England vs Australia: Fifth Test, Oval, Day 3
England 247/4 (116.0 ov)
As Australian cricket’s decision makers contemplate the summer ahead they can at least console themselves that they will face an opposition that is beatable. England is a good side, but not a great side. The sobering realisation must be that we currently trail that good but not great side 3-0
Earlier this year your correspondent happened to be in New Zealand while England barely held off a modest home side over three drawn tests. They demonstrated then an abiding inclination to caution when pressured. This tendency was indulged in extremis through the course of the third day at the Oval where England set themselves for the sole purpose of grinding out a draw.
The bald figures of 4-215 in 98.3 overs barely begin to describe the tedium of a day that amounted to England effectively raising a large extended middle finger to a sell-out crowd.
Australia’s bowlers found their considerable efforts blunted by a slow pitch and the absence of an opponent willing to take the game on to any extent. Michael Clarke’s frustrations became apparent just before tea when yet another Kevin Pietersen stalling effort proved one too many and a slanging match ensued. Given the haplessly ineffectual way the game is now administered, it is likely that the only incident to attract any scrutiny will be that verbal altercation. I would argue that the cynical time wasting efforts of the home team constitute the much greater offence to the game.
With the day’s crawl scarcely warranting the effort to describe, it feels more profitable to look ahead to the return series in our summer. Sadly, contemplation of our likely options only serves to highlight how poorly the period since our last Ashes defeat has been handled by selectors, administrators and managers alike.
For all the selection permutations of recent times, we seem scarcely closer to being able to identify our best team, let alone maximise their efforts. The inclusion of James Faulkner for this game seemed a case of avoiding the difficult question. A team continually let down by batting fragility should have at least given one final middle order opportunity to either Hughes or Khawaja. If a line has been drawn through both names, then it is difficult to see an obvious replacement. This is only one of many selection questions left hanging.
Deposed coach Mickey Arthur has recently spoken of a two-series strategy to these successive Ashes series. This implied that the current series was about setting us up for a better chance in the Australian summer. If we ignore the many contestable aspects of this thinking, how have we fared? What advances can we claim?
Batting-wise, the only gains in this series have been the efforts of Steve Smith and Chris Rogers. Smith personifies the modern inclination to select Chosen Ones. Promoted to test status on promise rather than performance, he deserves credit for surviving the subsequent travails in his career to achieve what he has this series. But we must remember, he wasn’t actually selected in the initial touring party.
Chris Rodgers has been grinding out runs in much the same manner at Shield level for more than a decade. As warming a story as his success in this series makes, it raises even more questions about Australia’s selection policies. When we have been begging for a stable opening pair, how has he evaded selection for so long? Overlooked as a succession of Chosen Ones were picked instead, Rodgers represents the extent to which actual performance in first class cricket has been marginalised by those who claim to know better.
Our strong suit at present is fast bowling, but even here there is reason for concern. As young tyros of infinite promise are continually let down by their bodies, rather too much has depended on the tireless Siddle and the creaking bones of 33 year old Ryan Harris. As commendable as Harris’ efforts have been, it is hard to see them as much of a platform for the team’s future.
The future is the big question for Australian cricket. Despite Argus Reports, increased revenue for the game, the hiring of numerous managers and trainers, and assorted experts as far as the eye can see, Australia’s team is currently a stitched together assortment of veterans enjoying some late career sunshine and youngsters who largely have failed to establish themselves. And Michael Clarke and his dodgy back. It’s hard to make a case that much has been achieved in recent years.
The pity of all this is that England are allowed to bask in a current glory that has been pretty easily achieved. Alastair Cook remains an unconvincing, conservative tactician who is rarely seriously challenged because of the shortcomings of so many opposing teams. England’s modest virtue of performing the basics with consistency has seen them ascend the current test rankings. This says more about the current state of test cricket than anything else.
As far as two-series strategies go, next summer should present as a real contest. Given the current state of affairs, who amongst us holds out genuine hope that it will?