“When you get to the bottom you go back to the top of the slide,
When you stop and you turn and you go for a ride,
Till you get to the bottom and I see you again”
The view from the top was as glorious last week as the view from the bottom this week was terrifying.
Following the England cricket team has long given one the feeling of riding on a helter skelter. To those who have only known the team over the past ten years then this may feel like a nadir, or the worst possible moment. But some of us ‘old sweats’ we have seen it before.
Lay your Lord’s 2015 card and we’ll offer you Headingley 1992 or 2000 or Queen’s Park Oval 1994. If you persist we’ll probably just direct you back to most of the innings in Australia last time. Down the years England batsmen have always struggled against pace and bounce. Come to think of it, most teams have, but from an English perspective perhaps we like to think of it as one of our foibles.
So is the collapse. I’ve often been infuriated with people who do not follow cricket at all, yet wheel out the old ‘English batting collapse’ joke simply because they’ve heard it somewhere. This is often followed by a knowing look as if they understand what it really means. They cannot. Nobody can unless you’ve sat through it. English players only seem to be the ones who carry ‘baggage’ from past maulings. They seem to be the only players in the sport who just cannot handle the pressure. Yet that’s not exactly true, it’s just how we like to think of ourselves.
It took an Australian this week to highlight this country’s ability to treat its sportsmen as world beaters one week then spineless failures the next. As if to emphasise this further, after England outplayed Australia last week there were those who couldn’t see the Aussies winning another test in this series, yet barely a week later and those same commenters just cannot see the previously unbeatable England, winning another test themselves. To coin a particularly annoying Americanism some people insist on pushing – go figure!
I’ve even seen one mention of the word ‘momentum’. Of course this was to reinforce their belief the Aussies had now woken up and were not to return to their Cardiff slumber until the flight home. But if momentum was a factor in this series then surely the England juggernaut would have steamrollered on?
We will never know if England would have made such an impressive fist of things had they won the toss on Thursday as their Australian counterparts did. Chris Rogers batted beautifully and after Warner had sensed the mood of the moment to get out quickly and allow Steve Smith to take control of proceedings, the two of them looked immovable. The two broke a partnership record which had stood since 1930 when they beat Don Bradman and Bill Woodfull’s record partnership for any wicket for Australia at Lord’s. ‘The Don’ scored a double century during that innings and whilst nobody would be stupid to label Smith with that particular moniker, the Sydney-born batsman is continuing to confound critics with a rich vein of form. In his last eight test matches, going back to December 2014, he has scored 1,391 at an average of 115.92 with six hundreds and four fifties.
Personally, I thought Smith was a joke when I first saw him. I couldn’t believe the cupboard was so bare for Australia they had to resort to picking a player like him. Nothing in that 2009/10 series convinced me I was wrong and I thought this was payback for the continual ribbing we have had to put up with for picking some of the players we have to take on our fiercest rivals. Fortunately, I am not alone in being proved wrong and there’s a kind of satisfaction in that, despite him being an Aussie. In England we have been far too impatient with players who get thrown back from whence they came after one or two failures.
Two aspects are highlighted for me with Smith’s resurgence to the top of the batting ratings. Firstly, they illustrate England’s folly with ditching a player like Gary Ballance. The guy has the game and the mind to deal with test cricket, he just seems to be in such a dark place with his technique at the moment, probably brought about by having to bat at number three. The second point is how he is masking his captain’s own struggles with the bat. Clarke averages a paltry 27.83 in his last six innings and has looked less than assured in this series thus far. With England relying heavily on Cook and Root, you could argue Australia is doing the same with Rogers and Clarke. It is very easy to look at the manner of the defeat at Lord’s to suggest Australia’s domination was greater than England’s was at Cardiff and therefore they have to be favourites to win the series. But England must draw comfort from their performance at Cardiff and no one can take that away from them.
During the match the pitch was the subject of much conjecture with many blaming England for demanding another slow pitch so as to negate the pace of Johnson, Starc and Hazlewood. By the time they came to bowl on it they extracted more pace and bounce than England managed. But England’s attack isn’t based on pace, it’s based on movement, swing and length bowling. There was hardly any swing during this game, which nulled Anderson’s attack, leaving Broad as the main thrust of the home push.
Broad has finished the game just four wickets short of 300, a figure seemingly out of reach for many England bowlers since Botham retired, until Jimmy Anderson broke through it in May 2013. But there has not been the clamour to pat Stuart’s back as there was with Jimmy. The montages of his finest spells seem to be lacking from a host broadcaster seemingly obsessed with the concept. What surprised me most about Broad’s stats were not actually about Broad. Mitchell Johnson walked away from Lord’s just one short of the same 300 figure, yet has only played 68 games to Broad’s 81. Jimmy went through the 300 figure in his 81st match too, just to put some perspective on things. Johnson’s figures compare favourably with Fred Trueman’s by way of wickets per match.
Just after the toss, Ian Botham, once described by Richie Benaud as the finest reader of a pitch he’d ever known, claimed he believed batting would be at its easiest on days two and three, although he conceded the toss might be a good one to lose for fear of deciding to bat and then being skittled out in unfavourable conditions. As it was the cloud, what there was, made no difference at all and by the time England were batting on day three they were facing such a mountain we never got to see whether things were easier or not. That mountain, of course, had been much of their own making with four wickets going down early in a blitz at the end of day two. The Australian bowlers were bolstered by the huge total they were defending, and as England had shown in Cardiff, running in at an uncertain batting line-up is much easier with runs on the board.
By the second day, Simon Hughes, had wondered if the pitch was undercooked by a day or two and that we would only see the true value of it by days three or four. The game had moved on considerably by then and again this made it difficult to judge it effectively. Alistair Cook and Ben Stokes batted very well at the end of day two and during day three. Stokes’ innings caused a particular journalist sage to wonder if Stokes, at the age of 24, was playing the type of innings neither Botham nor Flintoff were ever capable of at that stage in their careers. Cook fell agonisingly four runs short of another century and his contribution should not be ignored. He was visibly gutted when he played on to a wide one from Mitchell Marsh. Marsh, brought in to replace the hapless Shane Watson and had taken two wickets with poor wide deliveries. Jimmy Anderson must’ve wondered where the luck lay as he hadn’t taken any wickets with the stuff he was delivering.
England’s problems with the top order have magnified themselves to become a real problem. Before the series began I identified my own concerns with Ian Bell and how England needed him to fully justify his undoubted talent in order to win back The Ashes. He has to bat at number three, in my opinion, and his refusal to truly believe in himself is causing England a real problem. Ballance is having to bat at three where he is exposed to the new ball too early and by the time Root comes in we are three down for very little. In Cardiff, Root dug England out, at Lord’s he couldn’t. He played at a wide delivery and England were 30-4. I would move Bell and Root up one and put Ballance at five. Although this may all change for the next test at Edgbaston, after both Ballance and Bell’s second innings batting.
The contribution for the first three wickets this year is the second worst since the War. 1989, that memorable year of ignominy and dross, was the worst.
The second innings performance on Sunday has certainly put many an England fan into a spin. Few gave us much hope of batting out five sessions but to struggle to survive one really marked a level in ineptitude. Cook and Lyth got through the first three overs before lunch but Lyth went soon after. By tea this had descended to 64-5. By the end of the first over after tea became 64-7. England eventually dribbled to 103 and one can only imagine the England players, like some of the supporters, were just glad to get it all over with. Having watched Jimmy Anderson’s first over on the second morning and seeing his shake of the head in evidence of his resignation to the inevitable, it just seemed as if England really weren’t sure they could compete here.
But there is a gap to the Third Test, which begins on 29th July at Edgbaston. Australia last won their fourteen years ago and have won just once there in the last twenty two years. England has only lost at the venue once in the last fourteen years (to South Africa in 2008) and have twice enjoyed innings victories there. Of course the ground will always be remembered for the remarkable goings on in 2005. England won’t care how they win, they will just want to get back in control of the series.
So what changes can we expect? Australia made two changes for this test, dropping Watson and leaving out Haddin, for family reasons. Their replacements, Marsh and Nevill performed well and it will be interesting to see what they do if Haddin believes he can play, with Marsh likely to see the series out at least.
For England they have more problems, as I mentioned earlier. Bell, Ballance and Lyth must be concerned, especially as Jonny Bairstow is still piling on the runs. Whether there are sufficient players of calibre to improve the team if any or all of the three receive the chop, is a matter of debate. But what is perfectly clear is that any batsman not in form at the moment is not going to get the chance to rectify things before the next Test, or even the one after and only one chance before the final Test of the series.
There are a round of County Championship matches on at the moment but there are no more scheduled until after the Fourth Test. Between the Fourth and Fifth Tests there is just one round of four-day matches, although not for Lancashire or Nottinghamshire. This means, if players such as James Taylor or Alex Hales or to be considered then they have only 50-over matches on offer between now and the end of the series. In contrast the Australians have a four-day game against Derbyshire between now and Edgbaston and then one against Northants between the Fourth Test, at Trent Bridge, and the Fifth at The Oval. But then that’s the problem with the current fixture list. We were told they wanted to spread the T20 matches out over the season yet the 50-over competition is played in a block. Hales, for example, has only played three First Class innings since mid-June and has hardly set the world alight (15, 24, 18). Taylor has just hit a century against Sussex, his first of the season, but his modest return of 523 runs in 18 innings previous to that has hardly forced the door off the hinges. Neither Nick Compton or Sam Robson have exactly produced a record this season to prove the selectors wrong and a look at the First Class averages this season sees Somerset’s James Hildreth as the highest English-qualified scorer and the only one to have passed 1,000 runs. Many ill point to the advantage he has with the pitch he plays on at Taunton to skew his record.
The next two on the list who could possibly be selected are Scott Borthwick and Jonny Bairstow. Borthwick was first selected for England as a spinner, yet his batting has really come on since then and Durham shove him in at number three. Bairstow, first selected for England as a wicket-keeper, is in the form of his life and surely England have to tap into that sooner rather than later. Bairstow has the added advantage of having played a part in the eye-opening one day series against New Zealand last month.The result at Lord’s leaves the series beautifully poised. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised Australia batted so well, and ultimately won the game, as they have a historyin recent times of winning games when they bat first and losing the ones they don’t. Only once in the past ten years has a team batting first lost a Test match at Lord’s. Going back to July 2013, Australia has lost seven of their last ten matches when batting second. Yet, you have to go back to March 2013 for the last time they lost after batting first, a run of thirteen matches, winning ten of them.