So the anxiously anticipated 1st Ashes test is over and England come out with a result that still leaves us with hope that overall victory is achievable, and has no doubt made the entire squad realise that they need to up their game to avoid another ‘escape’, a result that I believe we should not be cheering. Indeed the cheers from the River Taff crowd were more of relief that the golden light of the Ashes championship still glows after England’s flame was close to being extinguished. To have to come from a game behind to win the competition would have been a feat too great for an England side who, as the first test would suggest, are second best to the Australians. The result not only highlighted the willingness and desire of the tail end of batting line up, and the experienced mind of an excellent Paul Collingwood, but also the weaknesses in the English top end batsmen, and our under-estimation of the Australian team.
A lot of time was clearly spent analysing the Australian bowlers, and a huge sigh of relief was expressed by England’s faithful when the Aussies 90mph powerhouse Brett Lee pulled out injured, but what was barely talked about on panel shows and websites was the sturdiness and stubbornness of the Australian batsmen. Ricky Ponting in particular demonstrated the Australian batting tactics in his play, and that was not to be reckless but instead just defend until the right bowl came in which was whisked away for a boundary. A comparison can be made between the Australian batting mentality and a five-a-side football match. In the football match one team goes three goals in the lead, and instead of pressing for another goal, the team simply pass, and pass, and pass, and aggravate the other team into making rash tackles and becoming impatient. You could see the impatience in Stuart Broad’s bowling once Ponting and Katich had got to their centuries. Calm, calculated, observant and malicious was the Australian attack, not worrying about time, making few rash decisions and rarely breaking from a stable continuity. Ponting in particular, took every ball in its stride, he hit nothing he knew would be risky, and instead took the runs when the right opportunity arose, and with the bowlers, in particularly Broad and Swann, becoming more frustrated the chances eventually opened up for some big hits. Ponting had clearly had this gameplan from the start, as the unlucky Hughes, and century winners Haddin and North displayed the same stubbornness in their time at the crease. It was made more clear from his awareness of the fielding positions, and the rare mistake that Ponting made in setting up the field when England were batting that Ponting is a master tactician, and you could see when a (rare) mistake was made his anguish and determination to put things right. Ponting has a rare ability to judge the flow of the game, and analyse where the balls from each bowler are likely to be hit, and whilst he can never be 100% certain, and also whilst there are of course other players and managers who can also judge, Ponting’s calmness and willingness to maybe lose a four, but in doing so learn to put a man in a position that prevents such a play from occurring again. There is no doubt that Ponting’s abilities are an inspiration on the teams, and is probably a huge reason why the Aussie bowlers, who will forever be living in the shadow of the world’s greatest spin bowler, also showed no fear and were willing to test the English batsmen to their fullest. Hilfenhaus and Hauritz both showed excellent accounts of themselves and Johnson was incredibly solid.
So I’ve praised the enemy, controversial maybe but they deserve it as even our captain described the draw in Cardiff as an ‘escape’. I think unfortunately the best word to describe England is ‘obvious’. Of course our tail-enders saved us, but we can’t be hoping for a ‘park the bus in front of the stumps’ performance from Panesar and Anderson in every game. I say ‘obvious’ because there was nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary from our players, except the clever tactical performance from Collingwood. Panesar has always been criticised for being too 1-dimensional, and it was true of his bowling in this test, similarly Cook’s attack play in both innings was interpretable. Strauss and Cook both looked panicky in the 1st innings. Of course they were nervous, but they should expect the Aussies to be looking to take extreme strides to get them out early to make themselves comfortable in test cricket back on English soil. Cook in particular’s shots were rushed, and it can be seen by his measly 16 runs over two innings that he was not prepared, physically or mentally for his task of defending the opening assault barrage from the invaders. Cook’s form of late for both country and county has been poor, and he would be the first person I would look to replace for the next match at Lords. Strauss, although a much younger captain than the experienced master of Ponting, also displayed a certain panic that he would not have shown in his pre-captain years, and almost seemed too eager to get runs on the board. These two should be looking to bat, regardless of run-rate, for at least ¾ of the first day, so even if one of them gets stumped that opening defending mentality will exist instead of having a debutant like Bopara or a mid-order batsman like Pietersen having to push England over the 100 run mark. Batsmen one, two and three’s job is to make life easier for those further down the order when the Australian bowling arms and minds get more tired. Of course resisting some excellent Australian bowling, and even more so when Lee returns, is no easy feet, and for an armchair pundit to be saying all this could perhaps be left by the wayside. Yet all England have to do is look at the mentality Hughes, Ponting and Katich displayed, and with some more diverse bowling techniques could perhaps throw a few destructive spanners into a tightly constructed Australian foundation.
Lords is up next on Thursday, and England need to be looking to the fire and ambition shown by the tail-enders in bat for the test. Graham Onions in particular needs to be looked at, after a stunning performance against the West Indies earlier in the year he has proved that his bowling has the character to upset the Australian defence, and also I believe a recall for Harmison to hurl some balls at Australian throats would do well to remove the monotonous, predictable bowling of Broad and Panesar. However changing the bowling should not be the main concern, instead a few days practice of defensive shots and calmness under pressure for our key batters, of which I think Ian Bell should be one, replacing the almost woeful Cook, would do wonders in keeping England in bat and more comfortable against an Australian side who will be more eager than ever, after the injustice they believe happened on Sunday in Cardiff, to upset the English.