Perhaps to begin with, a few words about the sad death of Clive Rice. Like so many of his generation, he didn’t get to play Test cricket due to South Africa’s banishment from the international game. With a first class average above forty and nearly a thousand wickets at a bowling average in the low twenties, had he been able to perform at the highest level, he would have been a great addition in the era of the great all rounders that bestrode world cricket in the 1980s. Indeed, such was his ability, he could have been viewed as the best of them all.
An entire generation will remember seeing him play for Nottinghamshire over many years, and the Sunday League matches were required watching on Grandstand for a child rapidly falling in love with the game in the early eighties. And while that shortened form of the game may not have quite shown him at his peak, he was plainly one of the main men in the sport. Nor should it be forgotten that Rice brought an unknown 19 year old offspinner over to England, and was instrumental in Kevin Pietersen’s development. 14,000 international runs later, English cricket can be grateful for that too.
His early passing is a deep blow for the game, and it is to be hoped that a suitable tribute to a genuinely great cricketer can be arranged for the fourth Test, so those where he played and coached for so many years can pay tribute.
Turning attention to tomorrow, England have at least one change with Bairstow coming in for Ballance. The news today is that there could also be disruption to the bowling attack, with Mark Wood’s fitness in question. Should he not make it, then Steven Finn will be the replacement. It was notable that in talking about that, Cook said Finn had been “bowling well in one day cricket”, an oblique reminder that the English summer now limits the first class opportunities to excel when the main Test series is on.
The pitch is of course part of the debate, and Australia have lost few opportunities to play mind games, with Mitchell Starc the latest to lob a grenade at England saying they didn’t know what they wanted or what they were doing. There’s little doubt from the words flying from the Australian camp that they feel on top of England at the moment, it’s been a remarkable turnaround from the uncertainty afflicting them after the defeat at Cardiff. The Lords pitch unquestionably offered up a lifeline to Australia, a team that were showing signs of fragility after the first Test defeat. That Australia grabbed it with both hands and then demolished England entirely merely demonstrates that giving a good team a break like that is as daft as it always is.
The recent rain has hampered preparations in Birmingham to the extent that heaters have been used on both pitch and outfield to assist in drying the surface. What that means is that even if England had wanted it (unlikely) the wicket could not have been prepared with pace in mind. What is far more obvious is that after the Lords debacle, it will offer something to the seamers, something the Lords track unquestionably didn’t. However, what this debate around wickets does show is that for all the noble words upon the appointment of Strauss about it being all about the future, the same short term thinking applies. English wickets have been extremely slow for a few years now, the idea the Australians have that they are specifically slowed down for them is simply wrong. But it is still true that they are slow, and looked at over a longer period than the last five years, that isn’t typical of English grounds. That’s largely because of the recent desire to ensure matches go the full five days to ensure a maximisation of earnings, but it’s hardly likely to benefit England’s development in that longer term to keep doing this.
In times past, the pitches offered a much greater level of variety, one that simply isn’t there any more with a uniform turgidness about them. That Strauss, according to Nick Hoult at the Telegraph, sent an email requesting that the pitches be slower rather than faster as a general rule makes it abundantly clear it’s about the here and now. The contradictions between what England say and what they do never seem to stop.
England will certainly have to play much better than they did at Lords to even compete, because any kind of similar performance is going to result in another hammering. Yet there’s no reason they shouldn’t do. Cricket teams do sometimes have matches where everything seems to go wrong for no apparent reason. England are not as bad a side as they looked at Lords, and Australia are not as good either. One of the recent trends in Ashes matches has been for them to be one sided, whoever wins. Even the narrow Trent Bridge win of two years ago owed more to a freak performance narrowing a gulf between the side than anything else.
What England do have to do is come up with a method to combat the left armers, and that means showing a degree of aggression. This is the test for England’s brave words about the way they want to play the game, because no side reacts well to being successfully attacked. An England who try to sit in will play into Australia’s hands, as they rotate the bowlers knowing that wicket will follow.
That said, Australia have to be seen as favourites, and if they get their noses in front in the series, it is hard to see England coming back, especially after two consecutive defeats. This Test is likely to prove pivotal in the series, how England handle the challenge this time will tell us much about where they are going as a team.