Cricket is a cruel, cruel game indeed. At Cardiff, Australia came within one wicket of taking the lead in the series and just three days later, at Lord’s they were chasing the game after the first session of play itself. Ultimately, losing the Test, one is not so sure how this particular Aussie team will take to the loss.
For they put in a mighty effort in the first game and to come out empty handed from there wouldn’t have been pleasing. On top of that, England regained some much needed momentum (call it self belief if you want) by saving that game. And that is of utmost importance in this series which is so finely balanced.
Yes, many would think that England played too well and deserved the win. The case though was different. They made lesser mistakes, and only this time Australia – making more themselves – were not to be able to pounce and make their opposition pay, like in Cardiff. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the team that makes the least mistakes will go on to lift the Ashes urn, however small in size that might be. For it is clearly visible that both teams are so equally matched that if one plays badly enough, it just gives the impression that the other is playing too well.
There were at most a handful of players who played well enough to keep England ahead of the Aussies at Lord’s. And it worked well for the hosts as it does so in cricket or sport in general, it can be argued. But knowing England this sort of thing can come back to bite them in the next couple of matches and statistics from the first two matches say as much.Beyond Strauss and Cook in the first innings, there was no other half century stand in the English first innings.
In the second innings, there were three 50-plus stands and that takes their series tally to five, for there were two such stands in the first innings at Cardiff and none in the second. The point is simple: the hosts are struggling to string together partnerships and that is much too visible in the way Kevin Pietersen batted, struggling through his injury. So far, the opening pair have done much of the work but nothing much has come beyond that barring maybe Paul Collingwood’s essays at the crease and maybe Matt Prior’s burst of runs at Lord’s.
Even then, that might not be good enough to get them to a decent score should the top order fail again, and it would be too much to expect Monty Panesar and James Anderson to do their bit for a second time in the series. The middle order has to come to grips and stitch together some runs before it is too late to rectify this error.
Batting is not the only worrying point as the bowling is in a bit of doldrums as well. Hold on, didn’t they just take twenty Aussie wickets to win the match? Yes, they did, but again just how many of their five-man bowling attack was visible for the match. James Anderson, Andrew Flintoff and Graeme Swann to some extent; in fact, it would be better to say that dubious umpiring got more scalps than their support put together. Graham Onions was just that, support bowler, and either Tim Bresnan or he will be doing this job for the summer.
But the role of Stuart Broad has to come under strict scrutiny here. Does the team management want him or a genuine strike bowler in his place? The answer will depend on how they see the scales: Broad, who could maybe take a couple of wickets at best or Steve Harmison who could really trouble the Aussies with his pace and bounce? The former can stay at the wicket a bit longer but the latter will provide a lethal strike partner to Flintoff and Anderson.
And talking about Andrew Flintoff, the retirement debate comes up first and all else is secondary. Now there are two ways to look at it; foremost it is his body which is giving way. How he chooses to last out the few remaining years of cricket is his wish. If he can earn a fast buck out of it, then the sanctity of Test cricket be damned, for not many players around today care much about it anyways.
The other point is the effect his declaration will have on the series result. Quite clearly it has fired up the big guy as well his team, seen clearly with the way Strauss has begun using him aggressively with the ball. Now if only he could do it with the bat as well, England’s problems will be further lessened. But there needs to be a bit of caution; it is all very fine to give a grand farewell to the most loved cricketer in the British Isles at the moment, the opposition however might just want to spring a surprise at that very instant.
And though they are quite capable of doing the same, Australia will need to go back to their drawing boards and wipe it clean of whatever they wrote on it after the match at Cardiff. Horrible shot selection, no partnerships and poor bowling are the regular excuses available but to add to them, the captaincy was too poor. And that is where the Aussie skipper will face his sternest test, never mind the runs. For Ricky Ponting surely wouldn’t want to lose the Ashes in England, again!
(The columnist is a sports writer and Mobile ESPN cricket commentator based in New Delhi, India.)