The nadir in an especially poor showing in the Ashes thus far has been the batting of Andrew Strauβ. In the first Test it was a cause for some concern swinging the bat like an Australopithecus with a bone.
He is a player with solid technique, he ought to be able wait for the balls which are in his own scoring comfort zone, those which deviate laterally rather than trying the hook on the faster pitches of Australia. Good technique is needed to score heavily and often on Australian pitches, along with determination. I had hoped that his solid grasp of technique would allow him to turn in an Ashes performance somewhere in the order of another player of sound technical proficiency, Michael Vaughan in the Ashes series 2002/03.
Though Vaughan and Strauβ are different in the form of their run making, Strauβ a cutter and Vaughan a sublime exponent of the cover drive, the commonality of technical ability should be showing through in Strauβ. As he faces probing examination outside his off stump from McGrath and bouncers from Lee, he really ought to have the confidence in his own batting to deal with this in the way he has proven himself capable of before.
As such a talented cutter of the ball he should be underneath the bouncers from Lee and Clark and waiting for balls on his legs as and softening the new ball for an onslaught from Pietersen and Flintoff. It is no small cause for concern that though he has an excellent conversion rate he has yet to play himself in in either Test this series. Admittedly he was the victim of an ‘interesting’ umpiring decision from Steve Bucknor and one could well add this moment along with the Giles’ dropped catch and Bell’s reckless run out to moments which took the Test away from England, but an Australian team would not have panicked in the way that the English did. This brings to the subject of mental strength, an area where the Australian team are far and away superior.
This has been the situation for as long as I can remember and is built on the combative nature of their last two captains. Both Waugh and Ponting were first and foremost anchor batsmen of dogged determination showing the same willpower and commitment playing the game in its myriad forms.
The force of their own personality is then inculcated within the team and the persistant desire to win even after two decades of remaining for the most part the best Test side in the world. The aggression with which they bat and captain ought to have been the criteria upon which England selected their own captain.
England do produce cricketers with the sort of impervious nerves of Waugh or Ponting; Boycott and Graham Thorpe are both fine examples of this. Paul Collingwood with his double-ton in the first innings also showed that he has the ability to face the Australian pace and spin attack without fear. England now need to win at least two Tests to retain the Ashes; this will mean playing as well as Australia did on that fifth day for at least some of the remaining matches. Don’t forget from this point onwards Australia are more unlikely to declare anything under about 650 since they can play out the matches rather than go for the wins as swashbucklingly.
Cricket for Andrew Flintoff, especially for England, is undoubtedly an emotional experience and though this emotion should be applauded, it does not sit with the role of England captain. He is often our most devastating bowler, look at his performance at Edgbaston in 2005, as well as destructive and match-winning with the bat. But to bowl out Australia twice and win a test match takes a cricket brain for field setting which he does not have.
It will also mean they need to bowl Australia out twice, something which remains a big challenge for our bowlers. There are rumours of Mahmood replacing Harmison though how Harmison can lose his place when Anderson remains in the team may seem a mystery. Harmison is a proven wicket taker at this level whereas I don’t believe James Anderson with his unconventional action and the massive expense for which he bowls is anything other than the palest of imitations of Simon Jones. Jones and Anderson both suffered sever injuries which necessiated a slowing in pace. Following this however Jones became a dangerous strike bowler through his use of reverse swing unlike Anderson, who remains pedestrian with the knack of getting the odd wicket whilst playing poorly which somehow seems to keep him in the team. Neither a bowler with an average of 152 or 288 should feel exactly satisfied with his performances or safe with his place in the team.
I doubt that the Australian team would fear Anderson finding his form to anything like the degree they would like to avoid a fit and in-form Harmison for the series. He may well at some point in this series return to the match winning and frankly terrifying use of the ball that made him for a short time the best bowler in the world, resulting in an exciting prospect a confrontation with Ponting, currently unarguably the greatest batsman in the world.
Hope is not yet lost for the England team but it will take performance of the battling kind that some players seem incapable of at the moment. Perhaps the time has come for the return of fast leg theory in the hope that Australia will pull out of the tournament, the Commonwealth and retire altogether from competitive sport with the motherland. That may well be all that can save England from suffering a rather hefty and disheartening defeat.