Australia in a strong position – check
Steve Smith in and looking ominous – check
England’s bowling looking toothless – check
Here we go again. Despite Tom Harrison’s proclamation that all is well and the only reason England are marginally losing this series is because they haven’t taken their opportunities, two days of cricket at the SCG have once again emphasised the gulf between the teams. And this after England did fairly well with the bat in the morning too. In a better balanced series, Australia finishing on 193-2 would mean that with a deficit of 150 still to be made up, the game was in the balance, and if England bowled well in the morning then they would be in a decent position. The problem is that repeating this in the face of all previous evidence is the kind of thing only the empty suits at the ECB do, to try and ensure that wherever the blame goes, it doesn’t go to them.
Sure, it’s possible that by the time the third day is complete, this post will look ridiculous, as England skittle Australia and start building on their sizeable lead, but the exceptionalist nature of such an outcome, and the way that you, dear reader, have almost certainly scoffed at that possibility is exactly the point. England have now reached the point where the feeling of inevitability about the outcome has taken hold, a pattern in every Test, apart from the one where the pitch was officially rated as “poor” and allowed England to escape with a triumphant draw – one that sealed the Ashes into eternity according to the response to it in the media.
There can be surprises, certainly. The weak looking England tail did rather well, aided by some extraordinarily brainless bowling at Stuart Broad, and some impressively inept catching. Maybe the Australians weren’t quite feeling the intensity with the series well and truly won, not that anyone is allowed to mention that of course. Still, Tom Curran and Broad rode their luck and made decent contributions, as did the out of sorts Moeen Ali. Yet while 346 represented a much better total than it could have been, it still looks lightweight in context.
England gained a quick success in dismissing Bancroft, a fairly routine delivery from Broad breaching his defences, which merely goes to highlight that the idea that England are up against a great team remains as absurd as ever – the controversy over their lack of batting depth seems a long time ago. Perhaps it is the case that Australia do indeed have a very fine bowling attack, but given England’s inability to cope with many others around the world, it’s hard to tell for sure. Even allowing that, it doesn’t provide an excuse: either England are totally outclassed, in which case why is that; or they are, just unable to grab the moment (Harrison), in which case why are they being battered repeatedly?
After the early success, there were few alarms; Warner compiled a well made fifty, Khawaja closed in on a century, and Steve Smith seems to have been at the crease for the entire series. And there’s the problem, James Anderson has done fairly well this tour, but while he has received some criticism for being defensive and containing, the question needs to be asked as to what else should be expected of him? He’s 35 years old, is unquestionably one of the cleverest bowlers around, but surely at this stage of his career he ought to be a support bowler of extreme skill rather than the one carrying the entire attack. Broad at the other end has had a mixed tour by his own admission, and that’s fine, because it happens. Last time around he was exceptional even as the side disintegrated around him.
George Dobell is one of the few journalists pointing out the reality of England’s position, the abysmal failure of the ECB to produce fast bowlers, and the seemingly counterproductive fast bowling programme allied to the sidelining of first class cricket. England’s current pace bowling attack has the feel of the West Indies in the late careers of Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose. Those who respond to criticism of Anderson and Broad by saying England will miss them when they are gone are exactly right – for when they do go there is so little behind them except a collection of medium pacers without their level of exceptional ability, or crocks. Cyclical problems can afflict any country, but the utterly blasé response of Harrison’s insistence that all is well highlights Dobell’s point about the complete lack of accountability. When it is said that this is a golden era having Anderson and Broad, the sad truth is that they are almost certainly right. A 35 year old and a 31 year old should not be leading the attack with no rivals for their position in a healthy structure. Don’t blame them, blame the administrators who have created the position where they are not only the best we’ve had in the last 20 years, they are also the best we will have for the next few years as well. Ambrose and Walsh indeed.
The same can be said to apply to the spinning role. Moeen Ali has had a miserable tour of it, and once again failed to impress here. Yet earlier in the series he was apparently being played as a batsman only (only to then bowl) because his finger was so badly damaged, and was also suffering from a side strain. In the rush to beat him up for this series, this no longer seems to be mentioned at all, in which case it either wasn’t a problem in the first place, or he’s being slated for playing badly when he’s not fit – it has to be one or the other.
Like clockwork, now there are calls for him to be replaced. Fine. No player should have a sinecure when they are out of form, or if they ultimately aren’t good enough to stay in the team, but here it still smacks of thrashing around in the death throes. Drop Moeen Ali by all means, but be sure that the replacement is going to be better. This doesn’t mean you don’t try things of course, otherwise no one would ever be selected, but in the last 15 months England have used Moeen, Rashid, Ansari, Dawson, Batty and now Crane. Six spinners in just over a year, discarded one by one as not being good enough, with the last a left-field punt that doesn’t offer huge confidence for a long term selection, which is absolutely not his fault.
As Dobell points out, Adam Riley, meant to be the answer to England’s spinning woes, didn’t play a county championship match last season, and even Crane only appeared in some of them. They can give Ollie Rayner a go, presumably based on his average of just under 40 last season that just screams “pick me”, but it isn’t going to magically change things. Moeen might well have been very poor away from home (again, let’s emphasise he was meant to be injured for this one, because this seems to be constantly ignored) but he has been good at home, both with bat and ball. Is that remotely ideal or acceptable? Absolutely not. Is it probably as good as is likely whoever they pick? Yes. It might even be better. This is not a defence of Moeen Ali or a call for him to be retained, but it is pointing out that the idea that things will magically change for the better when a player is dumped is wishful thinking. England do not have ready made replacements to slot in and improve the team, nor do they have a production line of young talent.
The same applies to Cook. In his poor spells, it can’t possibly be said that he came under true pressure for his place, not in this case because of the media, although that is true, but because with a lack of a successful opening partner, how could he possibly have his own place questioned? Cook horribly out of form was still England’s best opener.
Irrespective of how this match unfolds, the true horror of England’s position is that this really is their best team, and most of their best players are in the later stages of their career. Perhaps some will magically seize their opportunities, but it’s not something you’d put the house on.
This is where the ECB have led the English game to. Invisible, unimportant, hidden away, wealthy (for now), not very good, and likely to get worse in future. Well done chaps, drinks all round.
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