The Resurrection of Mitch and Mike

In the three days and fifty minutes of play that encapsulated the Perth test, we received startling affirmation of two of the hoariest cricketing truths of all; firstly, that it is a team game heavily reliant on individual performance; and that so much of the game is played in the mind. Though they played unevenly as a team, Australia were swept to victory by two individual efforts of personal resurrection. That their victory was so comprehensive highlighted an England side suddenly thrown off balance and confused in their approach.

English followers were feeling pretty happy with themselves prior to commencement of play in Perth. Tony Grieg, Michael Vaughn and Mark Nicholas could barely contain smirks as they delivered the pre-match spiel on television. The England camp smelt blood. As Australia crumbled to 5-69, there was little to challenge this view. Australian fans were sharpening knives and oiling baseball bats; it wasn’t going to be pretty. Even a fight back had seen only a modest 268 posted, with England presumably comfortable in reply.

But signs of hope were there if you were looking. Mitch was in the game. Some would say his first day 62 provided confidence and belief for what followed. Personally, I think it was the product of a mind already transformed and ready for a fight. With the bat, and in the two overs he bowled on that first evening, he looked a completely different player. That he wasn’t thrown the ball first thing next morning says much about the rote nature of many Ricky Ponting captaincy moves, and how he often lacks a feel for the moment.

It ultimately mattered little. Once given the ball, Johnson unleashed a spell that transformed the match, and possibly the summer. In the process, an English top order that had been dictating terms was completely rattled, not to regain their composure for the duration of the match.

How do we account for the revival of a bowler who appeared to barely be doing it from memory in Brisbane? Who really knows? I wonder if even Johnson clearly understands. If he did, then he would presumably be better able to arrest his slumps. Perhaps there was a eureka moment in the nets, where some technical issue was diagnosed and corrected? More likely there was a clearing of the mental decks, as a whiff of cricketing mortality is wont to encourage. Johnson himself spoke of working on his leg strength- perhaps a sense of physical well being is integral to his mental state?

Whatever the key to the mystery, the much criticised Australian brains trust deserve credit for getting one right. I was one of many who doubted that net practice would substitute for match play. Somebody knew something better.

The contemporary benchmark for Australian fast bowling is Glenn McGrath, and a comparison is instructive, because Johnson is in most respects his antithesis. McGrath was compact and metronomic in his approach, maximising his considerable height at point of delivery. Tactically, he generally wielded a fine scalpel, patiently carving away at a batsman’s psyche until blood was drawn.

Johnson not only bowls from the other side, but his run up is all pumping arms and legs, with a low slung delivery point that has varied considerably. With his flinging style, he truly comes into his own when his natural angle across the batsman is complemented with inswing. One method is designed for repetition and consistency, the other seems obviously prone to vicissitudes.

Their personal histories and temperaments also contrast. McGrath was never a fancied prospect as a colt, famously living in a caravan in his early days down from the country. Even when first picked for Australia, he didn’t initially command the general eye. Long, hard graft and steely determination were the forges upon which he shaped his craft.

Johnson was early on anointed “the bowler of a generation”, and whilst he’s drawn benefit from that appellation, he may also have felt the burden. His path was that now proscribed for young prodigies, through various academies and development squads, with some injury interruptions along the way.

Temperamentally, he lacks the on field aggro that came easily to McGrath- that is, until he’s provoked. It is in this respect that England have done themselves no favour. Pietersen and Anderson, in their various ways, ignored that old advice about poking the bear. Given Johnson’s generally tame efforts against them, they may have thought this bear lacked claws. They now know better.

The other architect of Australia’s turnaround was another resurrection man, Mr Cricket himself. Mike Hussey’s tale is a classic example of the slender threads that can sometimes sustain careers. Under intense scrutiny, he nicked one early in Brisbane, only to see it fall short of slip. If it had gone to hand, he may now have joined Marcus North back in WA colours, and he would have had few grounds to complain. How long ago that seems . Having waited a long time to break into the test team, he obviously intends to make it as hard as possible for selectors to end his stay.

That Hussey scored so freely in Perth from the cover drive and pull shot shows that he has adopted the secret of batting success this summer. With the exception of Pietersen, who seems an exception in most respects, the summer’s heaviest scorers  have been those prepared to be patient and force the bowlers to come to them; to bowl it where they favour it. Cook and Trott had given a master class in this approach in the first two tests. This is a tactic as old as cricketing time, but the intrusion of limited overs habits makes it less generally observable in modern test cricket.

Since he got going in Brisbane, Hussey has also benefitted from England’s inclination to drop short to him. It may yet prove to be that the first captain who abandons the tactic of two men out on the hook will win his team a tactical advantage.

From the moment the Johnson storm set in at 0-78, England acted like a side that didn’t see it coming. Their batsmen departed from the methods that had brought them success, and they lost their way with the ball. In the field, the bowlers weren’t helped by a captain who seemed as reluctant as his counterpart to force an issue, rather than sit back and hope for opponents’ mistakes. The return to bouncy Perth conditions of old probably contributed to their lapse.

But Australia will be advised not to dream of a collapse from the visitors. They have shown themselves an outfit capable of their own revivals. They will also be stung by their failure to fight it out to the end, as has been their more usual trait in recent years. Strauss may have limitations as a tactician, but he doesn’t seem prone to panic. England will absorb the lessons of Perth and come again, but they are not the world beaters they appeared in Adelaide.

While delighted to be returned from the dead, Australia will know they have their own problems. The efforts of Johnson,  Hussey, and latterly Harris, covered for many other failings. As one who wanted Hughes returned, I was dismayed to see the disarray in his footwork. It speaks of a mind cluttered by distraction, yet in a Shield scene where Nathan Hauritz can claim to be the form batsman,  I still see few viable alternatives.

The form of both captain and vice-captain is likewise a major concern. To this we now add the distraction of the captain’s fitness or otherwise. Ponting’s decline is being sharply contrasted by Tendulkar’s brilliant late-career run. Not so long ago the Tasmanian would have considered himself in the same league. He could presently do without the worry of a fractured finger.

The prospect of flatter wickets in Melbourne and Sydney creates questions about the bowling composition. Despite the victory, four fast bowlers was probably one-too-many in Perth, as Siddle was only required to deliver 12 overs. Perhaps we can attribute some of Watson’s prolonged second innings to being relieved of bowling responsibilities, in which case there is an argument to stick with pace. But it seems counterintuitive to go to Sydney without a frontline spinner. Will Smith suffice? We know as little of this from Perth as we know of Beer’s capabilities.

All will most likely hinge on whether Johnson retains the answer to his own puzzle. At least we now have the prospect of the battle we were anticipating.

May your respective Christmas festivities leave you well placed to appreciate a Boxing Day aperitif.

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. This was taken from the ‘Daily Mirror’. Home Poms not happy.

    The Ashes 2010: Ghosts of Christmas past come back to haunt Straussy’s men after a spineless capitulation
    By Dean Wilson 20/12/2010

    England will bunker down for a week of soulsearching after surrendering their Ashes advantage with a limp performance of old.

    And after being bullied into submission by the Aussies on their least favourite ground, England’s batsmen are the men in the firing line for crumbling in a heap without even so much as a hint of defiance.

    Endless hours of planning unravelled in 48 minutes on the final day in Perth as England rolled over for 123 to lose by 267 runs, and change the complexion of the series.

    There was no stiff upper lip from England. There wasn’t even a kick or scream in anger as they were led away from the scene of the debacle as Australia’s cricketers found their mojo.

    They were already a beaten, broken shambles of a side looking for someone or somewhere to hide them from the nasty Aussies bowling fast and aggressively at them.

    It was high quality swing bowling from Mitchell Johnson (far right) that accounted for the wickets in the first innings, and general incompetence that did for them in the second.

    There was no subtlety to Ryan Harris’ bowling, yet by the time he had claimed 6-47 the England batsmen had made him look like a combination of Malcolm Marshall and Sir Richard Hadlee.

    Not for the first time they had failed in their duty as top-class batsmen and for all the plaudits that will head Australia’s way, aren’t the best batsmen supposed to be able to cope with the best bowling? “As a batting line-up we will be very disappointed with our two performances,” said Strauss with no hint of irony. “The guys need to stand up and deliver. You can’t leave it to someone else and unfortunately too many of us did that.”

    It was a case of being the same old story in Perth – a ground where England have now lost eight times in 12 matches with just one win to cling to.

    It was also the same old story where this England side is concerned because it is their batting that regularly lets them down.

    England have enjoyed relative success over the past 18 months thanks to their bowling and despite their batting, and until they find a way of scoring consistently and not just in fits and starts they will forever be a good rather than great side. And just because the ball starts to swing or the wicket has a bit of pace and bounce it shouldn’t provide the batsmen with a readymade excuse for their failures. Pace bowlers are supposed to swing the ball and extract bounce out of a pitch, that is their job.

    Advertisement – article continues below »

    It is the batsmen’s job to deal with it and flourish just like Mike Hussey and Shane Watson did for Australia.

    If every time the conditions marginally suit the bowler, England’s batsmen fail then the ‘flat track bully’ tag will not only stick, it will be deserved.

    In 2007 India toured England and with the ball hooping around corners Kevin Pietersen knuckled down, applied himself and produced an innings of 134 out of the very top drawer. It is hard to spot who will play that kind of innings in the current line-up.

    Maybe Ian Bell if he gets the chance to move up the order. Only Eoin Morgan against Pakistan this summer has done anything of the sort recently.

    A promotion for Bell and Morgan must be on the agenda at the selection meeting ahead of the Boxing Day Test with Paul Collingwood living on borrowed time the longer he goes without a meaningful score.

    It is highly unlikely Collingwood will be dropped given his importance as a slip catcher, a fifth bowler and his place in the dressing room, but all those things should come well behind his runs contribution which is minimal.

    As ever, it would seem that the most likely change for the fourth Test will come in the bowling department where Steve Finn can expect to be replaced with either Tim Bresnan or Ajmal Shahzad.

    For the men who suffered the ignominy of defeat in Perth, most will retreat straight into the bosom of their families who have been soothing them all week.

    At least there will be a couple of extra days for a spot of bottlefeeding or pram pushing. It is understood ECB chiefs were keen for families not to arrive in Australia until the Melbourne Test, but were persuaded to include Perth at the players’ own expense.

    “I don’t think it was a factor,” said father-oftwo Strauss. “Things went wrong because we didn’t grab our opportunity after bowling them out and being 78-0.”

    Follow Daily Mirror cricket correspondent Dean Wilson on Twitter at CricketMirror

  2. John Butler says:

    Typical, when the men stuff up, blame the WAGS.

    Merry Christmas Phantom. Hope the cave isn’t too cold.

  3. Not nearly as cold as ‘Eeefrow’ at the moment John.

    Bit worried about the current weather status. The Poms won’t be able to abscond home now. Hope they are cashed up.

Leave a Comment

*