Fifth Ashes Test: Preview

If ever there was a measure of how far sights had fallen on this tour it was to be found in the way that a draw at Melbourne, on a pitch so batsmen friendly it was rated as poor by the ICC, was treated as a triumph by some.  3-0 down, a series and the Ashes gone, but apparently England ended the year well.  Perhaps in some ways that’s true, when you’ve lost the last seven away Tests and the last eight away Ashes Tests anything better than that is something to take note of, in the same way that just because the ship has gone down doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the piece of wreckage to which you’re clinging.  Yet denying the disaster that this tour has been remains as pathetic as it was after the Indian tour.  In that case, few expected England to come out on top, but being battered repeatedly and insisting that it was nothing other than the expected – all is well, don’t worry – was a low point for a group of cricket journalists who haven’t been afraid to plumb the depths in recent years.

Here too, the same has happened.  Cook’s unquestionably excellent innings at the MCG doesn’t mean Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth didn’t happen, and pretending that it does invites the contempt it deserves, and not just from the Australians either.  Claiming that it is irrelevant because it’s a dead rubber is nonsensical, ignoring the 3-0 scoreline and a series thrashing is preposterous.  It counts.  Of course it counts, it always did.  But it also always had a slight note against it. Indeed, the England coaching staff clearly didn’t get the memo, for when Trevor Bayliss was asked about selection for the final Test, he said “with the series lost it gives us the opportunity to look at some different people”.   Of course, this shouldn’t need saying, as it is blindingly obvious to anyone paying even a cursory degree of attention, but apparently it does, even though England on the other side of the equation did exactly the same thing when selecting Woakes and Kerrigan at the Oval in 2013.  Writing on cricket is a matter of opinion, but refusing to acknowledge reality in favour of hagiography remains as intellectually dishonest as ever, particularly given the same people were talking about retirement precisely one Test earlier.  Even allowing for finally having something positive to write about, it went much too far.  England played better at Melbourne, the seamers in the first innings were very good, Cook absolutely batted beautifully, while Australia probably lost some intensity, but still saved the match with something to spare.  Fine.  It was better, give Cook plenty of credit.  Move on and don’t overdo it.

Thus, for this game Mason Crane will make his debut.  The SCG pitch is expected to offer some assistance for spinners (interestingly, Nathan Lyon doesn’t have as good a record there as the traditional expectation for turn might suggest) and as a result, Moeen Ali is expected to keep his place.  He hasn’t had a good tour, either with ball or bat, and so this represents something of a reprieve given the initial expectation it might be a straight swap.  Much comment has been made about him not getting overspin, which does raise a few questions:  Firstly whether this is something he’s always had a problem with – the lack of any discussion prior to this tour suggests not – and if it’s just in Australia, why that might be.  He’s clearly not been fit for much of it, with talk of both side strains and finger damage throughout.  If that is the reason why, then England have done him a serious disservice by repeatedly playing him, and then seeing him get a kicking for not performing.  The player narrative shifts from week to week, with no reference to what has been said before, so perhaps the injury claims were overblown instead and he really has just been poor, but it would be nice to once in a while have some degree of consistency in appraisal without the need for excuses first, then a hatchet job.

Crane himself represents something of an unknown quantity at this level.  His first class bowling average is nothing to write home about, but he’s also young and promising.  The biggest fear with him has to be that if he doesn’t have an exceptional time of it, he’ll join the list of those brought in for the final dead rubber of a series (oh, that again) and then never heard about again.  England’s management of leg spinners who fail to be the next Shane Warne doesn’t engender too much confidence.  Maybe it’ll be different this time.

Chris Woakes misses out, having suffered a recurrence of his side injury.  England are saying that it’s precautionary, and hope that he’ll be fit for the ODI series following the Tests, but scepticism about their injury management is probably second only to scepticism about their selection strategy.  Side strains don’t tend to clear up quickly; it seems hopeful to say the least that it will properly heal in such a short time, and risky to then bowl him if it is a problem so soon after being out for so long with the same issue.

Woakes’ absence means that Tom Curran will play, saving him from the possibility of being a one cap wonder, while Jake Ball is nowhere to be seen in the discussions, except to point out that he’s nowhere to be seen.

This will leave England with a line up that requires the top order to get all the runs, for after Jonny Bairstow at six will come a hideously out of form Moeen and a tail that might be nowhere near as abysmal as the legendary Caddick, Giddins, Mulally Tufnell one, but does have the particular distinction of being just as long.  It will be fascinating to see if Cook’s technical work continues here, while Root and Malan too will need to have good Tests.

For Australia it’s easy – Mitchell Starc should return in place of Jackson Bird, although there are suggestions he’ll be rested for the ODI series in preparation for the South Africa Tests, an illustration of their priorities if nothing else.  They have their own batting issues in the top order, but also have Steve Smith, who has been imperious for so long  it has masked the other problems.  How to get him out remains a conundrum that has proved beyond England and might well be the single biggest difference between the sides.

The surface is by all accounts well grassed, and should provide a better contest between bat and ball than last time out.  The trouble is, that looks like very good news for Australia and very bad news for England.  English optimism is in short supply, but always remember Tom Harrison’s soothing words:

“It’s a pity that we’re not in a position to take the Urn home with us, but there’s a lot more to play for over the course of this winter. The health of the game is more than about Ashes series overseas. This is not the moment for kneejerk reactions or rash decisions in respect of performance.

“We have a plan. We’re making progress on that plan. England have been very competitive for large parts of the Ashes series. Those marginal periods of play where you can turn a game, we haven’t been able to do it which has been the difference between the teams in each of the Test matches.

“We understand that it’s extremely disappointing. But this team will be learning from every experience they have on the field and we’ve got a lot more to play for over the course of the one-dayers and the Test series in New Zealand.”

The lack of any critical coverage of what he has said is quite simply remarkable.

 

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The Ashes: A Review

This Ashes series was crap.  Bloody awful, one of the worst seen in this country in many years.

There, I’ve said it.  It runs completely counter to the narrative that so much of the media have gone with, whereby for some it was comparable in its wonder to 2005, but sorry it was rubbish.  Not because England won, not for a moment, but because there were five Tests, none of which offered up a contest.

With hindsight, Cardiff was the best of them, and had anyone said after that game that it would prove to be the case, there would have been wringing of hands across the cricketing spectrum.  Yet England’s win by the margin of 169 runs proved to be the closest the sides would be, with every subsequent result being even wider.  Aside from arguably Edgbaston, where the feeling was very much after day one that England had it in the bag, even if the final scorecard didn’t quite reflect that, it’s the only one where the game was in any kind of balance after the first innings were completed.

That England won the series was a welcome surprise, but winning doesn’t mean it was a good series in itself.  The greatest Ashes series of them all is routinely named as 2005, and Australians are as quick to agree about that as the English, even though Australia lost.  Because that series was a slugfest between two teams who fought themselves to a standstill and didn’t give an inch.  This was a series where as soon as one side got on top, the other waved the white flag of surrender and looked to the next match – the lack of fight, the lack of discipline and the lack of gumption was shocking from both teams.  This isn’t good Test cricket, it’s a slaughter.  What made this series a bizarre curiosity was that the slaughter went in both directions, meaning that at the start of every Test the unknown was which team would be wielding the cleaver, and which would be the tethered goat.

Test cricket can be one of the most captivating sports there is, because the timescale involved in each match allows for ebbs and flows, for sides to recover and fight back.  Magnified over a full five match series, it can rise to the heights of the majestic.  Not every five Test series can begin to reach such exalted standards as the very best, and when one side outclasses the other then it can be something of a long haul, even for the victorious supporters, who tend to feel a slight dissatisfaction about the lack of uncertainty about the outcome, but given even a modicum of competition, it is fascinating.

And therein lies the problem.  3-2 looks like it was a good series at first glance, but sport is only ever compelling where there is competition, and in each match there was barely any.  Indeed only one of them had that air of competition beyond the first day.

All of which makes analysing the series somewhat problematic.  Did England win it or Australia lose it?  Given both sides showed quite exceptional levels of incompetence mixed in with occasional brilliance, drawing conclusions from a little over or under half a series means that a caveat must apply in each instance.

For England, only Root so much as managed a century (two of them) in the whole series.  His batting was so far ahead of the rest of the team that when he failed, so did the team as a whole.  To put it another way, only he could look back on it as a batsman with unalloyed pleasure.  His next test will be to see whether he can replicate this kind of run scoring away from home.  There’s no reason to assume he won’t, but at present he is a player in a rich run of form.  If he carries on in the two difficult tours ahead, then he might really begin to be considered the real deal.

Cook had a real mixed bag with the bat.  Two fifties only in itself is a pretty poor return in a normal series, though in this one only Bell and Root passed fifty more often than him.  Yet both fifties were in defeat, and the second of them rather irrelevant given the match situation.  It’s somewhat ironic that in advance of the series this writer was anything but alone in feeling that for England to win, Cook would have to have a fantastic series.  In reality, his contribution with the bat to victory was absolutely nil.  His captaincy in contrast was fine.  Not outstanding, but decent enough.  The problem with Cook is not with Cook himself, it is how the media respond to him.  Competent captaincy is most welcome, he acknowledged himself that he had learned and changed his approach, good on him.  But it is now at the point where such competence is lauded as being worthy of Brearley, and it’s total nonsense.  Cook had a slightly disappointing series with the bat but captained perfectly well.  It isn’t disloyal or anti-England to state reality and not join in the hagiography.  Cook seems immune from any kind of criticism from sections of the press, and it doesn’t do him any favours.

The one thing which is certainly in his favour batting wise is that although he didn’t get the runs, he looks technically much more sound than he did during his miserable run in 2013/14.  At that time his head was far too far across to the offside, which dragged his feet across to the offside, making him vulnerable to both the straight ball and the edge behind.  That particular failing has been corrected, and he appears much more secure in his technique.  To that extent, his quiet series can be put down to one of those things, but given the poor time he had of it previously, he does need to start scoring heavily again fairly soon.

His batting partner Lyth has probably seen his Test career come and go, and the pain etched on his face with his second innings dismissal tugged at the heartstrings.  England have developed a habit of losing openers not called Cook in the last few years, and both Compton and Carberry must feel considerable irritation that they weren’t persevered with, in the latter case in the face of far better bowling than any of the other hopefuls have had to cope with.

Ballance has responded well to being dropped mid series, and time in county cricket getting his game back in order might be just what he needs.  He has plenty of ability, and he’s hardly the first to suffer a difficult sophomore season.

The middle orders of both sides have performed poorly.  Bell seemed to either have a relative feast or total famine, but in the context of the others, those three fifties represent a reasonable return.  There is a real question mark now over his future.  With the exception of the pleasure that was evident from his contribution at his home ground, he has cut an unhappy, if not a detached figure for a little while.  Some with a poor grasp of grammar might have described it as “disinterested” even.  If that is to be Bell’s last appearance in an England shirt, as seems possible from his comment about deciding his future in a couple of weeks, then it’s a loss to England, and one that smacks of carelessness.  He still has much to offer, and he’s only 33.

Bairstow and Stokes both did OK on occasion, and in the first instance deserves persevering with.  In the second, Stokes tended to show the difficulty faced by so many all rounders over the years of trying to get both disciplines functioning at the same time.  He is a player of immense promise, and at the stage of his career he is at, his ability to bowl wonderful spells as well as play match changing innings is as much as should be expected of him.

The same could be said for Buttler, who after coming into the side as someone who had batting talent but whose keeping needed a lot of work, proceeded to turn that on its head by keeping extremely well throughout (the legside catches standing back were good, the one standing up was outstanding) and being barely able to score a run.  His final innings of the series did appear to show a degree of learning from experience, and in itself that’s a promising sign.  The improvement in his wicketkeeping too implies a player willing to learn.

The final member of the middle order, albeit one who batted as low as nine when a nightwatchman was employed was Moeen Ali.  Like with Bell over the years, there is a predisposition to be both frustrated by him and to make excuses for him.  He is simply unutterably gorgeous to watch; his strokeplay is entirely reminiscent of Gower, and when his batting is flowing, there are few players in world cricket more enjoyable to witness.  His position in the batting order often meant he had to go for his shots at the end of an innings, and that’s probably the best way for him to bat, as his technique isn’t a tight one.  Of course, in his case there is a problem, which is that his primary role in this team is as a bowler – something that may be considered unfair on him.  He didn’t do badly in the series overall, looking back at previous posts in advance of the series, his final average of 45 with the ball was even a prediction for being considered adequate.  There are two issues here though, firstly that he was comprehensively outbowled by Nathan Lyon, and secondly England’s refusal to pick Adil Rashid, seemingly under any circumstances.

It’s doubtful there is a much better finger spinner in English cricket, and having gone with Moeen, he should receive sufficient faith for him to continue working on his game.  He will get better.  However, it is becoming ever more difficult to see a justification for Rashid’s continuing exclusion, and even harder to see why so many of the press are so dead set against him.  Moeen was tried out as being far from the finished product, and given time to develop.  Rashid seems to be expected to be a hundred Test veteran on debut.  Surely he will get his chance in the UAE, and long overdue.

Of all the bowlers, Broad was the clear stand out.  Given his record over the last few years, he’s in serious danger of being consistently underrated.  Barely a series goes by without demands for him to be dropped, yet he’s one of England’s most consistent performers with the ball, even without the stunning spell of 8-15 at Trent Bridge which was truly wonderful.  He even did well in the horror tour of Australia last time.  When he’s not bowling through injury, he’s a serious threat to any side in world cricket.  As long as he’s told to pitch the bloody thing up.

Anderson will most of all benefit from the break enforced by injury.  That he was even considered for the fifth Test is concerning.  He’s an exceptionally fit athlete, and could go on for several more years yet, if properly looked after.

The return of Steven Finn has to be the most welcome sight in the England team.  He’s still not back at the pace he was, no matter how much he tries to deny it.  Perhaps the confidence gained from being an integral part of the attack will allow him to up that pace, because a bowler of that height consistently bowling high eighties is going to be a difficult proposition anywhere.  What happened to him in the past is a matter of deep frustration, but looking forward he is still young, still taking wickets at a truly remarkable strike rate and needs to be allowed to just bowl.  If England have changed one thing in regard to their approach to him, then let it be to focus on his wicket taking ability, not how many runs an over he goes for.

Mark Wood is something of a conundrum.  He clearly has a lot of talent, but his injury record isn’t a good one, and there have to be concerns about managing him properly.  Australia did point the way there with Ryan Harris, who they wrapped in cotton wool and as a result got at least two more years out of him than anyone could have hoped for, including him.  Seam bowlers are almost always carrying some kind of injury, so it isn’t a matter of plucking him out of the team at the first sign of trouble, but it is one of ensuring he doesn’t suffer a major injury.

For Australia, this is the end of an era for many of the squad.  Harris finally succumbed to his troublesome body before it even began, and perhaps more than anything that proved to be the ultimate difference between the sides.  He has been an outstandingly good bowler who had an Indian summer to his career.  When he broke down in the 2010/11 series, the sadness was the feeling that would be it, a career over before it had even begun.  He may not have played 80 Tests, but he played a lot more than he had any right to, given his physical problems.

Australia’s top three all had decent enough series, with the proviso that like everyone else, when they were bad, they were very, very bad.  Chris Rogers was outstanding throughout, and probably wishes he could have played his whole Test career against England.  Oh hang, on he more or less did.   Warner in contrast made lots of contributions without ever going on to get a big score.  It means that his figures are decent enough, but lack a match changing or match winning innings.

Smith had a similar series to Bell in some ways, the difference being that when he did get in, he went on to a very big score indeed.  His idiosyncratic technique makes this quite likely, and with him it’s a matter of accepting that, and knowing that when he does get in, he is going to seriously hurt the opposition.  His batting went a fair way to winning two Tests, focusing on his troubles in the other three is somewhat harsh.

Clarke’s retirement at the end of the series broke the last link with the great Australian side of the first decade of this century.  He had a poor series, without question, but very few players call it a day in a blaze of glory, not least because of the need for team mates to do their bit to provide the correct result.  McGrath, Warne et al managed it when they whitewashed England, but that truly great side is an exception.  Few decide to retire because they’ve been playing so well, and Nasser Hussain’s beautifully timed retirement winning a Test match and series with a superb century simply shows he had a sense of timing with his career that wasn’t always present with his batting.

England gave Clarke a guard of honour, and predictably enough (and more than welcome) the English crowd gave him a standing ovation on his approach to the crease.  Sometimes English crowds make you feel quite proud of them.  Clarke deserves it.  He’s been a terrific player, a terrific captain, and for those of us lucky enough not to be Australian, he was our leader in cricket too in the most tragic of circumstances.  His honesty in the face of defeat, and refusal to hide behind platitudes also marked him out.  It has been nothing short of a privilege to watch him play, and to leave the game of cricket having made a positive contribution is as good a cricketing epitaph as there can be.  To lose him in the same week as the peerless Kumar Sangakkara is undoubtedly a blow to the game, and the ICC could do worse than listen to what they say about the future of cricket.  And pigs might fly.

Just like England’s, Australia’s middle order had a woeful time of it.  Ironically enough that failing was just as prevalent in the 5-0 last time, but they were bailed out repeatedly by the lower order.  Not this time, though Johnson and Starc had their moments with the bat.  The jettisoning of Watson was possibly premature, his trials with the lbw law are hardly new, and at Cardiff he was the recipient of a couple of decisions that were fairly questionable, particularly the first innings one.  His replacements didn’t do any better, although his career is now probably at an end, distinguished by being one of the great unfulfilled talents.

Voges made a late bid to extend his Test career, Mitchell Marsh shows a lot of promise as a true all rounder given that bowling was thought to be his weaker discipline (he didn’t bat well), Shaun Marsh showed again – and probably for the final time – that he simply isn’t quite good enough at the very highest level and Brad Haddin also reached the end of the road.  The manner of the conclusion to his Test career seemed to cause some discord in the Australian camp amongst the senior players.  It’s a difficult one.  His batting and keeping had both deteriorated to the point his place should have been in jeopardy even if it wasn’t.  Perhaps it should just be put down to being one of those terribly unfortunate instances where they were faced with two wrong choices, and went for the better cricketing one.

Peter Nevill looks a decent enough replacement anyway, although he didn’t contribute with the bat too much more than the rest of that middle order.  His first class batting record is a very good one though, and he looks a perfectly competent gloveman.

Of the bowlers, given the loss of Harris, Siddle did seem the obvious replacement.  With hindsight.  It is all too easy to look at his performance in the final Test and say he should have been there all along, but there weren’t many calls for him to be in the side at the expense of anyone else, and in advance it was felt that Johnson and Starc’s pace would be more than good enough for England anyway.  Both were intermittently major threats, and the rest of the time expensive.   Ironically enough, it was Josh Hazlewood who made way for Siddle, despite having a better record than either of them, and for reasons hard to fathom bore the brunt of the criticism of the seam bowling selection that saw Siddle called up.

Nathan Lyon too had a good series, and showed what he is – a very fine orthodox finger spinner.  He’s every bit the equal of Graeme Swann, and perhaps at long last Australia will be content with their lot in the spinning department rather than harking back to the days of Warne.

Given how the series unfolded, in this one perhaps more than any other, it can be said that 3-2 was a fair result.  Three times England hammered Australia, twice Australia hammered England.  If there was a sixth Test, it could have gone either way, probably with a hammering.

The England players will rightly look back on the achievement with great pleasure, for they were the underdogs in the eyes of everyone.  The win is there to be enjoyed, but these are two teams who are very much at the crossroads.  Australia will largely need a new one, and will have to spend quite some time rebuilding and finding the right combinations.  England are at least playing a much more positive style of cricket, but they look a deeply flawed side at this stage.  There are plenty of players in that side in the early stages of their careers, and there will be ups and downs in their own performances.  What is more worrying is the collective implosions they seem so prone to.  They have two very difficult tours ahead, and as a young side may well rise to the challenge.  But they are going to have to, because otherwise they are in trouble.

This wasn’t an especially enjoyable series.  When third day tickets become something of a risky purchase not through it being a poor pitch, but because either of the sides are incapable of lasting that long, then there is both something wrong with them, and something extremely wrong with the series.  Some of the batting was genuinely second rate, in shot selection and execution.  It is to be hoped this is something of an aberration, because more of the same is going to pall very quickly.  Recent history around the world suggests winning away is becoming ever more rare, in which case England will face both the next 9 months and the next Ashes series with considerable trepidation.

The most damning indictment of this Ashes series is that the two Test version against New Zealand offered far more entertainment, far more sporting hazard, far more tension that anything the five subsequent games did.  England won, and to that extent it was great.  But Test cricket supporters have always had one eye on the team and one eye on the wider game.  The game itself in this series was dreadfully poor.  Pointing to the other eye and ignoring that is simply refusing to see evil.

@BlueEarthMngmnt

2nd Ashes Test: Day Four review

It’s one thing to lose, it’s entirely another to offer no resistance whatever, on a docile pitch, in good conditions.

This was as bad as anything on the Ashes from Hell tour, because this pitch offered absolutely nothing for the bowlers even on day four.  England at the start of play were clearly likely to lose the match, but few would have expected any side – not even Bangladesh – to surrender meekly in 37 overs.  This was abject, pathetic and spineless.  Sure, collapses happen, but with England they happen a lot, and they happen against Australia all the time – indeed even ignoring the three for not very many at Cardiff, it’s happened in 6 of the last 7 Tests against them.

That England went through the motions with the ball this morning is almost forgivable, given the match position.  Australia were so far in front even skittling them wouldn’t have made much difference.  But it did betray a side who knew their fate and didn’t rage against it.  The declaration when it came didn’t change the reality of what England needed to do, and what England knew they needed to do right from the start of play.

Instead, once again they flopped horribly.  Two of the first three wickets at least came from decent balls, though Lyth and Ballance both betrayed flawed techniques in how they got out.  What was extraordinary was how the Sky commentary team focused on these two dismissals and actually claimed Cook’s was a good ball at the time (Hussain in contrast did at least call it a “lazy little waft”).  It wasn’t, it was a dreadful shot, a short wide one that he went after and edged.  Getting out to a bad shot happens, it’s an occupational hazard of batting, but to seek to excuse it by crediting the bowler beggared belief, and merely fuelled the suspicion that Cook cannot be criticised on Sky.  Let’s get something clear here, players make mistakes.  They are human beings, and flawed intrinsically.  Pointing out a bad shot doesn’t lessen the person, it’s called being honest.  Stop making excuses.

England had lost their first three wickets for fewer than 52 for the 8th time in their last 12 innings.  It’s been repeatedly pointed out that the middle order will not always bail them out, and the horrible muddle England have got into over the last couple of years is still the same, even with different personnel.  Of the top four, the only one who is in any kind of form is Cook – and Cook the batsman is doing fine – indeed Cook the captain still didn’t have a bad match in the field, England certainly didn’t flop horribly because of his actions. Once again, the problem is not with what Cook does as a batsman, it is the way it is treated as though he’s Bradman reincarnated whenever he gets a few, while saying his dismissal was down to him being “desperately tired” as Mike Selvey put it – a tiredness that didn’t seem to afflict Rogers or Smith who scored far more runs.   And in mentioning Rogers, all cricket fans will have seen his dizzy spell with some concern.  Let us hope it was unrelated to the blow on the head he took at the start of day two.

And so once under way, the procession continued.  Bell again got out cheaply, and again in unconvincing fashion, managing to edge a ball that didn’t spin to short leg.  Stokes had the kind of dismissal that will haunt him for days to come, failing to ground his bat for an easy single.  Whether that was a simple matter of brain-fade or evidence of the kind of scrambled minds in the England team probably depends on how one wishes to think of them.

Buttler once again edged behind hanging his bat out to dry, and Moeen did absolutely nothing to prevent the addition of another piece of evidence that he can’t play the short ball very well.

By this point, not only were Australia rampant, but England were skulking around like a little boy who knew he’d been caught stealing.  Broad at least decided to go down fighting, throwing the bat.  That was another reminder of the dire displays in 2013/14, Broad reacting by trying to hit fours and sixes in a game long since gone.

Root’s dismissal as ninth man out was neither here nor there and entirely irrelevant to anything, while there was something apposite about the way Anderson’s stumps were shattered to end the torture.

The various Mitches had blown England away, and all credit must be given to them.  They will only get better having scented blood.

The only way of reacting to this omnishambles is that with the final wicket, Australia had gone into a 1-1 lead in the series.  It is scarcely credible that England had managed to fall apart so abjectly on such a placid wicket.  Yet they’d managed to, and shown no bottle whatsoever for the fight.  It is therefore ironic that the pattern of England wins and losses recently can be seen to be one of them being metaphorically flat track bullies, able to put sides away with aplomb when in front in the game, but collapsing in on themselves when challenged.  That is, except on non-metaphorical flat tracks where they aren’t just bullied, they are whipped, chained and thrashed.

The inquest will of course begin now, but there’s not much that isn’t already known and has been known for some time.

Bell is in awful form, and has been struggling for a couple of years.  Yet England set the precedent of standing by Cook when he had his drought, and they can rightly point to his form this year as being a justification for that.  So they’ve made a rod for their own back where Bell can legitimately say he deserves the same patience.  Whether he will get it or not is another matter, as is whether he should.  But missing straight balls as he has been isn’t terribly reassuring.

Lyth is perhaps one of two players under most pressure, but dropping him now would betray the same kind of muddled thinking that the ECB under Strauss have absolutely promised is a thing of the past in this brave new world.  Having not picked him in the West Indies when they should have, he then scored his maiden century only two Tests ago.  Lyth may not ultimately prove to be good enough, but that there is such a chorus for his replacement after two quiet Tests, and only four in total would be a return to the chopping and changing of the nineties.  And that worked so very well.

Ballance on the other hand has – at least for the time being – been found out.  He is clearly a highly talented player, and also young enough to improve, but his sophomore season is proving to be a nightmare for him.  The problem is that his place in the side is the critical number three position, and so the question of moving players around comes up.

Here is the rub though, moving Root up to number three is obviously an option, but Root didn’t perform particularly well as an opener two years ago, and there’s no pressing reason why he should do better now so high up the order.  Yes, he’s batting extremely well, but treating the symptom rather than the cause has never been much of a medical solution to anything.  Putting Root there would be to risk getting less out of England’s best batsman, not because of a certainty he would do better there, but solely because those above him currently are doing so badly.  That isn’t a justication, it’s negative selection.

Nor does it in any way address the problems Lyth and Bell are having, so while rearranging of deckchairs would give the selectors something to do, it doesn’t address the bloody great hole in the hull.

Naturally, as this was discussed, the elephant in the Sky studio hovered.  At one point Hussain talked about England needing a “Kevin Pietersen type” player in the top four, without a shred of irony.  At another, Ricky Ponting came dangerously close to saying the name of He Who Must Not Be Mentioned, and Gower flapped in utter horror (“don’t say it, don’t say it”).  This was extraordinary behaviour, but not necessarily for the reasons that might initially be thought.  There’s no reason to assume Pietersen would have made any difference in this Test, and no reason to assume he would be a panacea for England’s batting woes.  That’s not the point.  The ECB have made their decision and that is that.  But.  It is not for Sky to endorse that decision by refusing to even acknowledge the point, it is not honest to pretend it isn’t there.  An honest response is to point out the obvious that one player England could select is in the cold and then move on to the alternatives.  Each and every time this sort of thing happens, the recognition of what has been done is critical to the debate even if that decision is agreed with.  Pretending it isn’t there is ludicrous, no matter which side of the debate someone might be.

Once again, the fundamental point is that Sky’s editorial line is not meant to be at the behest of the ECB’s internal policies.  It’s a basic journalistic tenet, and one they have failed time and again.  It shouldn’t need stating, that’s the point.

More realistically in terms of England’s options, apart from moving those players around, Johnny Bairstow is the likely candidate to come in.  Should they do so then that certainly means changing the order as well, with Bell and Root at three and four.  A second spinner is also an option, if they also drop Lyth and move Root up to open.  That would be a lot of changes.

England were plainly unhappy with the pitch at Lords, which was more than obviously a chairman’s one, intended to last the full five days – so Australia (and England in a funny way) denying them the revenue from day five serves them right.  That’s somewhat ironic, because in one sense England were right to be.  Australia’s faster bowling attack is always going to be better on a very flat and slow surface where England’s fast medium offering is going to be akin to cannon fodder.  Yet this very flat, very slow surface was one on which England were shot out for 415 across two innings.  That’s woeful even on a green seamer, which if Cook has his way based on his post match interview is what we will get at Edgbaston.  The problem for him is that the Chief Executive of Warwickshire probably thinks otherwise.

Yet Cook was correct that for England to have a chance, their own bowlers need to have a chance in the game.  Over the last few years Test pitches in England have followed the same pattern, slow surfaces intended to stretch the game out to the full extent.  It is this tendency that Colin Graves was quietly referring to when he raised the idea of four day Tests – another example of treating the symptom incidentally.  That this has had the result of spectacularly biting England on the arse is exactly what they deserve, for it has been a long time since England produced the kind of quick pitches that might actually prepare them a little for facing the two Australian fast ‘n nasties, and even allow England to develop one or two of their own.

This match was nothing but total humiliation.  It is striking that in the Tests between these two sides, there are very few close ones, one side absolutely batters the other albeit Australia batter England rather more than the other way around.  To that extent England will feel that there is no reason they can’t win the next one, and they are of course right.  If anything has been demonstrated in previous Ashes series, momentum is a rather overrated thing.

Yet England did have a real chance to put Australia under huge pressure in this match.  After Cardiff there were definitely cracks in the side.  Not large ones, and as has been seen in this game, not critical ones.  But had they produced the kind of English pitch we used to get before they started trying to be clever and extract even more money from the poor spectator, it likely would have worked to England’s advantage.  Not so much to guarantee a win of course, but at least to give them a chance.  The Test against New Zealand at Lords was of course a fantastic one, yet that was so unusual compared to the ones we’ve seen in recent years that one can’t help but feel it was some kind of happy error. Certainly the two prepared in 2014 were every bit as lifeless as this one, and note that England could not bowl Sri Lanka out in one, and lost badly to India in the other.

Once England had lost the toss here, their chances of winning were very low.  The difference is that there was no reason why they should lose the Test.  And no reason whatever that they should lose the Test by the margin of 820-10 to 415-20.  Or to put it another way, based on this, England would have had to bat a whole additional Test to reach Australia’s match total.

And finally we come to the media in general.  At the risk of repeating a common theme on this blog, they went completely overboard once again after the win at Cardiff.  It was a terrific win there’s no doubt about that, but the “fickle” people in such places as here and at the Full Toss, repeatedly cautioned that England had a habit of losing their next match badly after a win, and that triumphalism was both premature and more than a bit ridiculous.  It didn’t stop them.  From writing a homage to Andrew Strauss as the architect of England’s success to saying Ian Bell was back, to long paeans of how the new England under Cook would go on to terrify all and sundry, this thrashing is matters coming home to roost.  Again.  Doubtless they will now swing the other way, demand wholesale changes and assume England will be blown away in the remainder of the series.  And that is indeed a possibility, and unquestionably a fear given this implosion.  It’s just not guaranteed.

England may well recover from here, it doesn’t mean they can’t win from here.  It does mean there is concern about how they will react to it – that is up to them, to decide whether there really are scars from 2013/14 or not.

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.

@BlueEarthMngmnt