, congratulations to Australia for not only winning the series and the urn, but for doing so in such emphatic style.  Their victory and celebrations are well deserved, and they should enjoy it.

In my opinion there were two major differences between the sides (and several minor ones).  The first of these is the bowling attack.  Australia’s bowling this series has ranged from good to outstanding, with the average being very good.  Mitchell Johnson has somehow found a way of maintaining the devastating form we had glimpses of in the past for an entire series: one can only imagine where Australian cricket would have gone had he discovered this ability 5 years ago.  I have always rated Johnson but predicted he would revert to his wayward form within another test or two, but I was wrong, and it is to Johnson’s enormous credit that he has been able to bowl spells of accurate, controlled fast-paced bowling throughout the series.  However, this only tells half the story.  Johnson has been supported brilliantly by the other bowlers, allowing Clarke the luxury of taking Johnson off after short spells.  Harris has been absolutely superb, hitting the right length with almost every ball and causing havoc for the English batsmen.  Siddle has also been excellent, again getting his length right and helping himself to Kevin Pietersen’s wicket almost at will.  Nathan Lyon, who unbelievably wasn’t selected at the start of the last series, bowled superbly, getting the spin and bounce which utterly eluded his supposedly better English counterpart, picking up valuable wickets at regular intervals.  Shane Watson didn’t bowl much, but when he did it was extremely economical, stifling the English batsmen with umpteen maiden overs and picking up the odd wicket here and there.  All of the quick bowlers found plenty of swing, both normal and reverse.  Combined, the Australian bowlers prevented England from scoring freely in any session in the series, and forced the batsmen to play unwise shots which usually cost them their wickets before any significant runs had been scored.  The results were devastating.

By contrast, the main English strike bowler, James Anderson, looked tired and could not get the ball to swing in any direction.  He looks visibly overworked, and he was.  Stuart Broad bowled well in spells, particularly in Brisbane, finding pace and bounce at times, and regularly troubled the Australian top order, but could not find the consistency or support from his teammates to finish the job.  As has been said already, Swann could not match the performance of his counterpart and seemed a shadow of his former self, quitting half way through the series to the surprise of many.  The English support bowlers – Tremlett, Bresnan, Panesar, Rankin – were trundling pedestrians, unable to find their previous form or worry the Australian batsmen in the slightest.  Possibly only Ben Stokes can come away from this series thinking he did his job.  The gulf in class between they and the Australian support bowlers goes a long way to explain the 5-0 series result.

But a lot of the English bowling was simply poor.  They bowled too short throughout the series (and much of the last one), which allowed those in-form Australian batsmen to help themselves.  To make this mistake in one test is understandable, to continue to make it throughout the series is inexplicable, especially when the Australian success at bowling a fuller length was there for all to see.  I simply cannot understand why England persisted with bowling short.  Poor captaincy played a role as well.  Alistair Cook’s bowling selections seemed extremely odd on far too many occasions: leaving Anderson and Broad out of the attack when Australia were under pressure; bowling Joe Root ahead of Monty Panesar in Melbourne; not bowling Borthwick until very late in Sydney.  Not only was this detrimental to England’s chances of success, but it must have had an extremely demoralising effect on the players who were passed over.  What Panesar must think of Cook is anyone’s guess.

So simply put, the Australian bowling was very good and the English bowling very poor.

Batting wise, the difference was closer than the scoreline appears, but nevertheless the difference was major.  Both sets of top order batsmen consistently failed in the first innings.  Despite Australia’s success in each match, they found themselves 100/5, 257/5, 143/5, 202/5, and 97/5 in successive first innings.  However, they were fortunate enough to have a remarkably in-form Brad Haddin come to the crease each time, and another middle/late-order batsman – Johnson in Brisbane, Clarke in Adelaide, Smith in Perth and Sydney, and nobody at all in Melbourne – to stick with him to post relatively modest scores (Adelaide excepted) which proved to be far beyond England’s reach.  Whereas Australia had Haddin and one other batsman to pull off a rescue each time, England had nobody: the only batsman who scored a century all series was Ben Stokes in Perth (you’d have gotten good odds on that a couple of months back).  The Australian batsmen enjoyed far greater success than England, particularly in the second innings when they were walking to the crease with a healthy lead already posted, and the Australian tail wagged repeatedly when the English tail was just blown away by Johnson and co., but – Haddin’s form apart – I didn”t think the Australian batting was spectacular.  It was good, but not magnificent, and South Africa will be looking at the repeated failure of the Australian top order with interest.

Again, simply put, the Australian batting was mediocre to good by international test standards, but nevertheless was far better than England’s.

Those two differences alone were what won Australia the Ashes, but there were several other differences at play which separated the teams yet further:

  1. Fielding.  Australia’s fielding was superb, with catches being taken, and Brad Haddin simply brilliant behind the stumps.  England’s series was littered with dropped catches, overthrows, and missed stumpings in a throwback to the dark old days of the ’90s.
  2. Captaincy. Whereas Michael Clarke set aggressive fields, changed things around regularly, displayed a keen tactical awareness of the match situation, and captained in a  positive, animated fashion, Alistair Cook’s captaincy was one-dimensional, unimaginative, and at times inexplicable.  His reverting to ultra-defensive fields after just one or two boundaries smacked of panic, and there were whole sessions where he seemed lost at sea with no plan other than to keep doing the same thing in the hope of a miracle.
  3. Overall team performance.  Success breeds confidence, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.  Australia under Darren Lehmann have been confident, united, positive, and with an air that they are up for it and in control.  This series, England have looked tired, jaded, with half of them not wanting to be there (and two going home early).  Whatever the reasons for this, few can deny that Australia have had a much better overall team spirit and setup this series.

Where each team goes from here is worth speculating about.  I advised against mass-clearouts following England’s heavy defeat in Brisbane, but the debacle of this series calls for an honest and mature post-mortem.  I have no idea what the solution is to what are obvious problems in the England setup, but those who are tasked with solving them need to do so.  I think it is high time Nick Compton got another look, along with other talented youngsters who have been shut out or put off by the cliques that appear to have developed in the England camp.  I think the future still looks bright enough for England.  They are badly in need of a rest, which they will now get, and whereas it is difficult to recover from an early mauling during a series they ought to be able to find some batting form before the series with Sri Lanka in May.  I simply don’t believe that the likes of Alistair Cook, Ian Bell, and Kevin Pietersen will remain in poor form forever, although Pietersen, and to a lesser extent Bell, may be approaching the end of their careers and without much time left.  I think Joe Root will develop into a decent test batsman if he is able to improve his technique, Carberry may well prove a useful addition against a less relentless bowling attack, and Ben Stokes is one of the rare positives coming out of this tour showing guts and ability with both bat and ball.

I’m not so worried about the English batting recovering from their failures down under, but the bowling causes me a lot more concern.  Graeme Swann is probably the best spinner England have ever had, and his place in the side would be difficult to fill even if we had another quality spinner knocking on the door.  The problem is, we have no obvious replacement, and with Monty Panesar’s on-off relationship with the England team set to continue until his retirement and Simon Kerrigan’s career probably bludgeoned to death before it had even begun by Shane Watson at the Oval, it is likely England will be without a test-class spinner for a while.

James Anderson’s form is a worry, as he’s been out of sorts for a while now, and it’s tempting to conclude that, having carried the bulk of the English bowling workload for a long, long time, he’s past his best.  Stuart Broad still has much to offer and I don’t think we need worry about his form or committment, but with Bresnan and Tremlett’s poor performance and the complete failures of Steven Finn and Boyd Rankin (who appear to have been mismanaged to a worrying degree by the England setup) in the warm-up games and final test, it is far from certain England will be able to mount an effective bowling attack next summer.  Something needs to happen to ensure the likes of Finn bowl to their potential, and that probably means a change of personnel in the England management.  Whether this happens or not remains to be seen.  The lack of obvious replacement ensures Cook will remain captain, but he needs to work on his captaincy skills, assuming such skills can be learned.

For Australia, it’s all about whether they can carry this success into the next series against South Africa and beyond.  For that to happen, they need to avoid falling into the same trap that did for England by interpretting resounding victories over weakened and demoralised opposition as evidence of perfection, and dismissing setbacks (i.e. the defeats by Pakistan and South Africa) as mere blips.  This Australian team are good, but they are not exceptional.  Michael Clarke cannnot rely on winning the toss and batting first every time, and the ability of Brad Haddin to mount a rescue cannot be guaranteed in the next series (as we saw from Bell in this one).  Despite their success, this team has yet to demonstrate it can follow even a modest first innings total or bat a second innings from behind, and their bowlers have not had to bowl sixth and seventh spells.  In such circumstances, Warner’s shot selection, Harris’ knee, Clarke’s back, Watson’s suitability at N0.3, and Johnson’s consistency will all be severely tested in a manner they were not in this series.  It remains to be seen whether Australia’s ultra-aggressive brand of cricket will serve them as well in future as it has for this series, but I suspect it will not.

To sum up, I think one of the commentators on Cricinfo.com put it well.  England wandered into a runaway train on this tour, finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and have been smashed.  But it’s probably unwise to project too much from a train wreck and things probably aren’t as good as they seem for Australia, nor as bad as they seem for England.  But for now, it’s congratulations to Australia, and commiserations for England.