Well, the improvements in the English cricket team that I’d hoped for in my previous post did not materialise, and Australia dished out another thrashing in Perth and in doing so won back the Ashes in as deserved style as can be imagined. England were woeful, and have been utterly outclassed in all three aspects of the game – batting, bowling, and fielding – in all three tests. At no point has England been close to drawing a match, let alone winning, and they can point to no more than one or two occasions when they have been unequivocally ahead of Australia at any time in all of the first three tests combined.
There were some early signs of encouragement, particularly when Australia were at 143/5, and a brief glimmer later on when England were at 85/0, but on each occasion the situation quickly reverted to what has become the theme of the series: total Australian dominance.
It has been hugely disappointing. England (again) failed to capitalise on the (again) relatively cheap dismissal of Australia’s top order and allowed Steve Smith to score a superb century ably supported (again) by the seemingly immovable Brad Haddin. Smith had been having a relatively poor series up until this point, and should have been the target of a predetermined bowling plan by England. Instead they bowled far too many short balls which he gratefully pulled in front of square for four, over and over again. This is not the first time England have taken an age to realise the folly of bowling short to a set batsman who is dispatching each delivery with ease: it was this that allowed Ashton Agar to reach 98 in his debut innings in the last series, almost costing England the match. If the commentators are screaming at the bowler to pitch it fuller 3 overs into his spell, then why isn’t Alistair Cook doing the same? Stokes was the main culprit on this occasion, although perhaps being a part-time bowler in only his second test he can be forgiven somewhat. But that Smith century cost England the match, allowing Australia to post a modest score that this dilapidated England side had no hope of reaching.
Perth was the test match in which everyone expected Mitchell Johnson to blow England away, and – as I speculated – this was not the case. However, I also speculated that Johnson not taking wickets would cause him to bowl erratically and leak runs, but he kept it tight and although he finished the first innings with only two wickets, the pressure he exerted undoubtedly contributed to the wickets picked up by the others (not to mention his foot-smashing delivery that put Stuart Broad out of England’s bowling attack). Harris and Siddle were superb, finding swing, bounce, and movement off the pitch which had eluded the English bowlers almost entirely. Watson, who I don’t rate, bowled exceptionally well to keep the run rate negligible, piling more pressure on the batsmen who have had immense difficulty scoring all series: Keven Pietersen scored 19 off 59 deliveries, and this wasn’t because he was trying to play defensively, it was just that the Australian bowlers were not allowing him to score. Australia bowled no less than 31 maiden overs out of 88 in the first innings, a statistic which explains as well as any their success in this series.
The best thing that can be said about the English batting performance in this match was that they were not blown away by Mitchell Johnson, and indeed they seemed to cope with his bowling without too much difficulty (Broad excepted). This is a huge improvement from Brisbane and Adelaide when they were scared into submission, but alas winning that particular mental battle didn’t help one jot in advancing their position in the game. Michael Carberry continued to frustrate, looking comfortable, playing nice shots, getting a start, and then getting out softly for the 6th innings in a row. He can be forgiven one or two tests in this vein, but with the series now lost I can’t see anything short of back-to-back centuries in the remaining tests keeping his place in the test side at age 33. It’s a shame, because when he looks good, he looks good. Alistair Cook – on whom so much depends – threw his wicket away on 72 and was clean bowled first ball in the next innings, with any hope of England retaining the Ashes diminishing considerably on each occasion. The captaincy seems to be weighing heavily on Alistair Cook the batsman but, equally worryingly, his batting form seems to be weighing heavily on Alistair Cook the captain. As a result, he’s doing neither job well.
Kevin Pietersen once again failed to deliver what was required, although his attacking play in the second innings was refreshing if not ultimately pointless. On this sort of form, it is hard to imagine his test career will go on for much longer. Joe Root was a bit unlucky with both dismissals, but showed enough guts and ability to retain his place in the side. Ian Bell remains the only English player who is remotely in form, whereas the less said about Matt Prior the better: 8 and 26 with the bat followed by two missed stumpings and a catch he didn’t even go for, the goodwill and appreciation for past performances must surely be running low by now. Ben Stokes is probably the only really positive feature of this England side, having shown both an ability and a desire to stay in the middle and fight it out with a magnificent, battling century in Perth, plus being a handy change bowler at the same time. If he is given time to develop, he could become a decent find for England occupying a position that, in my opinion, has been improperly filled since the retirement of Paul Collingwood.
It’s hard to know where England go from here, but in my opinion they should avoid making sweeping changes on the basis of the past three matches. At the very least, the team should be kept intact for the remainder of the series to allow the established players the chance to regain form and to give the new players more exposure to test cricket and the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do at this level. I see no benefit to gutting a team that has already lost one of its mainstays (possibly two if Broad is ruled out of the Melbourne test) whilst there are no obvious replacements barging down the door to selection. Nobody made a convincing case in the warm-up games, and playing in a demoralised team in a lost series against Mitchell Johnson and co. is probably not the best way to bring in new blood. Similarly, the talk of Alistair Cook being stripped of the captaincy is premature, if not utterly stupid. For a start, we have nobody to replace him: his vice-captain is Matt Prior. At 29 years of age, Cook will regain his batting form at some point, and questions regarding his captaincy will disappear in the process, especially if England return to winning ways – which they likely will with Cook back in form. Hopefully his tactical abilities will improve in the process, to match his obvious leadership qualities, but we’ll see. Probably a bigger questions hangs over the head of Andrew Flower, who seems as bereft of ideas as Alistair Cook and is probably hoping everyone puts the series result down to a chronic lack of form of individuals. I’m not so sure he’ll have much luck in this regard, with plenty of commentators questioning the setup in the England camp, which would never have occurred had England not been so soundly beaten. My prediction, and hope, is that England stick to much the same team, take a closer look at the tactical decisions displayed in the field, and take as much from the games in Melbourne and Sydney as they can in preparation for the next series against Sri Lanka in May and June. To do that, they’re going to have to get over the loss of the Ashes quickly and start looking forward. It may just be that they’re tired, God knows they look it. Give them some time off, and see how they get on next season, but start grooming replacements now just in case. Another performance like this is a series, and it really will be time to ring the changes.
What’s of equal interest, to me anyway, is where Australia go from here. This Australian side reminds me a lot of the English sides of a few years ago: good players, with one or two genuine stars, forming a tight, cohesive unit playing with hunger under a decent manager, pulling off impressive victories against opponents many thought they would lose to. Sensible batting, good, accurate bowling, and exceptional fielding is what has brought success to both sides. But Australian fans should take note that barely had Michael Clarke’s fingerprints been applied to the urn were they falling into the same trap that England did following past victories: hubris, which blinds them to their obvious weaknesses.
In this last test, Michael Clarke was once again exposed to the new ball due to the failure of Rogers and Watson to see off the supposedly impotent Anderson and Broad. As I said before, Michael Clarke is good enough to deal with it but the number 4 being exposed to the new ball with such regularity should concern Australia. Questions were hanging over Watson’s position at three before, right on cue, he comes up with a blistering century when Australia were 291 runs ahead which should seal his place in the test side for another season at least. Whether this justifies his consistent failure on most other occasions is something the selectors and most fans seem to disagree on. Moving him up to number 6 would displace George Bailey, who is being lauded for smashing 28 runs off an exhausted Jimmy Anderson in one over when Australia were 435 runs in front (he went for 7 in the first innings, when his side really needed him). Presumably some people think such a performances are indicative of suitability for a test career, but weren’t Australians complaining about short-format batting styles destroying their test side just a few months back? Warner seems to have put to bed any suggestions he cannot bat at test level, until you look a bit closer and realise that his two centuries have come in the second innings from positions ideally suited to his aggressive batting style, i.e. no lateral movement from the ball and no scoreboard pressure. Even then he survived thanks to Prior’s ineptitude behind the stumps, and his first innings score of 60 was fraught with edges and balls bouncing off his bat dangerously close to the stumps. I think Warner – and Australia, to a lesser extent – have been fortunate to have won three tosses in a row and chosen to bat first on each occasion, although it’s far from certain that this England batting lineup would have fared much better in any case.
England have consistently failed to put Australia’s batsmen under any sort of scoreboard pressure, which I believe is crucial to success against this side. Even starting from evens, Australia have managed to find themselves at 83/4, 174/4, and 143/5 in successive tests, relying on late-order performances and pathetic England batsmen to deliver them wins in each case. The Australian strategy of scoring quickly but riskily in order to leave them enough time to win the match has worked very well for them in this series, but I think they’ve ridden their luck with this more than is appreciated. And on the one occasion England made the Australian bowlers work a bit – the final session on Day 4 of the 3rd Test – Harris, Siddle, and Johnson looked tired, and as a result were leaking runs and failing to take wickets. England should have been subjecting Australia’s bowlers to far more of this sort of thing.
Australia’s next series is against South Africa in February, where they will face Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, and Vernon Philander swinging the ball at full pace while bowling against Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, and AB de Villiers. When England, ranked No.1 in the world at the time, came up against this lot they were outclassed. It’ll be interesting to see how the Australian side that’s currently grinding England to dust, and already being hyped, will fare against them. You can bet your life Australia will lose a toss or two and find themselves batting second, Warner will be facing a swinging ball with a 4-5 hour uphill climb ahead of him, and Harris will be asked to bowl an awful lot more than 40 overs in a match.
In the meantime, it’s congratulations to Australia, and let’s see what England can salvage from this series. They’ll be as keen to avoid a whitewash as Australia will be to inflict one, and they will meet again at the MCG on Boxing Day. I will be in the crowd to watch what happens.