Throwing away the script

by Dave Bruce

The story of what passed for Day 4 of the 3rd test in Perth was that Australia polished off the last five demoralised and unmotivated English batsmen in 10 quick overs to close out a win that was all but assured at the start of the day.

However, I reckon there was a fair bit more at stake than that, and given that a one sentence review of a day of cricket seems like a waste of effort I’m going to wander in that direction.

The beauty of a 5-test test series is that it happens over 25 playing days, and nothing is ever totally divisible from that wider context.  Because of that, both teams still had a lot to play for today even if the game itself was virtually guaranteed to go to Australia.  I wrote back before the Brisbane test that England had all the momentum going into the series, and while whatever happened would in retrospect probably look totally predictable, my gut instinct was that over several years England had built to a position where they could win this series comfortably.  They still might, but I think it is interesting to map out the course that the two teams have taken since then, and ponder on why what happened this morning could have bigger ramifications.

In Brisbane, England faltered in the first innings of the series, and that could have shot their self-belief.  Instead, they hit back and had Australia in an even worse position at 5/143 before the Hussy-Haddin 300+ partnership.  If they had broken that partnership early, they may have been in a winning position.  Nonetheless, they then went out and made 1/517 to secure a safe draw.  From this, England would have felt they had demonstrated their self-belief was warranted, and that they could survive the inevitable setbacks of a test series where both teams are more than just a little flaky.  On the other hand, the Aussies looked like they had the stuffing knocked out of them by not converting their recovered position into a win.  Both sides would think of it as an opportunity lost, but England had the most to take out of the way it finished.

Skip forward a few days and a few overs, and on the first day in Adelaide Australia were 3 (wickets) for 2 (runs), and the test was set on an almost inevitable path. Throughout, England took their chances where Australia muffed theirs, and the net result was England 5/620 (@ 124 runs per wicket) versus Australia 20/549 (@ 27 runs per wicket).  On the back of the way the Brisbane test was so comfortably saved and in conjunction with Australia’s fragile batting and impotent bowling, the upward curve of momentum remained totally behind England – and now they only need one more win to take the series.

With time to draw breath between Adelaide and Perth, rather than getting back on an even keel the Australian selectors appeared to have a brainsnap.  In truth, there is little doubt that they had to do something to change the look and feel of the contest, but the attention drawn by the cumulative selections of Johnson, Hughes and Beer only contrasted more starkly with the assured confidence of England’s build up to a test where they surely hoped to kick-start the Ashes Retention Party.

Lunch on Day 1 of Perth, and Strauss having had the confidence to win the toss and bowl has Australia at 4/65.  Hughes, Ponting and Clarke were all out to poor shots (eventually someone will notice that in Perth you have to play with a vertical or a horizontal bat, not the angled one that you can get away with most other places – someone like Michael Hussey for example).  Even after fighting back to be all out for 268, England cruised to stumps at 0/29, and the momentum was right where it started.  We said things like “Johnson got some runs, maybe that means he’ll bowl well too” – but in our hearts we knew it was all over.

Then suddenly the script was thrown away.  Johnson DID bowl well.  In fact, he bowled so well it was hard not to laugh out loud.  His three LBWs against Trott, Pietersen and Collingwood were textbook left-arm-over bowling.  Actually, no serious textbook would have the ball he got Collingwood with, as it was just too implausible.  Part of the problem for Collingwood was that he missed it by so much it looked like he wasn’t playing a shot.  England were routed, losing 10/109 in 38 overs.  Australia played their standard game plan in the second innings – Hughes, Ponting and Clarke came out and marked guards and warmed up the bowlers, and then Hussey and Watson had a go at actual batting.

With a deficit of 200 and seven wickets to get at stumps, England were in serious trouble.  But the pitch looked to be getting better and there was oodles of time left for them to strangle and dismiss Australia, and then chase down a mid-high fourth innings total and seal the series.  Instead, Strauss got nervous and set defensive fields and bowled his quicks into the ground for no result.  For the first time, it looked like the self belief wavered, and as the lead pushed well past 300 it started to get seriously hard.  But if they wanted some inspiration for chasing down big scores at the WACA to beat Australia, they only had to look back 2 years, so they knew it was a chance.

And so we came to the fourth innings, and in particular to what was left of it this morning.  To have any chance England needed a solid start and a couple of big partnerships – as much as anything to reassert their superiority.  Instead, they lost wickets regularly – but much more interesting was the body language of the departing batsmen and what it said about them and their team.  Cook, Pietersen and Collingwood all made angry swiping and kicking gestures.  They will say that they were frustrated, but I think I saw a hint of anxiety in it too – it felt like a nervousness and tightness which has (with good reason) been well beneath the surface bubbled up for a few moments, and that the Australians saw it.  When Anderson didn’t take the single off the second last ball and then Collingwood nicked the last one to third slip, the game was as good as over – but the psychological value of that play was worth far more.  The old ‘last ball of the day’ trick was a favourite of winning Australian teams, and that is an association they will be feeling now.

This morning, England were resigned to being 1-1 in the series – but how they batted today could have some real implications for how we go into those last two back-to-back tests.  A solid batting performance, even in a loss, would say that this test has been a bit of an aberration, but you can’t expect to run through us again.  A capitulation would say the opposite.  5/42 in 10 overs was exactly what Australia wanted, and what England didn’t need.  The cumulative 20/232 after being 0/78 in the first dig makes sorry reading and costs a test loss, but it was the manner of it all that changes the series.

I suspect that England are still the better team.  The question is how much that counts for now.  Australia looks cobbled together, being held in the contest by a small number of players rather than a balanced team of even contributors that can be relied on.  Nonetheless, it will enter this last phase of the contest on a high-point for the series and knowing it can win.  England, for the first time all tour, have to seriously confront their demons about winning in Australia.  They may very well do that successfully, and if they do and go on to win they will remember it as a hard fought and glorious victory that was about 6-8 years in the making.   If they don’t, then they will look back to those two disastrous batting collapses in Perth and rue not only the impact on the third test, but on the series – and maybe even on the 2014-15 series.

Rarely will a Boxing Day test have been looked forward to with so much anticipation.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Interesting thoughts Dave.

    Does this England side carry demons about winning in Australia? We’re about to find out.

  2. westcoastdave says:

    I don’t think they have scars as such, but the last time they were here it was 5-0, and none of them have ever won here. There would have to be some doubts, no matter how well they are hidden away.

  3. Dave – some great points here. You might be right, perhaps the Poms are tightening up as they sniff victory. I reckon they got ahead of themselves before this test.

  4. Strauss walking out to face the music in front of a crowd of 90000. Now that’s a test.

  5. Andrew Starkie says:

    England are the ‘better’ team with more depth and contributors. However, as you say Dave, that may not count in these final Tests. Australia may have the momentum. England definitely got ahead of themselves after Adelaide; the way they played and behaved in Melbourne showed that. And the shots played by KP and Trott in the first innings in Perth – across the line to inswingers – showed arrogance. They had taken their eyes off the ball, literally and psychologically. As did the batting collapses in both innings. And their bowlers were too short to Hussey and Watson.

    We’ve had few consistent contributors this series and surely can’t expect to win the Ashes with our top order playing as inconsistently as it is. Should Ponting play? Will he be selfish if he does? It will be a true test for Pup if he captains on Boxing Day.

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