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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ashes-My views on England


I still can't believe that after all the speculation and the excitement about the start of yet another Ashes series, the first test is already over. The biggest surprise of the first test was Australia didn't win at their fortress Gabba! In a way Australia's worst  fears have come true as the bowling attack wasn't penetrative enough and the fielding was worse. After the match got over, for sometime I felt blank as I grew up watching Aussies ruthlessly dismantle every opponent they came across, but this Australian side is different as their body language is of a defeatist team and they have forgotten how to win a match. It was a pleasure to watch Cook and co. making a mincemeat of the toothless Australian bowling attack, but England's batsmen dominating Australia at Gabba was something that I wouldn't have envisaged even in my wildest dreams as Gabba after all is rightly known as the fortress of Australian cricket.

Why a draw at Brisbane is a significant achievement?


More than a few fans may argue that in the end it was just a draw and England didn't gain much from the draw. The simple fact is, leave alone losing a game, Australia don't even allow opponents to draw a game at Brisbane. Since their loss to the mighty Windies side in 88/89, Aussies have won 16 games and before this match had drawn just five games.  The amazing part is, they won all their six games between 2004/05 to 09/10. In-fact, before this match, they allowed only couple of teams to escape with draws in the last ten years. The first one came against the Kiwis in 01/02 and the second one was against India in 03/04. Both came in rain hit matches and it has to be said that Australia fielded a depleted attack against India in 03/04.

In that context, a drawn game at Gabba is a significant achievement for a touring side. I have said it many times that even if England are able to draw the first game at Brisbane, there is a very good chance of England beating Australia in the Ashes. In the past, Australian batsmen have thrived at Gabba by playing horizontal bat shots and the quicker bowlers almost perfected the art of bowling the traditional Australian three quarter length, but again the present Australian side is different.

Pitch conditions


As England were able to make a stunning recovery by scoring 517 runs for the loss of just one wicket in the second innings, the pitch has come in for severe criticism. Yes, after helping the bowlers on the first two days, the pitch flattened out considerably and it became a very good track for batting. Having said that, I would like to point out that in the last ten years or so, the track at Gabba has been similar to what we saw during the last five days.

When England came to the shores of Australia in 02/03, Australia made almost 500 runs in the first innings  and cruised to a total of 300 runs in the second innings before they declared. In the 2006/07 Ashes, Australia made a mammoth total of 602 runs in the first innings and slaughtered the bowlers in the second innings before they declared at 202 runs for the loss of just one wicket. In both those game though, they had couple of great bowlers like McGrath and Warne which helped them to crush the opposition by a huge margin. It wasn't like England had a bad attack either as the likes of Caddick,Freddie,Hoggy and co. played in those tests, but they were up against a very confident batting line-up and more so a flat pitch.

In-fact, leaving a couple of tests recently, especially the one in 2008 when Southee and the Aussie quicks took advantage of bowling friendly  conditions to take wickets, the track at Gabba has been a very good track for batting. I would even say that the track for the first test offered a bit of seam movement on the first couple of days unlike what we saw in 02/03 and 06/07.So, it is a indicator to the Australian management that they perhaps should prepare tracks that have a bit of life in it, otherwise they may have to be content with just draws, or even losing the series as when the pitch got flat, Australian attack looked worse than England's attack.

Batting line-up


I can only think of showering praises on the top-order for the rearguard action on the last couple of days. Cynics may say that pitch was flat, but is it is a herculean task for any team, when they are 200 runs behind and have to bat for two days. In such situations, the team which is behind can crumble under pressure. When Cook and Strauss started the second innings on the third day, I was a bit wary about what may happen as most teams tend to lose a few wickets as the team would be demoralised after being sent on a leather hunt by the opposition batsmen. So, the top-order deserves all the accolades they are getting as they showed great determination and discipline to help England draw the match.

The star of the show for England was of course Cook. Many have questioned his technique just outside the off-stump, but in the first test the discipline he showed just outside the off stump was exemplary. He was on the field for almost five days yet, he didn't lose his concentration and made a great double hundred. He seems to have worked on his batting as his back-lift looked better and he was just looking to time the ball through the covers and not force it through the covers. In the end, it is more of a mental issue as when a batsman isn't confident, he would worry about factors like his off-stump, or whether his technique is good enough. I just take my hats off to him as getting a double hundred with the team about million runs behind is one helluva task.

Now, it doesn't mean that one can forget the efforts of Strauss, or Trott either as both of them played extremely well. Strauss hasn't been in good form and he was on a  pair as he scored a duck in the first innings, but in the second innings he too showed great concentration prowess and notched up a fine century. Strauss is surely underrated as a batsman as even after doing well in South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, on turning tracks in India and now in Australia, I have seen fans reckoning that even Atherton was better than Strauss. Michael Atherton better than Strauss??? no way. Trott may not have a wide range of shots, but he brings a calmness to the team. It is good to see that England have finally found a batsman, who can bat at the crucial number three position.

In the second innings,I was also impressed by the way they left deliveries purely on length. Most visiting teams including England struggle to do well in Australia as they play at deliveries which should be left alone. In Australia, because of the extra bounce, a batsman can leave deliveries on length and the top-order batsmen did that very well in the second innings. It just shows that here is a team which is ready to learn from its mistakes as in the first innings few of the batsmen chased deliveries which could have been left alone. It also shows that by playing three warm-up games, England have got acclimatised to the conditions in Australia.

The middle-order consisting of KP, Colly and Bell didn't get the chance to bat on a featherbed in the second innings, but I was impressed by what I saw of Bell and KP in the first innings. KP has come under pressure for not doing well in the last 18-20 months, but his knock of 43 runs in the first innings was promising. Having watched him bat for a longtime, the feeling I got was, KP was playing on the move which didn't help him to get into a good position. KP has a exaggerated shuffle and when he isn't in form, he tends to play on the move and gets into a tangle. During his knock of 43 in the first innings, he was getting into a good position which is a positive sign for him and England. KP was also getting a decent stride forward. At his best, KP gets a decent forward  and if it is on the shorter side, he has shown that he can just about rock back onto the back-foot to pull. It isn't just about him looking good at the crease though, as it is high time that he gets a century to silence his critics.

Ian Bell was the best batsman on show for England in the first innings.  Bell finally seems to believe that he can succeed at the highest level and I also liked it when I saw that Bell was just caressing it and not trying to over-hit the ball. Bell has never been a power-hitter, but in the past he had a habit of trying to smash the cover off the ball instead of relying on his forte, which is timing. Colly flopped in the first innings as Australia exploited the weakness of Colly closing the face and edging it to the slips, or the keeper. The problem isn't as huge as what many make it out to be as at his best, he tends to leave lots of deliveries just outside the off-stump and waits for the bowler to bowl on his pads. The plan has worked perfectly for Colly, but against some teams like Australia, he has tended to poke at deliveries just outside the off-stump and get out. If he plays within his limitations and doesn't chase at deliveries outside the off-stump, he can comeback to form.

Wicket-keeper


I have never been a fan of Prior as a keeper, but I have to admit that his keeping was top-class in the first test at Brisbane. He has no doubt improved as a wicket-keeper and has silenced most of his critics. Prior  made a duck with the bat in hand, but to be fair to him he got a good delivery from Siddle which swung late.

The bowlers


Leaving the luckless Anderson, none of the bowlers were good, but they didn't get the chance to bowl when there was a bit more help in the pitch on the first day. Of course, Anderson was the best bowler on show as he rarely strayed in line and made the batsmen play more often than not. Luck though deserted him as even after beating the bat about 25 times, he couldn't get more than a couple of wickets. Even a plumb lbw was turned down by Dar. Actually, I don't know what more should he do to take wickets in Australia. The only reason behind his lack of success in the first test can be, Anderson swings it late and as a result he keeps beating the bat. Hopefully he will get some luck at Adelaide as that pitch doesn't have much bounce which in turn may help Anderson to get few batsmen lbw, or bowled.

As far as rest of the attack is concerned, Broad continues to test middle of the pitch and wasn't penetrative enough, Finn was ok, when he bowled a fuller length, but he has to work on his bouncer. Hussey took full advantage of all those half-trackers that Finn bowled and made 195. In the past, bowlers like Powell, Nel, Ntini, Morkel and co. have got Huss out on the pull as he mainly pulls on the front-foot, but all of them bowled their bouncers head high which made it difficult for Huss to play the pull shot. Finn is said to be a quick learner, so hopefully he can improve on his bouncer. There was a lot of hype surrounding England's lone spinner Swann, but Swann was disappointing as he bowled short. To be frank though, it isn't easy for a spinner to take wickets on Australian tracks.

England in the field


England's fielding and tactics were passable. Yes, when Australia were on top, the wheels seemed to have come off as Anderson made a complete mess of what should have been an easy catch, but the slip catching as well as Strauss's captaincy wasn't bad. In the recent past, I have been critical of Strauss as a captain, but unlike Punter, Strauss seems to be growing in his role as a captain. For instance, I liked it when he tried to block Katich's leg glance by bringing a leg slip. Katich is very strong on the on-side and may not get out, but by placing a fielder at leg slip, Strauss would force Katich to be a bit more cautious of playing the leg glance in the upcoming tests. It also encourages the bowler to attack his stumps. A few may criticise him for declaring England's innings on the last day as both Trott and Cook were sending the Australian fielders on a leather hunt, but with England about 300 runs ahead and only a few overs left, there wasn't anything wrong  in declaring the innings.

The next test would be played at Adelaide and usually it is a bowlers graveyard on the first two days. The pitch may turn on the fifth day, but both teams need to look at ways to get twenty wickets. England shouldn't get carried away as even though they have escaped from what looked like a certain defeat at fortress Gabba, the fact remains that series is still 0-0. Australia on the other hand, still don't seem to be  sure about what their best side is. It is very difficult to predict the outcome of the series as both are evenly matched sides, but I would stick to my earlier prediction that England may win a closely contested series as the bowling attack of Anderson, Broad, Finn and Swann looks slightly better.

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