The Ashes: 2nd Test preview

Brad Haddin won’t be playing in this match for personal reasons – there’s nothing else that need be said about that except to wish him well.  Cricket is just a game.

Few realistically expected England to arrive at Lords 1-0 up, and even fewer to have been so dominant at Cardiff, a venue where Australia were thought to hold all the cards before the game.   Reports indicate that Shane Watson will be jettisoned from the team, and if so it is hard to escape the feeling that it will be the end of his Test career.  It seems exceptionally harsh to do so after one match, given he was downright unlucky in both innings but especially the first.  Selecting Mitchell Marsh for the first Test would have been a perfectly reasonable choice; but having gone with Watson, to then drop him after a single outing carries the whiff of panic about it, both scapegoating him for the team’s failings and effectively an admission it was the wrong call in the first place.

Furthermore, it is hard to see a way back for Watson now, meaning a player who is likely to be somewhat disgruntled is in the squad for the remainder of the series with little chance of selection ever again.  It’s the kind of muddled thinking that we’ve seen all too often from England in recent times.

Peter Nevill will make his debut as ‘keeper for this match, and by all accounts is a batsman/keeper rather than a wicketkeeper/batsman.  Lords has made more than one highly competent wicketkeeper look foolish with the ball moving after the bat, so it will be a tough challenge for him to start his international career there.  Perhaps many England supporters too will hope he has a decent game.

It seems likely that Starc will play, demonstrating that Cricket Australia now operate a Mitchell quota system.  There’s been little said about continuing to bowl him so extensively at Cardiff, but there must be question marks about his fitness over five days.  The enforced retirement of Ryan Harris was clearly a blow, but the ineffectiveness of the seamers has produced ripples of concern about the depth of the Australian bowling stocks.  More than anything, it is a response to the result on a very slow pitch rather than a real problem, Starc, Hazlewood and Johnson remain a major threat.

The same can be said for the batting, and it is striking how a single result can change the perception and the reading of the two sides.  Australia’s batting is now fragile, Warner is having difficulty with the pitches and the swinging ball (as an aside, it is quite impressive how Warner can so consistently say the wrong thing – why on earth would he come out with that?), Chris Rogers’ failure to score a century is reaching crisis proportions, Clarke is all over the place against Broad, Steve Smith’s technique is questionable in English conditions, while for England Cook has become a great captain, Root is the best batsman in the world, Bell is back, Stokes is devastating, Wood is the heir to Simon Jones and so on.

It’s nonsense of course, Australia’s batting isn’t necessarily their strong suit, but little has changed since before the series began except that they played appallingly in one match – more than anything, getting in and getting out is something batsmen view as the ultimate crime, and they did it spectacularly across the board.  What has changed is that they’re under a little more pressure to perform than before, because defeat at Lords and the prospect of the team unravelling comes into view.  The records of the players involved means there is no reason why they shouldn’t come back with a vengeance, and although the Lords surface is likely to be fairly slow again, it’s usually an excellent batting wicket and one they should find to their liking.

For England, it is likely they will name an unchanged side.  Moeen Ali was the big doubt, but Adil Rashid’s endless wait for his debut will continue, as he has been ruled out by injury.  That Moeen was set to miss the match clearly means he isn’t going to be completely fit, and thus his selection is a considerable gamble.  From this distance it’s impossible to know how serious it is, but for a player to be considered unfit to play, and then magically sufficiently fit when his replacement is unavailable hardly seems like good management of resources.  It should also be remembered that if the injury flares up during the game, England will not be entitled to a substitute fielder, and one would imagine Australia will be very aware of that – of course the same applies to Starc.

Although England’s batting performed very well at Cardiff, they have been prone to falling over in recent times, and not always in hostile conditions.  Early wickets were lost in the first Test for not very many, something that they have become rather prone to, and they aren’t always going to recover from that.  Cook had a quiet game with the bat, and despite Root’s heroics, he remains instrumental in drawing the sting from the seamers.

It’s extremely hard to call this game.  It will likely go near the distance, as Lord’s is the epitome of a chairman’s pitch.  Australia have a slight hint of disarray about them, but that will be swiftly put aside if they play well here.  England have the opportunity of opening up some major cracks in the opposition, but they will have to play better than they did at Cardiff to do that.  Should they do so, then all bets are off for the remainder of the series, and the howls of protest from Down Under will be loud and long.

I’ve said before that you don’t know a team is past it until it actually happens, and they often spectacularly implode when it does (viz. England 2013/14), but equally one defeat doesn’t for a second mean we are there yet.  For that reason, this Test is completely pivotal.  An Australian victory sets the expected balance of the world back on its perceived correct axis.  An England victory, and it’s crisis point.  It will be a fascinating five days.