Monday, July 15, 2013

England Scrape Over the Line

England made the hardest of jobs of beating Australia at Trent Bridge winning with only 14 runs to spare ending a test match of the highest drama if not necessarily quality.

England went into the match and the series as strong favourites and whilst the score reads 1-0, Australia will have garnered great heart from this test match despite the desperate disappointment they will have felt.

There is little doubt that this is the worst Australian team to face England in over 25 years. It is a team woefully short of genuine test class with probably Michael Clarke and possibly Peter Siddle as the only Australian players who could displace a player from England's side.

England by contrast have test batting pedigree in Cook, Trott, KP, Bell (sometimes...) and Matthew Prior supplemented by the potential of Root and Bairstow. Their seam attack is possibly bested only by South Africa and adding Graeme Swann to the mix, they are potent.

Cricket stadia in England however seem to inspire Australians rather than intimidate in the way that the English can struggle at the Gabba or the WACA. The way that Australia dug in during this match was hugely impressive.

Much was made of the disarray Australia found themselves in during their dreadful Indian tour and then build up to the Ashes. Mickey Arthur it seemed had 'lost the dressing room' and there is little doubt that the always impressive Darren Lehmann has had a huge galvanising effect.

This was of course a match that England should have won at a canter. Some very ordinary shot selection in the first innings led to England posting a sub par total. Australia however did little to dispel the notion that their batting line up will struggle to cope with England's seam attack in these conditions.

The tail has wagged impressively for Australia in both innings but it would be folly to think that you can win test matches by relying on numbers 7 onwards. Ashton Agar's innings on Thursday was incredible but it was also hugely unlikely and even if Australia had posted even 50 less runs for their first innings this would have been a very comfortable win for England. Ifs and buts however.

England's batting has become a serious issue. Not one batsman managed a half century in the first innings and it was only once backs were against the wall in the second plus a huge reprieve for Stuart Broad that England managed to post a competitive total.

England's problem appears to be the same as in the shorter format in that they have no idea currently how to pace an innings at the outset. Too often they are stuck not moving the scoreboard forcing them to eventually play half hearted wafts such as the one that got Joe Root out on Friday.

The flip side is playing with a degree of abandon that the situation does not merit. The way Kevin Pietersen played in the second innings was an exception showing that you can temper aggression with determination not to give your wicket away. Bell's century was also of the highest quality it must be said.

Cook and Trott badly need to get back amongst the serious runs. They gave the platform at the Gabba in the previous series that paved the way for KP's huge double ton at Adelaide. After that they didn't stop scoring runs. It is also England's lower order that looks shaky now in comparison to Australia's.

For England's attack, the fitness of  James Anderson is paramount. He sits alongside Dale Steyn as the world's premier seam bowler. Fitness is also an issue regarding Broad and Swann. Neither offered the penetration that they have previously done. Getting them 100% right must also be a priority.

The enigma that is Steven Finn continues to frustrate. He has all the tools to absolutely destroy batsmen but his character is as big a concern as his economy rate. His two overs yesterday cost 24 runs at the most crucial of times. Finn has been around long enough now to perform much better than that if he is indeed ever going to.

Cook will undoubtedly have lost confidence in him now but the problem is he remains a genuine strike bowler and one must still hope that one day it will all click. Lords should suit him better but the Australians will fancy their chances against him now as the weak link.

Brett Lee as an example was always expensive but he was a fine competitor who relished the challenge, and there was always the suspicion that he was one ball away from taking your head off. Finn needs a bit more Lee and a bit less Harmison.

Tim Bresnan remains a more ordinary but possibly more competitive option for England. He proved a fine replacement for Finn down under it must be remembered.

Australia need Warner back as quickly as possible. Whilst he's not an out and out test player, he is the kind of character that they need now. Australia will benefit from a series of attrition with players that can dig in. Brad Haddin was a fine example yesterday. He may not quite have the class but he certainly showed a lot of the same character as Ian Healy, his was a fine knock that probably deserved better.

Whilst Anderson's ten wickets won him the MOM award, Ashton Agar's debut in England deserved the headlines. Whilst he is in the team for his bowling, his first innings 98 was an incredible effort that transformed the match. He bowled with a large amount of control if not huge spin and looks a decent find for Australia. He is certainly several levels up from Xavier Doherty.

Shane Watson again continues to frustrate. Whilst his candidacy for LBWs looks pronounced, his inability to convert good starts into big scores is inexplicable for a player so obviously talented. He always does the hard part only to get himself out in the most ordinary of circumstances.

Australia also badly need Clarke to get amongst the runs. He should be blameless for his first innings dismissal - it was the perfect delivery from Anderson - but he is Australia's one true world class test batsman. 

One other deciding factor may be the two captains. Cook's use of the DRS was impeccable whereas Clarke was too keen to use up his reviews leaving him impotent when the Broad 'dismissal' came about. Cook shows far more patience and had he not, England may not have been able to review the crucial Haddin dismissal yesterday.

Whilst England will be jubilant in victory, the shortened break to the next test on Thursday will suit Australia more. This close defeat coupled with the occasional controversy on field blended with the character of Lehmann will ensure ideal conditions for the maximum incubation of the siege mentality that they so crave.

In basic terms, Australia simply need to find a way to get their top order to start scoring runs. The question is whether the likes of Rodgers, Cowan and Smith are really upto consistently scoring runs in the Test arena. It is debatable at best.

If Australia can find a way to post a good first innings total their seam attack has the potential to expose the sometimes brittle nature of England's batting and they are by no means out of this series.

England badly need Cook and Trott to start performing with the bat and for Swann and Broad to get back to their best with the ball. They need to solve the Finn/Bresnan conundrum and they need to keep James Anderson wrapped in cotton wool

England should win this test series with something to spare but the Australians love Lords and their record there is superb - although England did beat them there in 2009.

Should England get themselves 2-0 up then it could become a very comfortable series setting the tone for down under. If however Australia dig in and find a way to win, it could become an incredibly close series. The Ashes could hinge on Lords - No Nonsense.