Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Ashes - Two teams with much to ponder.

The Ashes return down under was always going to be the more crucial series. After all, if you lost this English Summer you only had to wait three months for another opportunity. The winners by the time we reach Sydney in January will have two and a half years to puff our out their chests.

It seems incredulous given that England have already retained the Ashes that they could now be considered slight underdogs for the series down under but given the ferocity of the conditions down there and the comparison of the two teams, that may well be the case.

England should of course be congratulated for retaining the urn so promptly. Trent Bridge should have been far more comfortable than it was with only Ashton Ager's knock skewing the match. Lords was then a complete hammering. But it is the swing in power between the sides at Old Trafford that has got everyone so agitated.

The weather alone is the reason that England escaped from Manchester with a draw as other than an hour or so from Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen on Saturday, they were hopelessly outplayed for the entire match. Australia are hardly in rude health but they dominated this test match.

As previously written, Michael Clarke must take huge credit firstly for his mammoth first innings century but also for some fine captaincy including an aggressive first declaration, superb field placings, excellent rotation of his bowlers and then pushing his team to score quickly in the second innings, first class all round.

Mickey Arthur was royally panned for declaring Australia to have the best and most balanced attack in world cricket, how everyone chuckled. Now there is no doubting that the lack of a decent spin option renders that statement nonsensical but Australia's seam attack has looked at least the equal of England's more lauded threesome.

Harris, Siddle and Starc all bowled with discipline, purpose and to a plan during this test match and caused all sorts of problems for England's batsmen. The way they have embraced English seam conditions bowling a slightly fuller length than what they may be accustomed to back home has been impressive to say the least.

If you strip out Jimmy Anderson's figures of 15 wickets at 26 then the stats for the remainder do not look too hot. Broad has taken 6 at 52, Finn 2 at 58 and Bresnan 7 at 28. Siddle's 16 at 21 and Harris' 11 at 18 look far more impressive.

The difference between the sides potentially remains Graeme Swann who has taken 19 at 27. Clarke is clearly hamstrung by the lack of a top class spinner and given Smith's ability to turn his arm over for some occasional leg spin, one wonders whether they would be better simply going with an all pace attack regardless of the dry pitches, they appear to be causing England far more problems with seam.

The series now moves to Durham and finally the Oval and whilst they are technically dead rubbers, there is a huge sub plot in terms of psychology ahead of the return series.

England's batting is currently in the mire and having been there personally on the first day at the Gabba on two occasions, it is not for the faint hearted. Cook badly needs runs and one must simply hope that they come, he is capable of truly mammoth stays at the crease and that will be required.

Root has talent but he must find a way to rotate the strike as he can become hopelessly bogged down at the beginning of his innings and becomes a sitting duck, he needs to find a way to get the scoreboard moving and relieve the pressure on himself.

The Sky Sports pundits believe they have spotted a technical deficiency in Trott in his bringing down an angled bat and if that is the case then hopefully a studious netter such as Trott will address it quickly. One must home he is not just in a terminal decline such as what happened to Robin Smith when he suddenly woke up one morning and wasn't any good any more.

KP remains the trump card and seems to be trying to buckle down - at least outwardly - for the team's cause. Ian Bell has looked imperious so far and one most hope that he conquered his 'down under demons' last time around. A good performance by him could be crucial.

It has to be said it is not looking good for Johnny Bairstow and possibly only a lack of options are keeping him in the side. On this evidence one would not fancy him lasting too long at the Gabba or the WACA. Matt Prior must get back to basics with bat and glove and forget about being Wisden cricketer of the year.

The other issue for England is that of the 'third seamer'. The writer of this blog is a huge fan of Stuart Broad but he needs to get amongst the wickets, he could be hugely influential down under on quicker bouncier tracks. But here is the conundrum at the moment.

There is a huge clamour it appears - very short-termist it must be said- for Graham Onions to play at Chester Le-Street given he is in great form and it is his home track. For him to play it would almost certainly mean Bresnan being dropped yet his stats for the series so far are infinitely better than Broad's. The issue is Broad remains a match winner however.

For Australia, they can only play with the hand that is dealt with them, the problem at the moment is they don't seem sure when to stop shuffling the pack in terms of their batting order. The only fixed point that everyone seems to be agreed on is that Clarke should bat at 4.

The batting does appear less brittle now with Ed Cowan out of the team and Warner adds some grit to the team which it was badly lacking beforehand. Rodgers also has looked reasonably impressive.

Shane Watson remains an enigma and it may make more sense to drop him down the order and go with an opening pair of Rodgers and Warner, both appear to relish the challenge of the new ball.

That is not to say that Watson cannot open but the reality is you simply have to wait for him to get himself out as his high score of 46 in the series indicates. Coming into an innings lower down with a different perspective of the match position may help him to move on to making higher scores, it is certainly worth experimenting as the Ashes are gone - for now - and he is a player of undoubted talent.

Phillip Hughes can possibly count himself a little unlucky to be out of the team given that Khawaja is hardly pulling up any trees. Australia need to decide on a No.3 and stick with him. Steve Smith appears to have earned himself a spot in the team lower down and Haddin and the tail have performed admirably.

Non cricket fans will query the reason for ten day more days of sport for a trophy that has already been won by one side and isn't even made of precious metal. For the Ashes fans however it is going to be - weather permitting - riveting stuff - No Nonsense.