Friday, January 7, 2011

The Ashes in Review

It was always going to be a difficult period for Australia after the break up of one of the greatest teams of all time. No side anywhere could lose four of the greatest players of their era in Hayden, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath - in the case of the last pair probably two of the greatest of all time - plus other notables such as Langer and Martyn without suffering a serious drop in performance.

Australia performed decently in England last Summer but that lack of quality and a genuine match winner meant they could not convert their superiority in the averages into a victory in the series and England duly won the Ashes for the second time in three attempts. Since then Cricket Australia has seen a further decline with a truly awful sequence of results before England arrived down under. For once there was genuine optimism that England could win on Australian soil for the first time in over twenty years.

Australian cricket now seems to be enduring the same issues and problems that has afflicted England over the years and is so badly crippling cricket in the Caribbean right now namely competition from other sports which are growing rapidly in popularity and also pay more handsome rewards for success on the pitch.

The Ashes aside, less people are watching cricket these days in Australia with the rugby codes, AFL and believe it or not soccer now coming to the fore. Athletes can earn a good living playing these sports whereas only really the National Team players can claim to do so in cricket. That, coupled with trekking all over the world for eight months of the year and it becomes a tough shift. Easier more bountiful options are readily available on home turf with - AFL aside - the added lure of large European contracts being available if a player is very successful.

So to the actual series. The view on this blog was that if England could by hook or by crook scrape any kind of result at the Gabba  - a ground where England have such an atrocious record - the series would be there for England to win. The first two and a half days were standard fare for Brisbane with Australia seemingly well on top after Strauss' dire start, Siddle's magical hat trick and some superb batting in particular from Michael Hussey. The England fightback at the crease from Strauss, Cook and Trott in the second innings however eclipsed everything that had gone before. It also highlighted the limitations of the Australian attack that would afflict them so badly throughout the rest of the series - Mitchell Johnson in Perth aside -  as well as placing the momentum firmly with England.

Adelaide saw England in the ascendancy with the amazing sight of Australia three down for two runs. This was follwed by some good first innings bowling and then some glorious batting in particular from Cook and then Pietersen finally performing to the level he is capable of with a quite stunning double century. More disciplined bowling and a good effort from Graeme Swann in the second innings ensured a comfortable innings victory.

British teams are prone to resting on their laurels and England were duly thrashed in barely four days in Perth. A seemingly lobotomised Mitchell Johnson starred with both bat and ball pushing aside his woes from Brisbane. He was admirably supported by the excellent Mike Hussey once again. England who had batted so well until this Test were undone by the same lateral movement in the ball that they had claimed to be so at ease with and even the masters of.

At one all and with Australian tails up, England then stepped into the Lions Den of the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, and how they responded. Australia were skittled in their first innings for ninety eight which was roughly equal to the number of Australian fans still in the stadium by tea. A return by England to solid batting led by Jonathan Trott's superb century ensured Australia were chasing a hopeless total second time around and they were duly bombed out for their second innings defeat in three test matches and the Ashes were heading back to England.

And so to Sydney and again Australia's batsmen failed. Depsite the tail wagging, 280 looked a meagre total. England duly proved that by piling on over 600 runs on the board for the second time this series. Another superb vigil by Cook and then tons for both Bell and Prior - with the latter scoring his in record time - did the damage this time. Australia were left staring down the barrel of their third innings defeat of the series and more carnage ensued after the comical run out of Shane Watson just underlined how demoralised and beaten up this Australian team had become. They finished the series with the smallest of whimpers limping into the final day with only three wickets left before the axe was finally brought down on them in the morning session.

So what can both teams take from this series? For England, a series win on Australian soil no matter what the circumstances is both rare and treasured, so often have they been the whipping boys down under. England do not have a team of superstars (KP may disagree) but they do appear to have a team that is greater than the sum of its' parts with an excellent spirit, work rate and also no small amout of talent. The key is not to hand out medals and knighthoods now and have everyone write biographies, it is to take the series win and build on it first at the World Cup and then in the Summer Tests back home in England. India, the number one ranked Test side in the World will be the visitors, beating them after winning in Australia would make 2011 a year to remember for English Test Cricket.

There is little for Australia to take to be blunt. Their openers are simply not good enough, Ponting has been dreadful with the bat and sadly one of the truly outstanding batsmen of his generation will be remembered for losing the Ashes three times, Clarke has also been awful and remains unpopular with the public. The attack looks very ordinary and there appears to be no spin option to speak of. After being the dominant force in World cricket for so long they almost certainly face a period of transition at best. The competitive nature of sport in Australia will ensure that they remain a respectable side but they are a million miles away from the brilliance of their teams from the previous two decades, 2007 seems an awfully long time ago. This blog however would like to recognise the great effort put in from Peter Siddle who lit up Brisbane (unfortunately in my presence) with his first day hat trick and took six wickets in an innings on two separate occasions. He has never stopped trying and has provided great competitive cricket throughout the series.

For Ponting, it is probably time to step down as captain. As mentioned earlier he has been a phenomenon with the bat, an absolutely outstanding number three throughout a long and distinguished career. The reality however is he is a poor captain with questionable tactics at the best of times. He has a fantastic winning record but in reality anyone would have with the tools he had at his disposal until 2007. Since then, when the going has been tougher he has proven not up to it and his preoccupation with setting all sorts of strange fields to rescue situations when Australia were not even getting the basics right has had everyone scratching their heads. He has let himself down with both his demeanour and behaviour during the series which has betrayed a man under the severest of pressure. A place in the side, possibly down the order at five should still be his but for Australia, it is time to find a new direction with the captaincy. They are however, hardly spoiled for choice.

All that remains now is to mark the England players out of ten for the series, this blog shall leave the Australians to mark their own players for fear of being accused of gloating.

Andrew Strauss 7/10
A good leader and captain who has coaxed the best out of his troops. Inconsistent with the bat however and his rash shot to the third ball in Brisbane could have proved fatal although he did rally with a century in the second innings. He remains unquestionably the best choice for England as captain.

Alastair Cook 10/10
Difficult to ever award a ten as people can always do better but with the records tumbling faster than Ricky Pontings' stumps it is hard to give the man of the series anything else. A supreme exercise in discipline, patience, concentration, fitness and ability. Simply tremendous.

Jonathan Trott 8/10
Number three has been a problem position for England since Robin Smith lost form many moons ago. In Trott they finally seem to have a player comfortable batting there. Some valuable innings not least in Melbourne and a player who truly prizes his wicket.

Kevin Pietersen 6/10
Yet another tale of what might have been. Plenty of starts but poor shot selection and a lack of patience so often lets him down. Adelaide showed everyone what we all know he can do but as he continues to play for himself and not the team, KP will only be remembered as a good player and not the great one he could and should have been.

Paul Collingwood 2/10
Utterly dreadful series for the Durham stalwart. Had it not been for his ability in the field and being able to turn his arm over for a few overs he would have only been awarded a one. Collingwood has indeed jumped before he was pushed by announcing his retirement from test cricket.

Ian Bell 9/10
You cannot ask anymore from a number six than what Bell has provided in this series. He has looked as classy as anyone at the crease underlined by a great century in Sydney. He has put his 'Sherminator' demons to bed so please take note Mr S.K. Warne. He can surely at bat at five this Summer in England.

Matt Prior 8/10
Some great attacking batting coupled with much improved glove work makes Prior now a formidable wicketkeeper batsmen. A strong positive influence on the field also.

Graeme Swann 6/10
Six is maybe a touch harsh but so much was expected of Swann ahead of this series. Many of the conditions have not been too conducive for his brand of finger spin and he did well to bowl out Australia in Adelaide. The majority of his bowling in this series however has been flat and too quick belying a lack of confidence to take the batsmen on down under. Capable of more with the bat also. Remains a key member of the side.

Stuart Broad 6/10
Unfortunate to have his series cruelly cut short by injury. Had looked tidy and economic until then without getting any reward in terms of wickets. His average in the eighties for the series is no reflection whatsoever on how well he really bowled.

Tim Bresnan 7/10
Only brought into the side in Melbourne but what a cracking addition the big Yorkshireman has been. Lively and always amongst the wickets.

Chris Tremlett 7/10
Like Bresnan, did not start the series but has done everything asked of him since coming into the side.

Steve Finn 6/10
One for the future and one that England should persevere with. Still young and raw, he has a good knack of taking wickets and his economy rate at this level will improve. He will be a better player for having been on this tour.

James Anderson 9/10
England's swing doctor supreme. Has carried the weight of leading the attack admirably especially after the injury to Broad. Has looked menacing throughout the series and has been superbly disciplined in both line and length throughout. It is great to see Jimmy finally fulfilling his undoubted talent.

Andy Flower must also deserve huge credit for both this series win and for his contribution to English cricket since his appointment. England had briefly touched the heights under Duncan Fletcher but had seemingly lost their way since and were merely treading water before Flower took the helm.

Whilst this was an entertaining Ashes series it has been far from a classic one. Both teams are short on genuine quality with the Australian attack in particular regularly looking entirely bereft of the ability to bowl a side out. Whilst the tests have provided results after the draw at Brisbane, the four results have all been hopelessly one sided with none of the to and fro of a truly great series. The Ashes remains entirely special however to both the contestants and the fans and as long as test cricket endures, it will remain one of sports' great rivalries.