It took Australia less than two hours to throw the Ashes away on the morning of the fourth test at Trent Bridge, with Jimmy Anderson’s absence being a complete irrelevance in the wake of Stuart Broad’s incredible 8/15 and a series of shots played by Australian batsmen that varied from appalling to diabolical. I wasn’t able to watch it but followed it on CricInfo, and hence witnessed the capitulation in text form. When I watched the highlights when I got home, I saw how bad it was.
The balls that the Australians should have left got edged to slip, and the ones they left hit the top of off stump. Broad bowled well – this was his home ground, after all – and produced some wonderful swinging deliveries, as did Wood and Finn in support (Stokes didn’t even get a chance to warm up), but most of these balls should have been left well alone. I think it was Brian Lara who once said the first hour belongs to the bowler. Somebody commented a few years back that things had changed so much that now even the first ball doesn’t belong to the bowler. The Australian collapse showed that Lara was right all along.
It wasn’t just the hyper-aggressiveness that was Australia’s downfall, it was also a lack of intelligence and technique. As an Australian friend pointed out shortly afterwards, playing in the IPL does not give you a bad technique, but it does allow people with bad techniques to make a lot of money. With the money comes reputation, and test selection inevitably follows. How else do you explain Glenn Maxwell being awarded a Baggy Green? A generation or two ago Australians would have played in the English County Championship and gotten used to the conditions over there. Now they all play Shield, BBL, and IPL and turn up in England without even knowing what English conditions are, let alone having learned to play in them. Take a look at this post-match interview with Steve Smith:
Australia’s captain-elect Steven Smith has admitted that he has been drawn into playing strokes too often by the English skill of bending the ball on both directions, and hopes that his Australian fast men can learn to replicate the trick.
You mean nobody told him this before he arrived?! How many ex-players are in the Australian setup, and nobody even bothered telling them what to expect? The great Australian teams of 10-20 years ago not only knew what to expect, but had learned with great skill and patience to flourish in such conditions, which is what made them so special. Having not even been aware of what technique is required in England, never mind actually master it, it is hardly surprising the Australians fell apart. Rogers and Voges (in their second innings) were the only ones who looked like test batsmen, and by pure coincidence they have both played a lot of County cricket.
But they were also dumb, and Shane Warne was livid about this in the commentary. In the second innings, just before tea, Steve Smith smashed a wide ball from Broad to the cover boundary. So Cook told Stokes to move a few metres to his right and stand in the trajectory of the previous stroke, before Broad bowled exactly the same ball. Smith duly obliged by smashing exactly the same shot, only this time there was a tattooed, ginger Ben Stokes with buckets for hands between him and the boundary rope. Warne was livid because at that point in the game, just before tea and having just lost a couple of wickets, Smith should have been looking to ride it out until the break and go back out afterwards prepared to soldier on. Scoring runs just wasn’t important right then. He was also angry because Smith was too dense to figure out that Stokes had moved position precisely to take a catch of a repeat shot. But Smith still doesn’t get it, here’s what he said afterwards:
There has been criticism of the second-innings stroke, a dismissal that Shane Warne described as “horrific”, and Smith said his weight had been poorly distributed for the shot. But he defended his positive approach, arguing that a ball there to be hit to the boundary needed to be addressed that way no matter how many balls a batsman has faced up to.
“If you get a loose ball, you have to hit it,” he said. “I hit two half-volleys for four and the one that I got out to in the second innings was pretty much the same. It was there to hit for four, I just didn’t execute it well. My weight was a bit back, looking back at it. And that’s something I’m trying to work on with my technique – to get my weight going forward. It’s something that is pretty crucial here in England on the slower wickets as well.”
Let’s read that again:
It was there to hit for four, I just didn’t execute it well.
You hit it straight to a fielder who had been placed there in the hope that you would hit the ball straight to him, the captain having banked on your belief that “if you get a loose ball, you have to hit it”. Smith’s a good player, but this is extraordinarily stupid. Everyone plays dumb shots, few defend them in hindsight.
Smith’s wasn’t the only dumb shot. Warner, despite his second innings quick-fire 64, got himself out playing a shot that every commentator I read or listened to struggled to describe. The beauty of Warner is you know that no matter how quickly he scores he is going to gift his wicket before the two hour mark, so all you have to do is keep an eye on how many runs he makes. And if runs aren’t an issue – which they weren’t in the second innings – then you just need to wait. Rogers, for all his talent, isn’t much different: he is very good at getting past 50, and very poor at getting to 100. Show enough patience, and he’ll get himself out soon enough.
I don’t recall too much of the England innings, other than Lyth failed (again), Cook got himself out just when everyone was hoping he’d go on to anchor the innings with a massive score (again), and Root stepped up and with a huge grin grabbed hold of the match and did with the bat what Broad had done a couple of hours earlier with the ball. Bairstow’s contribution of 74 was extremely handy for both him and the team, but with Stokes and Buttler both going cheaply it fell to Broad and Ali to nudge the score to a point where Australia were really going to struggle. Australia’s bowling wasn’t that bad, but it was nowhere near good enough to turn a first innings score of 60 into a match-saving position. England’s batting has not been terrible this series, but it’s not been very good either. Root and Ali have been the stand-out players, but it ought to worry England that Cook keeps getting out just as he looks to be set for a big score, Lyth has consistently failed to handle a bowling attack which Broad has refound some form against (albeit against an older ball and more weary/depressed bowlers), Bell is still inconsistent and Buttler hasn’t done in tests what we saw him do in ODIs, even when he’s been under very little pressure.
When it comes to batting England have some work to do, but they ought to be pretty pleased with their bowling. Mark Wood has looked good this series albeit tired at times, and the return to form of Steven Finn will cheer them no end. Ben Stokes put in a fantastic display to knock over Rogers, Warner, and Marsh in quick succession in the second innings, proving he is becoming more and more like a genuine all-rounder. If England can keep Moeen Ali improving to the point he becomes a reliable spin bowler, they can look forward to a bright future in the bowling department.
Australia have bigger issues, the main one being they need to stop looking for excuses. First it was the pitch, then it was the pitches, then it was losing the toss. Given Australia have relied upon winning the toss in order to win anything over the past few years, this last one is laughable. Sorry, but losing the toss doesn’t make a batsman swash at a wide delivery three balls before tea. Then Ian Healy said the accompanying families were a distraction, perhaps fondly recalling the days when a travelling cricket team could nail local waitresses without their wives finding out. They arrived with considerable hubris, underestimated their opponents from the beginning, dispensed with proper, lengthy preparation, shrugged when thumped in Cardiff, arrogantly assumed Lord’s was “business as usual”, learned nothing from their thrashing at Edgbaston and hit what they must hope is rock bottom at Trent Bridge. Their captain is on the way out, seemingly intent on making sure all discussion surrounding Australian cricket for the next few weeks is about him, and their best batsman is supposedly retiring as well. A lot of people are saying that Siddle should have played at Trent Bridge, and perhaps he should, but he is no spring chicken either. With Hazlewood rather unsurprisingly not turning into Glenn McGrath over the course of one series of international cricket, Australia seem to be a bit stuck. Others have mentioned Pat Cummins, but he’s an impact bowler and some may have missed this, but Australia have enough of them already. The two Marshes are the answer to a question nobody asked, Voges hasn’t filled the gap he was brought in to fill, and Warner is, in my opinion, a walking wicket outside of Australia and South Africa. Neville is probably the only half-positive thing in the Australian team, looking like a handy enough wicket keeper whose batting will likely improve. Again, for all the talk of bringing Haddin back in, he was set to retire too.
England ought to go out and have some fun at the Oval, and if they do it might be enough to overcome a demoralised and shaken Australian team. But Australia have enough players who will be up for one final fight, particularly those who probably won’t play another test again, and so an upset is still possible. What I’d like to see is England win the toss and bat first on pitch with some movement, thus giving their batsmen a proper test on a pitch that suits the bowlers. If Cook can snaffle a century under those conditions, Australia will have been well and truly seen off with no more excuses.