The next two test matches in Adelaide and Perth will decide the fate of the Ashes urn. If England can make it to Melbourne on Boxing Day level pegging then there is all to play for. If Australia can win either test then they trophy will more than likely be staying down-under for the next couple of years. After the aberration in Brisbane, England need to bounce back and fast. They were out-gunned and meek in the face of an hostile and, at times, overly aggressive Australian team. The Jonathan Trott issue has also been an unwelcome distraction. These coming weeks will show what this England team is truly made of.
The first test was a bit of a disaster on all fronts. England’s bowlers did brilliantly to reduce Australia to 100-5 in the first innings but then they allowed them to reach 295, with the last four wickets putting on over 150. Conversely, England were 82-2, yet Michael Clarke went for the jugular and with the help of some surprisingly accurate bowling from Mitchell Johnson (surely he can’t keep it up), bowled them out for 136. This is where the contrast between Alastair Cook’s more measured captaincy approach and Clarke’s gung-ho attitude is most apparent. If Cook had really gone for it, England could have bowled the Aussies out for under 200 and been in the game. As it was, he let the game drift and gambled on waiting for the new ball before making more inroads. It was not unreasonable for him to expect the batsmen to post a respectable first-innings score (which they most certainly didn’t) but Cook’s leadership was reactive rather than proactive. A great captain takes the game by the scruff of the neck and imposes his game-plan on the situation. Cook doesn’t take too many risks and while that has served England well during his tenure, when chances arrive, he must take them immediately. Failure to do so results in catch-up cricket and thus, the kind of insipid performances witnessed in Brisbane.
Part of England’s problem in the first test was the back-up bowling to Anderson and Broad. Tremlett (as I predicted in this blog, not two months previous) is not the bowler he was three years ago. His pace has dropped and he doesn’t have the zip and troublesome bounce which was so effective on the previous tour in 2010/11. When Broad and Anderson were taken out of the attack you could see the pressure lift because while Tremlett was not necessarily overly expensive, he rarely bowled the sort of probing, wicket-taking deliveries for which he is renowned. Swann was uncharacteristically out of sorts too. He failed to create pressure by sealing up an end, instead being the brunt of many a Mitchell Johnson biff in the first innings. In the second innings he went for more than five an over which, from 27 overs, is embarrassing. If England are to have any success in the coming fortnight he needs to get his mojo back fairly pronto.
So the England selectors face a bit of a headache. Who is going to replace Trott? And something clearly needs to change in the bowling department. I personally would go for Gary Balance to bat at number 6. He hasn’t exactly set the tour alight with runs yet but he has a very solid technique and he doesn’t seem to have a weakness against the short ball (unlike Johnny Bairstow) and he had an impressive end to the county season. Ben Stokes is not quite ready for this level and with the form that Prior is currently in, the batting needs as much depth as possible. There has been talk of pushing Ian Bell up the order but why? He has been England’s form batsman this year at No. 5. The old ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage springs to mind. Joe Root should move up the order to 3. He has experience as a Test opener and has scored runs there so shouldn’t be fazed.
For the bowlers, I would pick Tim Bresnan. He is a big gamble, especially as he is returning from injury and only has one two-day match under his belt. However he lengthens the tail and brings a measure of control to the bowling attack. He is an impressive exponent of the art of reverse swing but can also play a bit of chin music if required. If Bresnan isn’t fit then Steven Finn has to come into the team. Yes he leaks runs like a tap but he also has a knack of taking regular wickets (often with abysmal deliveries). Tremlett simply isn’t an international-class bowler anymore and Boyd Rankin is too inconsistent with his length. Why he was picked ahead of Graham Onions I will never fathom. England are crying out for someone with Onions’ potency with ball in hand. There seems to be this idea that because Australian pitches are bouncy, England must play their tallest fast bowlers. Bollocks. At the risk of sounding like Sir Geoffrey, you don’t take many wickets with bouncers, even in Australia. It is still the corridor of uncertainty which is the key to bowling success, whatever the conditions. Yes it’s a good surprise tactic to set up a batsman but if it’s a stock strategy then batsmen just sit on the back foot and pick off the short balls. Onions has the speed to throw in the odd bouncer but is an awkward customer because he is a very skiddy bowler, complementing both Broad and Anderson. I think he is still on stand-by somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere (South Africa maybe) and England should send out an SOS call to him sooner rather than later. If they wait any longer the Ashes may already be gone. There are rumours abound that Monty Panesar is under serious consideration for Adelaide. Panesar is an effective bowler and it would not be a bad option if England played two spinners but then that leaves a heavy workload on Anderson and Broad without any other seam-bowling options in the team. He may still be in line for a recall if England continue their worrying slide towards ignominy.
I will still pop on the old TMS at midnight tonight but it will be with the unfamiliar feeling (or familiar to those who remember the dark days of the 90’s and early 00’s) of trepidation. England’s sudden ability to collapse at the slightest tremor and their inability to reach a total of 400 in their first innings does not fill me with any assurance. Part of me thinks England can’t be as bad as in Brisbane and Australia won’t be as good. Part of me expects that Mitchell Johnson will revert back to his old erratic self again. Part of me hopes that Ryan Harris’ dodgy hamstring delivers a timely return. But the current England team does not exactly breed confidence, so when I turn on the radio tonight to listen to Aggers’ dulcet tones, it will in hope rather than expectation.