After the Ashes first test didn’t go quite according to the script – England winning convincingly – the Australian team is being forced to regroup. David Saunders previews the second test, starting today on the hallowed turf of Lord’s in London.
So, there we have it. One test down and a somewhat unexpected result. England, under siege before the start of the game from the merciless English sporting media following a less than stellar lead up, emerged with a well-deserved and comprehensive win.
Australia, cock-a-hoop after a well-executed World Cup Final win and series victories in New Zealand and the West Indies, were left scratching their heads and reflecting on some fundamental questions, like whether the selected tour party replete with an overabundance of players on the wrong side of 35, was really the right mix.
How quickly fortunes turn in cricket. England’s Joe Root was dropped by Aussie wicketkeeper Brad Haddin on 0 in the first innings, with England having already lost three wickets cheaply. Root would go on to make a fine century and turn the game in England’s favor. Australian opening batsman Chris Rogers looked on his way to a well-earned century when he was caught out on 95.
On the eve of the second test at Lord’s in London it’s the home team that appears at ease with itself, a luxury it has not afforded itself of late, following a spring of indifferent form, political infighting and administrative missteps. Root’s century was complemented by some fine bowling from Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Mark Wood, who combined well with spinner Moeen Ali to keep the pressure on Australia throughout the game.
In contrast, the visitors have had to make two changes for the second test. Wicketkeeper Brad Haddin has withdrawn for family reasons, replaced by debutant Peter Nevill. The selectors then finally dropped underperforming all-rounder Shane Watson, who made 30 and 19 in the first test and was out leg-before-wicket (LBW) in both innings. He will be replaced by Mitch Marsh, who many say, with the benefit of hindsight, probably should have been picked in the first test.
Watson’s demotion may well mark the end of a test career that promised so much but which has been plagued by injury and erratic form. It is almost universally acknowledged that his prodigious talent has never lived up to its full potential. The 34-year-old has played 59 tests since his debut in 2005, making 3731 runs at an average of 35.19, and taking 75 wickets at 33.68. It is not an immodest record for an all-rounder, but there will always be the feeling that it could have been so much better.
When in form with the bat, Watson is a joy to watch. In an era where more and more batsmen have adopted unconventional and – at times downright ugly (albeit effective) – batting stances, he looks like he’s out of a textbook: upright, perfectly in position with head down and a straight bat displaying an elegance that is backed by impeccable technique. It’s what batting should look like.
Except when it goes wrong. Over the latter years of his test career, there’s been a depressing predictability about his dismissal. In 109 innings he has been out LBW in one out of every four innings, and his use of technology to challenge the umpire’s decision – sometimes little more than a cry for help – has become a source of mirth to cricket followers around the world. Significantly, he has been out to Anderson and Broad a combined 16 times.
To true sports fans, the long slow demise of an elite sportsman is an unedifying spectacle, and the mocking he has endured in recent days (make that years if you extend it to the previous Ashes series in England) is unnecessary and unfair. In Watson’s case, however, his departure from the team almost feels like a relief for all concerned, including him. It’s like cricket fans collectively have woken from the nightmare of seeing a talented man endure a sporting groundhog day.
Where to for Australia now? Can they regroup with some fresh blood to erase the pain of Cardiff, or is the English team on a roll?
Australia has in the past been victorious in Ashes series after dropping the first test, occasionally in humiliating fashion.
In 1997, Mark Taylor’s team, then at the early stage of development into one of the finest test sides ever assembled, was thrashed inside four days at Edgbaston in Birmingham in the series opener, with Nasser Hussain making a double century, assisted by Graham Thorpe’s ton. England’s joy was short-lived as Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath led a fightback that saw Australia win the six-test series 3-2.
Lord’s has also been a haven for Australia. In the last 80 years, Australia has only been beaten twice at cricket’s holy of holie’s in the affluent London neighborhood of St John’s Wood. England fans will note that those two defeats have been in the two most recent Ashes series in 2009 and 2013. Nonetheless, Australia’s record at Lord’s is impressive and defending it will provide further incentive for Michael Clarke’s team.
Moreover, there’s nothing quite as daunting for opposing cricket teams as an Australian eleven that’s unexpectedly on the ropes.
There’s already been some predictable niggle between the teams. It was reported earlier this week that Anderson’s invitation to the Australians to have a beer after the first test was declined. On the face of it, the Australians’ attitude might seem churlish and ungracious. Except that where Anderson is involved, mind games and controversy usually follow. The post-match beer is a thing of the past between these two teams and Anderson knew that when he extended the invitation. His cockiness may come back to haunt him and Clarke has already indicated Anderson will be targeted at Lord’s.
Expect Clarke, who from modest beginnings – and not, it must be said, with universal admiration – has blossomed into a fine captain, to come out on the attack. Mitchell Johnson, whose ferocity was curtailed by the dreary Cardiff wicket, will find the grassier Lord’s deck more to his liking and is a good chance to return to the fearsome form he demonstrated back home against England in 2013-14.
Whilst the Australians now know they’re in a real battle now, it’s harder to know what to make of this English team. Alistair Cook’s men have been mostly under siege for the last 18 months, since being routed 5-0 Down Under in 2013-14. They were embarrassing in the World Cup and struggled against New Zealand and the West Indies earlier this year, drawing both two-match series 1-1.
However, apart from Root’s batting, one saving grace for England has been Cook’s recent return to form. He made timely hundreds against the West Indies and New Zealand in May and while he had modest returns of 20 and 12 in Cardiff, he looks to have escaped the blue funk that threatened to subsume him earlier in the year.
England has come along way from the toxic environment of a few months ago when the ongoing saga of one-time skipper Kevin Pietersen’s removal from the team threatened to derail England’s Ashes campaign before it even started. There’s little doubt South African-born Pietersen is the most talented batsman England has had since David Gower arrived on the international stage in the late 1970s.
But he is a polarizing influence on the team. By most accounts, that serves as a euphemism here for abrasive personality and selfishness. And with Root hitting his straps, perhaps it was much ado about nothing and Pietersen is surplus to requirements after all.
England undoubtedly has some depth at the moment. The bowling attack led by Jimmy Anderson, England’s all-time leading test wicket taker, and Stuart Broad is potent in the right conditions, and they’re ably supported by fellow pacemen Mark Wood and Ben Stokes and spinner Moeen Ali, who all performed well in Cardiff. Add to that Root, Garry Ballance and Cook, who is England’s greatest test run scorer, and England seems to have exorcised the horrendous last few months.
Some commentators believe England’s recent woes have had the strange effect of galvanizing the team. Simon Barnes, the former chief sportswriter for The Times of London and not a man given to extravagant praise, wrote on ESPNcricinfo.com that some of the exuberance and joy of playing that New Zealand displayed in its recent tour, appears to have rubbed off on England.
Barnes wrote of the victory in Cardiff:
“It’s not only a win, it’s the right sort of win. There’s almost a moral dimension to it: it feels as if England have left a great pile of stinking bad things behind them. The traumas suffered by so many England players during the last tour of Australia and the radioactive fallout from the detonation of Kevin Pietersen can now be left for students of sporting history. England are remaking themselves and it’s all rather thrilling.”
Thrilling it might have been, particularly Root’s 134 in the first innings, but there’s a long way to go. One swallow, as they say, does not a spring make. And, as any English sportsman or woman knows, the moment the media start heaping praise on you is the moment you start to worry.
It usually means you are one minor setback away from calls for heads to roll, choruses of “I-told-you-so” or “why did they pick him in the first place”, as well as mournful pronouncements of imminent sporting apocalypse. And that’s just the broadsheets.
We have a genuine contest here now – perhaps more apparent now than it seemed even two weeks ago. The challenge for England is to resist complacency and premature jubilation. The test for Australia is to overcome an unexpected setback and channel its disappointment and anger into a positive force. It’s a scenario with which they’re familiar and tend to relish.
Interesting times in one of sport’s most intriguing rivalries.
Photo Credit: AAP/File
Join our Community at The Good Men Project Sports Facebook Page!
And, if you like that, you might want a daily dose of Good Men Project awesomeness delivered straight to your inbox. Once a day or once a week for Good Men Project, or sign up for our once a week GMP Best of Sports email here.