Ashes: 3rd Test review

When the intellects of Sartre, Russell and Machiavelli considered potential locations in which to contemplate life and the unfairness of being, it is safe to say that somewhere around the Banbury junction of the M40 probably didn’t figure too highly in their considerations.  Yet it was here that a revelation was to be found, a dawning horror, and a mind forced to express a desire never yet felt by an English cricket fan.

The miles were eaten up, the air conditioning was keeping the cabin cool and pleasant, yet a painful thought kept surfacing as the TMS team chirped away in the background.  The previous day’s work had prevented watching more than the first morning of the Test, although it had been closely followed in mounting amazement.  Australia had won the toss, and though it was felt not to be a bad toss to lose, no one expected the carnage that would follow.  The pitch had offered a bit to the bowlers, but with the exception of Rogers, the lack of discipline in Australia’s batting was the principal cause of a side skittled out for 136.  Certainly England took advantage of what help there was, but a succession of dire shots had led to the pre-series favourites being bundled out in just over 36 overs.  Anderson might have been the chief destroyer, but while he might be nowhere near the best bowler in the world (he is very good – the Henman rule applies*), he is one of the cleverest.  A little bit of swing, a little bit of seam, and an Australian batting order that has long been vulnerable to both allied to an apparent inability to graft in such conditions all led to a total that looked woefully inadequate at the time, and proved to be so as the game unfolded.  Yet although Anderson rightly took the plaudits, the England bowler who caught the eye was Steven Finn, not because of how many wickets he took, but how he looked.

Finn has been in the highly promising category for many years, and perhaps more than anyone else still available to play has been the subject of ire directed at the management and coaching staff.  Finn is a wicket taker, first and foremost, and back in 2010/11 he was dropped from the England team because he was too expensive, despite being the leading wicket taker in the series to that point.  The frustration that the England set up preferred economy to wicket taking prowess was strongly felt at the time, and only became ever more magnified in the years following.

Finn has a Test strike rate of 46.2; he is in 16th place in all of Test history (minimum of 2000 balls) with that, and that takes into account a lost four year period when his run up was messed with, panic set in about his habit of occasionally striking the stumps with his knee – and the ludicrous rule change resulting – and a general focus on what he can’t do, not what he can.  Finn will go for runs sometimes, deal with it.  Two of the best fast n’ nasty bowlers of the last decade, Shane Bond and Dale Steyn, both have poor economy rates.  Better than Finn for sure, but neither of those have been comprehensively mangled by well meaning coaching staff.  That Finn goes for runs is of little relevance if he takes wickets.  The age old choice of whether 5-100 off 20 is better than 2-60 off the same shouldn’t even be a debate.  Yet for the England of the last few years it clearly was, and if the current approach is just to let him bloody bowl, that in itself is to be celebrated.  Strike bowlers are so rare, so valuable it is of incalculable frustration that England have spent years trying to wreck their one bona fide example of it in years.

How a bowler of such talent could have ever reached the point of being “unselectable” was disgraceful.  It’s also entirely unfair how Ashley Giles is now being criticised for saying so, when he was clearly right at the time, and his comments were rather obviously borne of annoyance it had reached that point rather than a dig at Finn himself.

As Warwick approached on the right, and an eye glanced down at the fuel gauge that visibly dropped with every passing mile (note to self – rotary engines and fuel economy don’t go well together), that mind considered England’s reply.  Having been so panic stricken at Lords, England instead did exactly what they said they would in the build up to the game, and went on the attack.  Lyth may be having a bad time of it at present, but nicks to wide half volleys are not evidence of a flawed technique but one of a simple mistake or a mind that feels under pressure.  Like with so many of the Australian team, it was poor batting, but not in itself an inherent fault in his game.  He is starting to run out of time to make an impact, even if it is entirely right to stick with him for the rest of the series.

Cook had been simply unlucky, but he hasn’t had a great series so far. There’s an irony here, he’s never captained better in his whole time as England’s leader, yet the runs have dried up.  His game still looks far sounder than it did, so it shouldn’t be a concern in and of itself, but it’s there in the background.  What is somewhat startling is that almost everyone, me included, thought that for England to have a chance in this series, Cook would have to be the one who led the batting.  It’s not turned out that way so far, but there are two Tests to go to make an impact.

Bell and Root responded by decisively going on the attack.  For all the ups and downs of England’s performance, it is pleasing to see that the intent is still there, and they set about turning an initially strong position into one where England could ram the advantage home.  Much has been said of Bell being promoted to number three, and after the match he himself referenced that it felt good to have been backed.  There’s been a school of thought that Bell is somehow a reluctant number three, but this re-writing of history does him a disservice, not for the first time.  When Trott’s troubles first appeared, Bell was the one who said he would be happy to do the job, and was roundly ignored.  Pretending that it didn’t happen and using it as yet another stick with which to beat him is sheer mendacity.  He clearly needs to feel valued, and it is no good brushing that off and saying he should be able to handle it; different people have different needs – good management is in accounting for that.

Bell’s dismissal at the end of the day was simply him going a touch far and picking the wrong ball to hit.  It is the same for him as it is for anyone else, if you want a positive approach, this is what is going to happen sometimes.   A Bell who counter-attacks is an outstanding asset.

On the morning of day two, as I headed for the car, tickets for day three safely secured, a horrible nagging thought surfaced.  With Australia dismissed in less than half a day, this could be a short match.  That nagging thought became loudly ringing alarm bells as Johnson produced two terrific short balls in the second over to account for Bairstow and Stokes.  Bairstow may or may not be good enough ultimately to hold down a Test place, yet the reaction to a ball that had “out” written all over it was excessive to say the least.  A player 80 not out might ride the bounce, one at the start of his innings, and also at the start of the day, might not.  It was a very good ball, as was the one Stokes got.  It doesn’t say a thing about the batsman except that he was unlucky to receive it.

Yet while England were ahead, they were losing wickets.  Before even reaching the motorway, Root had gone, and so had Buttler, in the latter case needlessly given a review would have saved him.  Buttler has thoroughly gone into his shell with the bat, though it must be said, he is keeping extremely well, and seems subdued by the problems he is having outside off stump.  It may just be one of those things, but such a destructive player prodding and poking isn’t going to do him any good.  It is to be hoped he is encouraged to go out and play his shots, and then be backed on those occasions it goes wrong.

As the variable speed limits on the M25 showed first 60, then 50, then 40, indicating that the never ending joys of a traffic queue were ahead, England were only 50 runs ahead, with Moeen and Broad at the crease.  Two thoughts sprung to mind, one strategic, and one utterly selfish.  In the first instance, England were throwing away their advantage with abandon, and on the second, the weather was good, and I needed England to get a grip and bat for as long as possible.  With the two of them going after the bowling, the latter seemed ever more unlikely, but the former was a possibility.  Broad’s batting woes over the last three years have been well documented, even if in far too many cases it’s simply been dated back to when he was hit rather than the way it had tailed off long before then, but there have been signs of improvement recently, even if the runs haven’t always reflected that.  He’s less legside of the ball, doesn’t flinch as he did, and is looking to play shots, not simply slog.

As for Moeen, he is peculiarly unappreciated.  To date in this series he has 9 wickets at 45.  Not great figures, for sure, yet perfectly comparable to those Swann got against Australia, and Swann was without question the best England spinner since the 1970s.  Simply put, he’s doing a job with the ball against a team who don’t tend to struggle against English finger spinners, and doing it well.  Australia clearly want to attack him, yet when they do, they get out.  I remain unsure what people expect of him.

Of course, a big difference between him and Swann is that Moeen can bat.  There is an innate desire to see him succeed anyway, because he’s so gorgeous to watch.  His batting is highly reminiscent of David Gower – if not quite in quality – and when batting at number eight, provides a source of quick runs, stylishly scored.  It appears also that he relishes batting with the tail, and it is in that his value can be found.  A less attacking batsman would be left high and dry all too often as the bowlers were dismissed, but a curiously counter-intuitive point is that Moeen is usually dismissed when attacking as the wickets fall around him, which is both unselfish and oddly maximising his contribution.

As Oxford Services hove into view, England had extended their lead to one that might prove decisive.  A pause for coffee ended with England having been dismissed 145 ahead, and Australia were back in.

At this point, rebellious, naughty thoughts were surfacing.  Surely Australia couldn’t bat so badly a second time?  Yet that wasn’t the worst of it.  For the first time, the need for Australia to bat well was apparent.  As England came out to field, a sudden rooting for Rogers and Warner could be felt.  A sudden wish for Anderson to lose his radar, preferably with wide balls outside off stump that were left alone but were no threat to anyone.  As the key was turned in the ignition, I reached for my cork hat, bedecked the cabin with green and gold and launched into a chorus of “Come on Aussie, C’mon”.

Over the last couple of years England – and more specifically the ECB – have enraged me, infuriated me, and led me to chuckle as the latest self-induced disaster unfolded.  Yet never before had England led me to actively become an Australian.  As Rogers played back, and Jim Maxwell announced with that gentle sorrow he does so well that the opener was on his way back to the pavilion, a loud expletive filled noise could be heard by anyone with half a mile of the silver car pulling onto the motorway slip road.  Even at England’s lowest moments, the incompetence and duplicitousness of the ECB included, never did I imagine myself actively cheering on Australia.  Australia for God’s sake!  As Finn roared in, his pace up, causing the top order no end of problems, a nagging feeling that now would be a good time for his hand to brush the stumps requiring him to go off and have it repaired for half an hour kept popping up at the back of my head.

There was hope.  David Warner seemed to be playing a different game to anyone else, but with the first day curtailed by rain, play could be extended until 7pm, meaning there was still four hours of play to go.  Finn beat Smith all ends up, and in came the captain.  Surely, despite all his problems, now would be the moment Clarke regained his mojo and made a game of it.

Not even the most ardent of Aussie fanatics let out as heartfelt a moan, as passionate an “oh no”, as angry an “Oh FFS” as I did when instead, that utter bastard Finn instead took out Clarke and Voges in consecutive balls.  Looking ahead, there were no signs of the violent thunderstorms now wished on Birmingham, all was sunny and pleasant.   That’s the trouble with tornadoes, they don’t happen when you need them to.

By the time Warner decided to play what I now considered the most irresponsible shot in the entire history of cricket and Mitchell Marsh had regarded the defence of his stumps to be an optional extra, the five stages of grief had rattled past the bargaining stage and had settled thoroughly on depression, occasionally leaping back to denial concerning the implausibility that buying a day three ticket could possibly be a risky enterprise.

By this stage, I’d also thoroughly blamed my friend Graham for suggesting we go to the Test in the first place.  Edgbaston is not exactly on my doorstep, so wincing at the £70 handed over to my best mates at Shell to get up there was looking the worst investment since Mr Enron had rung up offering a sure thing.

Having picked him up from his office, we headed to the hotel, just in time to see Mitchell Johnson conclusively prove he hates the English by hitting the ball aerially 180 degrees away from his intended destination.  23 runs ahead at the close of play, three wickets left.

What to do?

Well, we were there, so we might as well go and watch the conclusion.  Over a curry (what else?  It’s Birmingham after all) the decision was made to check out of the hotel in the morning, head over to Edgbaston and watch the last knockings of the game, before driving home.  The principal debate was whether it would be 100% refund for fewer than 10 overs, or just the 50% for fewer than 25.  Plus a disagreement as to whether the two overs lost for the change of innings would count or not.

Having consumed the world’s biggest breakfast (Graham’s colleague Dave Tait finished his before I’d even started – honestly, I’ve never seen anyone demolish a plate that fast) that comprehensively removed any desire for a £10 soggy burger at any point, we headed for the ground, idly wondering how many would be there.  It was packed.  Clearly, everyone had bought tickets in advance, but not everyone is local to the ground.  Still, England were going to win, and there were few empty seats.

And so it came to pass that Mitchell Starc became the hero of the day, along with Peter Nevill.  Australia certainly fought hard, and nearly got to a point where they had a chance of a highly unlikely victory.  Nevill himself was the subject of a fair bit of barracking for refusing to walk when he edged one down the legside, and then instantly reviewed one he’d middled.  None of this was serious, but made the endlessly repeatable point about the ludicrous hypocrisy of the Australian attacks on Broad for not walking in the 2013 Ashes.  Sauce for the goose.

It certainly didn’t feel a tense ground as England embarked on the short run chase, perhaps because those present were simply delighted to have seen so much play in the first place.  Cook and Lyth’s dismissals continued the match pattern of batsmen getting out to poor shots – the ball that bowled Cook was decent enough, but had more to do with playing back when he should have been forward than anything else, while Lyth simply played across the line.

It was Bell who removed any question of the chase being a nervy one by going out and playing his shots.  With a small target, teams get into trouble when they become fearful; each boundary knocks a significant percentage off the target, and Bell knew that and took the calculated risk of ensuring that the runs came sufficiently quickly to prevent that fear setting in.

And so instead of it being a short and sweet visit to see an England win, it became two full sessions to see England win.  The track had certainly flattened out, as evidenced by the relatively little difficulty Australia had in the morning.  The sun was out – the fourth of our cohort Paul Godfrey finished the day with an exceptional case of panda eyes due to leaving his sunglasses on all day, to much amusement – and the crowd was thoroughly involved in barracking Mitchell Johnson.

It’s actually an important point too.  When the crowd got on  his back, even given the match situation of England being about to win, his bowling fell apart, and the lengthy delay to his run up to make the crowd wait, plus running through the crease, were indications that he was listening to the crowd rather than concentrating on his bowling.  A note for the Trent Bridge crowd to pay attention to.

Two and a half days of play, and an England win.  A crazy, ridiculous match, which bore little resemblance to the norms of Test cricket, but a 2-1 scoreline after three in England’s favour.  Where next?

After the first Test, there were signs that there were cracks in the Australian side.  The hammering they dealt out to England at Lords didn’t change that, but it did show that they are no toothless tigers either.  After all the attempted cleverness about conditions that might suit England but not Australia, what this Test showed was that in English conditions, England can do well.  Who would have thought such a thing?  Of course, those conditions do also bring Australia’s bowlers into play too, but if you don’t back your own players to perform, what is the point in even competing?

The injury to James Anderson is unquestionably a blow, but Trent Bridge hasn’t swung quite as much as it used to, possibly because of the new stand built there – though the vagaries of swing make assuming correlation to equal causation as being even more unwise than normal.  England do have a chance to put the series and the Ashes to bed though, at a ground where they tend to perform well.  Certainly Australia are the side that have questions to ask of themselves after this one.  Mitchell Starc bowled poorly throughout which may be just one of those things, and the middle order in particular looks downright flaky.  Yet England are setting new international records with their habit of winning a game and losing a game, with the sequence now at seven matches.   It would be no surprise whatever if England were to repeat the dose by losing in Nottingham.

There is some talent in this England side, and like a lot of unformed talent, it is inconsistent.  If they want to become a good side, finding that consistency is going to be the difference.  But the momentum is all with England……and that makes as little difference as it ever has, though it won’t stop some saying that it does, or being wise after the event should England win.

It is almost impossible to draw conclusions from such a ridiculous Test match, except to say the series is being played by two flawed teams, and anything could happen.

Hopefully one thing that won’t is having to cheer on Australia, because that felt dirty.  And wrong.  So very, very wrong.

*Reaching fourth best in the world is not failure