Bullet dodged, England dominate

by Dave Bruce

I got up this morning to the rather surprising news that England had won the toss and were bowling.  Even more surprisingly, Ponting said that Australia were going to bowl if they’d won the toss.  It sounded like two guys who were concerned that their batting line-ups couldn’t be trusted in less than perfect conditions.  What ensued was proof that, at the very least, the Australian one couldn’t be.

For the first few overs it didn’t look like there was any real justification for bowling first – it wasn’t a green top and the bounce was fine.  It was moving a little bit in the air and doing something off the seam if you actually hit it, but you’d expect that in the first session of test.  In the first over Collingwood, England’s specialist fielder, dropped a low chance at slip off Watson.  When you bowl in conditions that are only marginally bowl-first, you feel like you need to take that chance.  Tremlett then bowled an over of puddings to Hughes, who took a confident 10 runs off the over.  In the third over Watson smashed a long hop from Anderson at Pietersen, who was lucky not to break a finger as he dropped another sharp chance while saving a boundary.  Strauss must have been feeling anxious to see those chances go past, but it was to be the last time all day he felt that way.

In the 4th over Tremlett bowled a ball that bounced cleanly and sharply, and Watson got it off the shoulder of the bat to gully.  It wasn’t an unplayable ball, but the sort of really good one that any opener could expect to get on any day.  From there on though, only Ponting could really say that the ball that dismissed him was deserving of his wicket.  The rest were just knocked over by consistently excellent but rarely unplayable bowling in conditions that required much tighter techniques than those put up to counter it.

Hughes continued to demonstrate that if you are going to play test cricket with an unorthodox technique, you have to be in form.  He looked OK and was working hard, but just before drinks he drove on the up at a ball that a test opener should be leaving alone, and if Pietersen hadn’t caught it at gully he would have cracked a rib.  Straight after drinks Ponting got a legitimate corker from Tremlett and edged to second slip.  If you only see the slow motion replay of that ball, you can’t understand how good it was – but have a look at Ponting’s reaction and you start to get the idea.  From then on, it went like this:

Hussey snicked a straight ball to Prior. 4/58.

Smith moved his feet late and snicked a straight ball to Prior. 5/66.

Clarke played a mile from his front foot and snicked a straight ball to Prior. 6/77.

Haddin drove unnecessarily hard at a ball on the up and nicked a straight ball to first slip. 7/77.

Johnson played a mile from his body and snicked a straight ball to Prior. 8/77.

Siddle snicked to Prior. 9/92.

Hilfenhuas snicked to Prior. All out 98.

My mother-in-law kept coming in and asking if it was a replay, and the really depressing thing was that not only wasn’t it a replay, but she even missed a few wickets as Australia was comprehensively, dismissively, contemptibly swept away for 98 well before tea.  The English bowlers must have been killing themselves, and Glenn McGrath must have been sitting at home yelling “See…that’s what I was talking about!!!!”.  All they did was bowl a consistently good line and length and move it around a fraction, and the batsmen just couldn’t help themselves.  Don’t get me wrong, the bowling was very good, but with the lackadaisical techniques of batsmen brought up on the batting roads of the last generation, they kept playing away from their bodies, not getting into line, and nicking accordingly.

The question when one team gets knocked over cheaply is always how much the conditions had to do with it.  The answer appears to have been: not that much.  Certainly the sun was out more in the afternoon, and the conditions were clearly a bit better – but I think what it confirmed was that the conditions were never that bad to start with.  The loss of the overcast conditions can stop the ball hooping around, but it had never done that anyway (and plenty of wickets fell in sunshine in the Australian innings).  The heavy roller can smooth out an uneven deck, but it was never like that either.  England definitely got the better conditions to bat in, but they weren’t anywhere near as different as the scoreboard suggests.  All Australia had to do was tough it out for a session or two, and then they could have had those conditions anyway.

Cook and Strauss then did two important things after tea – they didn’t lose their wickets, and they got the runs going.  At none for 40 after about 10 overs, they were in a position where even if they lost a couple of quick poles they were going to have a first innings lead well before stumps.  Even when Australia put the brakes on for a brief period, the English openers kept their nerves – knowing that both time and tide were in their favour.  Australia’s bowlers were striving to get the team back into the contest, but in doing so they didn’t maintain the same pressure on or about off stump that had underpinned the first innings rout.  In fact, in the end they gave away nearly 10% of their team’s first inning score in leg-side byes / wides.

Just to knock out any remaining stuffing, when Australia finally had Cook given out LBW he had it overturned on the grounds of a big inside edge, and then three balls later smashed Hilfenhaus for four.  By the time they took the lead, in about the 31st over it was complete domination.  The mode of passing Australia’s score just emphasised the point – a bye run off a leg side wide that Haddin could barely knock down.  At 0/157 by stumps, with a lead of 59 and 10 wickets in hand, it was one of the most disappointingly one-sided days of test cricket imaginable.  Of the 84,000 at the ground, there weren’t many left by the end.  Luckily I’ve always liked watching Cook bat, so there was some consolation for having to watch on in order to write this report.

I really didn’t expect today to be the decisive day in the series, but it almost certainly will be now.  Cricket is a funny game, but there are limits to just how funny it can be.  We thought the same thing in Perth early in England’s first innings, but I can’t see another comeback from here.  A win to England resolves the series, and if they don’t win from here then there would have to be some serious questions asked.  England’s players and fans alike, even in their wildest dreams, couldn’t have come up with the day’s storyline.  Not only did they put themselves into a series winning position, but they did it in such a way that was as demoralising as it was effective.  Any possible scars from Perth have been cauterised to such an extent that any long term damage now lies solidly with the Australians.

I’ve said several times through the series that I think that England have built a momentum over 6-8 years that will lead to them winning this series, and so perhaps it is more the magnitude of the day’s margin than who won it which is a bit of a disappointment.  It’s also clear now that the way back to the top for Australian cricket is probably going to be a fair bit longer and harder than we might have expected.

For one final observation though, I want to go back to how the day started.  I suspect it won’t be the majority interpretation of the decision, but I reckon Strauss dodged a bullet today, because the conditions didn’t really justify bowling first.  Ponting should be embarrassed that he thought Australia should bowl, because it means they didn’t pick the right team.  Yes, the conditions were tricky to bat in, as they often are on the first day of a test match, but as the second innings showed, there was nothing demonic about it.  Maybe Strauss had a good feel for just how bad the Australian batting is (and perhaps Ponting was equally right about England), but it was a risky gambit.  There are many ways that a captain who bowls first can be criticised, and some of them don’t appear obvious until they have to chase 200 on a wearing 4th and 5th day deck – but it doesn’t look like Strauss is going to have to worry about that.  In the end, history will suggest that he made the right decision – but that doesn’t mean it was a good one.

Comments

  1. I reckon you’re right about Strauss dodging a bullet, Dave. The pitch had a bit in it, but not “all out for 98” worth.

    Might it be a good idea for Ponting to announce this series as his last? It would avoid a decision being made by selectors if Australia lose or draw the series or allow him to go out on an absolute high if they somehow perform a miracle and reclaim the Ashes.

  2. westcoastdave says:

    I thought Ponting had been looking reasonable before this series, and he is good enough to cut him some slack. But more importantly, while I don’t think he is a great captain, who is going to captain in his absence? Clarke has to be the bigger worry.

  3. The time has come for heads to roll.

    The Selectors have failed.
    The coach seems incapable,
    The captain’s position after his dispute with the umpires is now utterly untenable.
    Even the chanel 9 comentators have had enough.

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