Warping out*

One of the differences between those who write on cricket in the media and the poor blogger is that they get to see all the play, are spoiled rotten in the media centre, and are paid for the privilege.  In contrast, the likes of us have to work for a living – and that’s why the dire quality of some of the output from the usuals is so deserving of contempt.

To that end, I was away all of last week, didn’t see a ball of the first three days, saw only the highlights on Friday and finally got to watch some play yesterday.  I did get to listen to a fair bit, while driving around the country, but it’s not quite the same.  And so following the match was somewhat awkward, lots of reading of reports and updates, and generally trying to keep abreast of what is happening.  Since then I’ve gone back and reviewed the highlights to try and get a proper feel for the Test.

I can’t say I’m totally surprised that England won the match, it very much depended on whether England played in the same manner as they’d indicated in the New Zealand series for both Tests and ODIs.  The scale and dominance of the victory on the other hand, that was somewhat unexpected.

Australia’s performance was dire throughout.  More or less anything they could get wrong they did.  As ever, the question is how much of that was their own doing, and how much was down to England’s performance.  What can be said is that after a single Test conclusions shouldn’t be drawn, and yet again we see the crowing from certain quarters.  We’ve been here before, in the last two Test series there was exactly the same arrogance (from the press, not the team), only for England to fall flat on their faces the following game.

First let’s take England.  Cook unquestionably led the side well and captained well.  Good.  Very, very good.  If this is the new captain Cook, then there won’t be too many complaints, he was proactive in the field, changed his bowlers well and generally looked in command throughout.  And this is the point – when the facts change, so does my opinion and perspective, and I don’t have the slightest issue recognising it.  It’s those who blindly insist on a particular view in defiance of what is in front of them that have the problem.  It’s true too that generally there’s been an improvement in how he’s managed the side over this summer.  Quite why that might be is somewhat curious, in terms of what has changed, the only thing that stands out is the replacement of the coach.  I’ve long called for Cook to be in control of the side and live and die by his own actions, not fall back on the backroom staff.  If he’s doing that and doing it well, that is great news.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that the various meltdowns in Australia and here can be forgotten, no matter how some like to pretend they didn’t happen, preferring to stick their fingers in their ears and say they weren’t listening.  What it does mean is that he can look back on this Test with a fair degree of pleasure.  And if continues to captain in that vein then he will reap the plaudits and rightly so.  It’s a matter of whether he does or not that is the question.  He won’t ever be a great captain, but if he’s an adequate one then that is good enough, because up to now he hasn’t been.  Plaudits for this one Mr Cook.

What was particularly striking about the approach was in the second innings.  England were determined to get to a 400+ lead as quickly as they possibly could, and continued to attack even as wickets began to fall.  The sheer jaw-dropping astonishment of seeing an England team do that can’t be overstated.  It certainly seemed to take Australia by surprise.

Initially it didn’t look that way, as England got off to a somewhat sedate start and lost wickets.  In a single Test, that can happen, but it’s something that has occurred a little too often for comfort.  The dropping of Root by Haddin (more on him later) turned out to be fairly critical, as Root took the game to Australia in a way that’s now becoming somewhat familiar.  Before the series began Root was largely written off in much of the Australian media, based on his troubles down under last time.  It was a strange rationale, given that on the same basis Steve Smith could be written off for his performances to date in this country.  I rather doubt it came as a great shock to the Australian team just how good he is looking, but it certainly seemed to elsewhere.  Root’s success has led Ian Chappell to call for him to be pushed up to number three at the expense of Ballance.  I never see the case for this.  If a player is performing outstandingly well in the middle order, where is the benefit in moving him?  It’s treating a symptom rather than a cause and risking weakening the batting if the player doesn’t have the same success in a higher position.  It doesn’t matter where Root bats if he is going to average nearly 60, wherever he goes in, he is going to drag the side to a higher total.  Leave him where he’s comfortable.

Ballance himself scored a fairly scratchy 60 in the first innings, but that will do him the power of good.  An ugly knock does more for the confidence than anything else, because the time at the crease allows the player to rather literally find his feet.  Of course he needs to kick on, but that innings was deeply valuable both to him and the team.

Stokes and Moeen also contributed, and the latter case is important.  He certainly bowled well in the match, but having a batsman of that quality at number eight is a major strength for England.  It has been argued it’s a waste, but it makes for an immensely powerful middle order, IF he can hold down his place as the spinner.  Previously I’ve argued that Moeen is being unfairly compared to the best spinner England have had in the last forty years, and I maintain that he is doing well enough in his primary role to more than justify his selection.  He isn’t going to run through too many sides, but he is certainly useful and his batting frees up an additional spot in the side.  His bowling is improving, but like anything it isn’t a linear trend, there will be peaks and troughs.

Stokes himself is contributing too with both bat and ball.  Both will improve over time, and the very selection of Moeen creates the space in the team for what might be called a luxury player like Stokes.  Patience is required, but England have a genuine five man attack with this line up, and that is a major advantage, perhaps best seen in the way that despite so many fears about it, Anderson is not being bowled into the ground thus far.

Bell scored a few runs in the second innings and looked much more like himself.  Yet it is indicative of the knee jerk response that his 60, a well constructed and fluid innings, was treated as though it was 150 and justification for keeping him in the side.  Personally, I don’t believe there was ever a case for dropping him, and certainly not after the selectors maintained faith with Cook for two years.  But as ever, a single innings proves nothing at all except that if you keep them in the side long enough they will eventually get a few.  That doesn’t mean it wasn’t extremely welcome, and nor does it mean that he didn’t look much better.  It does mean that trumpeting success on the basis of a single fifty is as downright idiotic as it ever was.  He will want more, and hopefully this innings will have got the monkey off his back to the extent he can get more.  It’s no more or less than that.

Jos Buttler failed both times with the bat, which is neither here nor there in a single match, but he did keep very well, and the only reason for mentioning it is that every all rounder who has ever played the game will talk about how difficult it seems to be to get both disciplines operating at full capacity at the same time.  It seems to go this way mostly – one works very well, the other malfunctions a little.

As for the bowling, Wood looks a threat every time he bowls, and perhaps more importantly, for all the wishful thinking about getting a left armer into the side, he provides balance.  Anderson, Broad, Wood and Stokes are all different kinds of bowlers.  That they’re right arm doesn’t in itself matter, it’s not a samey attack.  And while on this subject, it didn’t go unnoticed that it was mentioned as a problem that England have seven left handers and thus provide Lyon with a line of attack given the rough outside off stump.  It’s quite true, but the same applies the other way around given that Australia have two left arm seamers.  Sauce for the goose.

Turning to Australia, this one is a match for them to forget.  While refusing to form definitive views after one match, I hold by the view that you never know a side past its sell by date until they actually become so – just as with England in the last Ashes.  There might be cracks, but complete collapse isn’t anticipated.  This game Australia were truly awful.  Most batsmen are far more annoyed at getting in and getting out than they are being dismissed cheaply, which is considered an occupational hazard.  And yet for the first time in Test history, all of numbers three to six were dismissed in the thirties.  This is both good and bad for Australia, good because all have had time in the middle to get used to conditions, bad because they then got out and mostly to poor shot selection.

Much of the talk around how Australia move forward has centred on the future of Shane Watson.  His playing around the front pad has got him into trouble throughout his career, yet in this game I have a mite of sympathy for him.  The first innings decision was a rotten one, made worse by a proper understanding of how Hawkeye works.  It didn’t show the ball clipping the leg stump, it suggested it was possible it might have done, and at a low probability.  Yes, by all means uphold that decision from the umpire, I don’t have a problem with that; I do feel sorry for Watson because when he gets hit on the pads now, umpires are seemingly predisposed to giving him out when they likely wouldn’t give out another player.  His second innings dismissal was certainly closer, but still an umpire’s call.  Another player would have got away with that one probably, the first innings one certainly.   He may be facing the end of his Test career, and while that may be the correct decision for the Australian team, he was thoroughly shafted in this match.

Warner and Smith both exhibited signs of where they are likely to be vulnerable in English conditions.  Warner’s style of stand and deliver batting is always going to be vulnerable to the ball seaming or swinging.  This isn’t new, and it isn’t in itself the end of the world, because he showed in the second innings that he can fight through the hard times.  Smith has a quirky technique and that is why he finds it more difficult in English conditions, something he’s struggled with since he first broke into the side.  He is more than talented enough to learn how to cope.

Haddin looks like he is reaching the end of the road.  Both his keeping and his batting look frayed and have done for a little while now.  Of course, he could just be out of form, something rarely granted to older players, but this series could well prove decisive for him unless he improves significantly.

As for the bowling, the surface effectively nullified the pace of Starc and Johnson.  Despite some whining in the Australian press, it was a fairly typical Cardiff surface.  What did surprise was that England’s attack handled those conditions so much better.  Johnson had fairly miserable figures for the match, but didn’t bowl too badly.  Starc looked a fine bowler, but I can’t be alone in struggling to understand why when he was clearly injured Clarke insisted on bowling him again and again.  By the second innings the game was already disappearing over the hill, it seemed bizarre to watch him limping over after over and still being kept on.  If he isn’t fit for Lords some questions need to be asked about why they made it worse.  If indeed that is the case, then all of a sudden Australia have some problems.  Siddle is an honest enough workhorse and won’t let anyone down, but he’s not in quite the same class.  Cummins is highly promising, but hasn’t played a first class match in two years, and it’s asking an awful lot for him to come in and play a Test.  Hazlewood on the other hand, looked very good indeed, and will be a handful on other pitches.

Nevertheless, Lords should be a little more conducive to the pace bowling than Cardiff was while not exactly a seamers paradise, and thus triumphal writing off of Australia is highly premature.  It is hard to believe Australia will be so poor in the next game, but if they are, then this tour could go horribly wrong for them.

After one game England will feel it went about as well as it possibly could have done.  Australia will feel it went about as badly as it did in their worst nightmares.  They are more than good enough to step up their game, while England have flattered to deceive on more than one occasion.  What it does though is to provide the most perfect start to the series from the perspective of the spectacle.

One other thing I noted: At the conclusion of the Test, the England players made a point of going around the ground and signing autographs and posing for photos with the supporters.  I don’t remember them doing that before, so whoever has come up with it as a means of engagement deserves a pat on the back.  Is it lip service?  Maybe.  Is it welcome anyway?  Definitely.

*It’s always amused me that this term immediately makes people think of Star Trek and high speed.  In times past, warping out of harbour involved rowing the anchor out ahead in a boat, and winding the capstan in to make progress when there was no wind.  It was backbreaking work and an incredibly slow process.  It seemed appropriate.