In my previous post on the current Ashes series, I said that:
[H]ere’s what England need to do in the next match: win the toss, go into bat, and post a huge score. … If they don’t manage this in Adelaide, I think the series will be very difficult to save going into Perth.
England failed to do the very first part of that, losing the toss with Australia electing to bat first. Having gotten off to a very good start and looking pretty at 155/1, Australia’s top order batsmen threw away their wickets leaving them at 174/4, and looked like scoring well below par on a very good batting pitch. England then proceeded to hand the game back to Australia by dropping Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin on low scores, who both went on to post centuries. If that wasn’t enough, England dropped two other catches and were otherwise sloppy in the field to a degree not seen in several years from a side who we all thought had gotten their act together in this regard. Catches win matches they say, which may or may not be true, but catches do send potentially dangerous players back to the pavilion. Had those catches stuck and Australia been at 200 and something for 5 or 6, they would have been in trouble. But as it was, Clarke and Haddin piled on the runs and declared the innings 570 to the good. Not for the first time this series, England seemed to run out of ideas very quickly when trying to dismiss two set Australian batsmen. This was precisely what England did not want, and in my ideal scenario is what England should have looked to set Australia.
With all the pundits saying England’s first innings will be the true test of their batsmens’ mettle, they collapsed in a heap for 172 in a manner which, only 3 innings into the series, was becoming all too predictable, scared rigid by the pace of Mitchell Johnson who took 7/40 on a pitch that was supposedly slow. Only Ian Bell, left stranded on 72 when the last wicket fell, showed the kind of class one needs to neutralise this Australian attack, thumping Nathon Lyon into the stands seemingly at will. A somewhat nonsensical Australian innings followed before England were sent back out to bat, chasing a target of 531 which proved to be well beyond their reach. Having gone 2-0 down in the series and heading to Perth where the pace and bounce of the pitch is expected to favour Australia’s fast bowlers, England now face an extremely difficult task to claw their way back into this contest and retain the Ashes. That said, extremely difficult does not mean impossible.
One only needs to look at the previous Ashes series to know that the scoreline, or even the margin of victory, does not always paint a true picture of the difference between the sides. England won that series 3-0, but rarely looked convincing and were often behind in the match. The series result made England look better than they were, and Australia worse than they were. Similarly, England’s series victory against an ageing Indian side in 2011 undoubtedly gave them false confidence which lead to their being whitewashed by Pakistan in the UAE a few months later. Despite England having suffered two successive drubbings in this series, I don’t think the gap between the sides is as great as the scoreline reflects.
For a start, the main differences are easy to identify: Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson. Last summer, the difference was Ian Bell. Now that’s not to say that Australia are not better in every department: their bowling, batting, and fielding has been streets ahead of England’s all series. But it’s not been outstanding, and no better than England are more than capable of. It’s just been more than adequate to deal with this sorry English performance. Many people say that England are mentally shot, and I think on the morning of Day 4 that was true. However, I watched every ball of that day and by the close of play I think England had already begun to turn things around. It might be too late to save the series, but there are enough positives to think perhaps England might not let Australia have it all their own way yet (personally, I think talks of a whitewash from the Australians are as silly as they were from the English a few weeks ago). Let’s have a look at a few points.
Firstly, England scored 312 in their second innings, which is a decent score batting fourth for any side, even if the pitch was good. For all the talk of the English batsmen showing “fear in their eyes” (David Warner watches too much TV), and the obvious fact that the tail was scared rigid by Johnson’s pace in the first innings, I didn’t see much fear in the second, even when Johnson took the new ball. Perhaps inspired by the bravery displayed by Monty Panesar in his defiant first innings knock, the English batsmen stood up to him remarkably well at their second attempt. Stokes – on debut – seemed happy to pull faces at him, Prior seemed unfazed despite a horrific drop in form which has made him a walking wicket, 12-year old Root just laughed in his face, and Broad returned every grimace and remark with a barrage of his own. Whatever happened between the innings, the fear had gone by the time they came out again. With the exception of Cook, caught pulling a reckless but understandable shot when the score was 1, Johnson didn’t take a wicket for the rest of the game. He fizzed many a ball past the outside edge and bounced a few into shoulders or over the heads of ducking batsmen, but wasn’t able to repeat what he’d done in the first innings. And what I noticed was that Johnson was very much living up to his reputation as a confidence player: if he hadn’t taken a wicket or worried a batsman, within a remarkably short time he was bowling rubbish well wide of the crease or bouncing high down the leg side. On several occasions Clarke had to pull him off long before he’d completed what is considered a reasonable spell for a test bowler. In short, Johnson is good but he’s not unplayable, and once you’ve scored a few runs – or even blocked him out for an over or two – he can be relied upon to lose his line and length. He will be a daunting prospect on the WACA pitch, but if the England batsmen can retain the courage they showed in the second innings in Adelaide, they will at least limit the damage.
And let’s look at that figure again: in the second innings, Johnson took 1 wicket, having gotten Cook caught in the deep. At the beginning of the innings, the commentators were talking about how Johnson was set to become one of the few fast bowlers to take 10 wickets at Adelaide, and acknowledged that the expectation of the crowd was upon him to repeat his first innings performance. I speculated in my previous post that the expectations on Johnson in Perth may prove detrimental to his line and length, and I see no reason to change that outlook. Of course, I may have to eat my words if England get skittled for under 100…
I also saw signs in that second innings that they have started to climb up from the rock bottom that they reached in Brisbane and the first innings of Adelaide. Anderson produced two lovely deliveries to leave Australia 4/2 at one stage, and Broad has looked solid all series. And in the batting there were some good individual performances, notably Joe Root who looked comfortable throughout and was a bit unlucky to not make his second test century. If he can string another 3-4 performances like that together, the No.3 spot will be his for some time yet. Michael Carberry looked good in both innings, and his performance in the series reminds me a lot of Chris Rogers in the last series: looks comfortable, plays in a manner befitting a test match, but is a touch unlucky. Carberry was dismissed in the first innings thanks to a stunning catch by David Warner, and fell in the second after a shot which was not half as bad as some of the others that day. However, I note that Carberry’s dismissal in the second innings came after a run of maiden overs and the subsequent pressure forced him into trying to score. England really need to learn to get the singles and rotate the strike to put the pressure back on the bowlers, which is what Australia do so effectively. Still, I’d back Carberry to score a century before the series is over.
Having bowled fairly tightly when Australia were batting (and dismissed Haddin off a no-ball), Ben Stokes lasted 12 balls in his first innings but put up a gutsy defence against Mitchell Johnson and co. for over 2 hours in the second. Pietersen passed 50 before holding his bat up limply to a Peter Siddle delivery which bounced onto the stumps, but his innings was otherwise controlled, smashing Steve Smith into the stands on several occasions. And possibly most importantly, Matt Prior – who leading up to this test match would have forgone a year’s salary for an hour at the crease – put on 69 in a rearguard action which will hopefully signal a much-needed return to form with the bat. Crucially, every English batsman, with the exception of Cook, spent a decent amount of time in the middle in the second innings (Bell’s practice session came in the first). The English needed this exposure, particularly to Mitchell Johnson, and will all have learned plenty from the experience. Hopefully they can carry this experience through to the next test.
I also think Australia have one or two concerns being masked by the performances of Clarke, Johnson, and Haddin. Rogers and Watson are averaging 22.75 and 19.75 respectively, despite two of their four innings being played under no pressure whatsoever. Warner tends to start in T20 style before getting himself out cheaply, unless he is starting from a position where Australia are already miles in front. In 3 of the 4 innings Clarke has found himself exposed to the new ball; fortunately for Australia he is able to deal with it. Steve Smith hasn’t presented much of a threat with bat or ball thus far, and both Harris and Lyon looked a little tired at times during Day 4 of this last test. All very small stuff which is irrelevant in the context of the thrashing they dished out to England, but the small niggles can easily turn into bigger issues on which games are won and lost.
Even a draw in Perth will be a big ask for England’s players, but they have the talent in the side to make it happen. One or two players are starting to find some form, and crucially Cook needs to recover his to avoid another heavy defeat. I am hoping against hope that England have recovered from the mental crushing of Brisbane – something they’d clearly not done by the third day at Adelaide – and that Australia have maybe started to get a little ahead of themselves. Cricket is a funny game in this regard, and I have an inkling the match in Perth may throw up a surprise or two. We’ll see.