Finally, England played like, well, the English. It was a collapse waiting to happen ever since Andrew Strauss went out to bat in the first innings at Cardiff. Time and again you would feel that this is the day that the hosts will be all out for something around a hundred but every time the visitor’s attack flattered to deceive and let them out of jail. The fact that it took seven innings for this to happen only underlines Australia’s attack today, in a manner that boasts of such bowlers who need four Test matches to get into rhythm. (Yes, you perennial slow starter Mitchell Johnson!)
Quite obviously, the match had been decided by the end of the first session on the first day itself. The sun was out; there was nothing particularly sinister about the pitch. So begs the question; was it the English batsmen who lost the Test match at Headingley? Or, was it the Australian bowlers who won the match? There is only but one answer, a little bit of both.
Based on the Aussie bowling performances this summer, any one would say that they ought to have played Stuart Clark much before than they did. It was his bowling which tends to hold its line while moving away just a touch, in both directions mind you, that did the vital damage to the hosts. But to suggest that the score-line in the series would have been different had he been drafted into the team earlier is pure nonsense.
For Ponting and his think tank have been guilty of making some puzzling decisions! Like the one in this last Test, where they decided to drop Nathan Hauritz all of a sudden, going in with a one dimensional attack into the game. Thank heavens, the English were merciful enough to spoil their own party and leaving the spinner out didn’t come round to bite the Aussies you-know-where.
Again, there was nothing Headingley-like about the pitch. It wasn’t the most unplayable green top that swings prodigiously, nor was it a belter-of-a-track. It was like any other English wicket that yields a result in a five day game; ample bounce, hint of swing if you pitch in the right areas and rewarding if the batsmen are willing enough to stay at the wicket. Something that Strauss and his men weren’t agreeable to.
In fact, it would be somewhat unfair to blame the English skipper for this debacle. As much as it is his responsibility, being the in-form batsman, to see out the series for his team, it is but also time that some one from that team scored their second ton of the series, overall. Yes, Michael Clarke alone has scored more centuries in the contest than the entire English team put together. And that is the key to their problems.
When batsmen score hundreds, fruitful partnerships are strung up which mean runs on the board as the batters spend some time at the wicket. In Test cricket, that is the simplest of rules unless you are Adam Gilchrist or Virender Sehwag, who can score centuries in a single session. But Gilly is retired and even Sehwag looks to spend some time in the middle nowadays so the English team really needs to take a leaf out of others’ books. The good part about this is that the home team have ten days before the final Test to get things right, especially by playing some domestic cricket. The sad part, however, is that even if all their playing eleven score centuries at The Oval, that is not going to serve any purpose.
Put it simply, the last match of this series is but about one thing for the hosts. Get those twenty Aussie wickets and win the match. Without that achieved, ‘the urn’ returns Down Under once again for the next two years. Thus, they need to get not only their batting clicking but also tune the bowling combination correctly. At the time of writing, Ravi Bopara has been dropped after a horrendous summer and on the back of their centuries in the domestic weekend, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott should form a more confident number three and four pairing. With Strauss and Cook before them, and Collingwood and Prior to follow, it is a matter of getting two batsmen to do the bulk of the scoring with the rest chipping in around them.
Andrew Flintoff will come in his last Test to rescue his beleaguered team for a possible last time. If fit, James Anderson and Graeme Swann are a certainty and that would mean Stephen Harmison sitting out. For playing at The Oval might tempt Andy Flower and Strauss to go in with two spinners (yes, Monty Panesar again!) but one would rather have a charging fast bowler than a confused left arm spinner bowling at the Aussies. That by no means refers to Stuart Broad. For the management needs to get one thing clear, he may be a fine lower-order all-rounder but if the seven batsmen before him haven’t done the job, he will only prolong the inevitable. And if that indeed turns out to be the case in the fifth Test, one is sure the hosts would rather suffer a quick death than linger around in agony.
Their dominant win in three days brought back memories of the glorious Australian team of not so long back. And as was with them, it is indeed tough to find fault with their performance at Leeds. As afore mentioned the one bone of contention might have been the omission of the lone spinner but the match didn’t last long enough to bring in that factor. That might not be a debating point come The Oval, where the spinner will again find his name on the team sheets. With Brett Lee possibly fit again and Mitchell Johnson back in some semblance of form, it is a wonderful problem of plenty for Ponting and company to have ahead of the final match.
As opposed to the 2005 roller coaster, Ashes 2009 has been more of a boxing bout. The first round at Cardiff was a nail biting start. And since then England have been landing punches aplenty. Australia took a heavy hit at Lord’s, almost suffered a knock-out at Edgbaston but somehow managed to block a few blows, and showed enough perseverance to land a vicious upper cut of their own at Headingley. The last round promises to be a stimulating one, and that is putting it mildly.
(The columnist is a sports writer and Mobile ESPN cricket commentator based in New Delhi, India.)