Boxing Day and the Damage Done

MCG, Day 2: Australia 98, England 5/444

You suspect Ricky Ponting slept uneasily in the wake of his team’s Boxing Day disaster. Perhaps fevered imaginings came to him, where he was Captain Willard, staring at the ceiling fan, The End playing in the background, Colonel Kurtz’s words echoing. The Horror! The Horror!

In cricketing terms, Ponting faced a personal nightmare of Kurtzian dimensions as day two finished, with Australia needing a miracle to keep this Ashes series alive, whilst his own personal conduct only managed to compound his worries.

After the Perth test surprised everyone, the expectation of a renewed summer’s battle rested largely on the chance England may be rattled by their Perth reversal. This has been shown to be merely wishful thinking. Instead, this match has seen Australia’s  all-too-obvious deficiencies ruthlessly exploited by an efficient, though hardly irresistible, visiting outfit.

The batting collapse on day one shouldn’t really have shocked anyone. Spoilt by fifteen years of featherbed pitches and often tame opposing attacks, Australia’s current batsmen have repeatedly shown they lack both the technique and temperament to cope with a swinging ball or seaming pitch. Not many of them can dig in when it’s really needed.

Facing day two needing to engineer a major England collapse, Australia initially strived hard to make amends. In Peter Siddle, they found one bowler prepared to fight against the odds. For a time in the afternoon, Mitch Johnson joined the cause and threatened to keep England’s lead to possibly manageable proportions. But the damage done on day one ultimately wouldn’t be reversed. If Australia can stretch the game much into day five they’ll exceed most expectations.

England would have been acutely conscious of not letting an opportunity escape as it had in Perth. After Siddle removed both opening bats early, the batting was effectively anchored by Jonathan Trott, whose ability to take straight deliveries through the onside continues to baffle Australian tactics. With Pietersen, he took his side safely past lunch, to the growing frustration of an Australia who needed wickets.

Eventually,  a Harris delivery passed between Pietersen’s bat and pad.  Only Haddin seemed convinced that an edge had been found. Umpire Aleem Dar adjudged not out, but Haddin insisted on a review, which revealed absolutely nothing that would have justified a reversal. In spite of this, Ricky Ponting let the situation get to him. For the next few minutes he stood before both umpires in the manner of a soccer player protesting to a referee, pointing, gesticulating and arguing the point. The match referee has already seen fit to fine him. Amongst his other concerns, Ponting was ill advised to add this one.

Siddle had unwisely bought into these proceedings. Obviously fired up, he returned to the bowling crease and trapped Pietersen lbw. Mitch Johnson then joined the fray. Unable to find any of the swing which had bamboozled in Perth, he sensibly adopted the role of aggressor and persuaded Collingwood, then Bell, into hooking to Siddle, who obliged with athletic outfield catches. With the score at 5-294, Johnson had Prior nicking to the keeper. Umpire Dar signalled out, and then reconsidered. A review revealed that Johnson had overstepped. There seemed a certain karma considering what had just preceded.

Had Johnson claimed this wicket, we may have broken through and contained the England lead to around 250, leaving optimists holding slender hopes. It wasn’t to be. Thereafter, Australia’s effort faded as Prior rode his considerable luck, and Trott proved immovable. As has become all too familiar, the game drifted away from the Aussies.  By stumps, England’s lead was 346 with half their side still to be dismissed. Even the most committed Australian must know the Ashes are gone.

At day’s end, the many mistakes and miscalculations Australian cricket has made in the last couple of years lay brutally exposed. For some time now, Australian cricket’s brains trust has been guilty of false advertising. To judge by many decisions skipper, coach and selectors have made in this period, this is a group of brains you wouldn’t be inclined to trust. When the Ashes were lost in England in 2009, there was reason to believe recovery could be achieved by this series. By denying increasingly obvious problems, failing to make timely decisions, and repeating previously costly tactical errors, those responsible for Australia’s test team will leave it with many serious unanswered questions by summer’s end.

This game has proved to be an unpleasant groundhog day for Australian fans. Like 2009, a victory levelled the series, and caused a resolve to play an all pace attack in the next match, although once again, conditions were very different. Some may argue that events may have differed had Australia won the toss. To them I ask, how sound is it to stake your hopes on the flip of a coin? In all likelihood, had England batted, they would have survived into the first afternoon, when conditions improved.

Other Almanackers have expressed the thought that Strauss may have got lucky when he sent Australia in again. I have to respectfully disagree. When your opponent has picked four quicks, there appears to be a bit of juice in the pitch, and your opponent has a long history of failure against the moving ball, how tough a decision is it to send them in?

That Australia repeated the errors of the Oval by fielding an unbalanced team here is the result of repeated lack of direction in selection. The tortured process of seeking Shane Warne’s successor is well known. Whilst Hauritz is no one’s idea of a bowling prodigy, what has replaced him? When North was belatedly dropped, did they pick the next best batting option available? Steve Smith is a promising cricketer, but if he’s not regarded as a spinning all-rounder, what’s he doing in the team? I’m sure others could add their own complaints. If Cricket Australia are serious, Andrew Hilditch must carry responsibility for the team picked.

And what of the skipper’s long recognised tactical blind spots? Why have those whose job it should be to intervene not done so? Are they too in awe of him? If so, they have failed in their duties. Why is there now a dearth of genuine alternative captains? This is another issue left unaddressed.

With the Ashes now gone, a proper test team rebuild shouldn’t wait. The looming World Cup complicates matters in the short term, but we need think about the team that can return us to the top of world cricket. There are some weak opponents around, as last summer showed, but we have kidded ourselves too long. There appears much promise in the younger ranks, but few of them will be ready for a couple of seasons. In the interim, some experiments may be necessary.

Though it probably goes against the grain, Ricky Ponting should be considering his own position. If his own batting doesn’t improve soon, the decision may be made for him. Though not a brilliant captain, he’s been a truly great player. It would be a shame to see a great career end with more scenes like today’s.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. Great stuff, JB. Hard to disagree with anything you’ve said.

    So I won’t.

  2. David Goodwin says:

    Excellent analysis JB. One thing that really upset me yesterday was the ‘acceptance of defeat’ body language when Australia took the second new ball. It may not have been as detectable on TV as at the ground. Watson had his hands in his pockets at first slip between balls (admittedly, it was very cold, but please!); Punter was brooding and mostly uncommunicative down there in the unfamiliar distance at mid off (he succeeded in channeliing his emotions in the wrong way at the wrong time). Understandably Hughes and Smith had no standing to be chipper or at the opposition. Clarke kept bleating out ‘plaintive cries’ which had no intensity. That second new ball was our last chance to win the Ashes; you would have hoped for a cavalry charge. It doesn’t help that Hilfenhaus has been getting to take the new ball, given he is a shy, quiet type. Siddle seemed the only one prepared to let it rip (but he had to wait his turn in the queue, as does Johnson, given his allergy to shiny red leather – accordingly, we tend to place the brand new ball in the hands of our second stringers, as if holding something back). It doesn’t quite give you the same sense of ‘something will happen now’ as when that red cherry was taken in days of yore. I reckon the taking of the second new ball should be approached ceremonially, with a sense of theatre, and with big personality.

  3. Andrew Fithall says:

    The irony JB, is that had Australia gone with three quicks, the one to miss out would have been Siddle. England would still be none-fa going into day 3.

  4. westcoastdave says:

    JB

    Clearly England don’t fear the Australian bowlers in good conditions. I just wonder how much of Strauss’ decision to bowl was motivated by ‘approaching success’ versus ‘fearing failure’. The two collapses in Perth were still pretty fresh at that stage. Your rationale for his bowling first is an extremely convincing one, but I still read it as at least a partly defensive move.

    WCD

  5. westcoastdave says:

    Sorry, also meant to say that I totally agree with your review of the decision making process over the last couple of years. To be fair, I think the selectors have had some bad luck in all of it – really nothing that they have tried has worked – but the cumulative effect of it all doesn’t look pretty in this series. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear, but the they could have given themselves a lot more to work with.

  6. John Butler says:

    #5, WCDave, that was precisely the concern heading into the summer. A shaky, retread Plan A that even they have proved to hold little faith in, and no apparent Plan B.

    #2 Dave G, you are so right about the body language. I went today- Punter looked despondent. When he batted, his only foot movements were a forward & across lunge, and that ugly jump-along-the creaseline move he’s suddenly developed. He looks a shadow of his former self.

    Siddle looked like the only one wanting to fight. AF, spot on. Under present circumstance, he could easily not have played.

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