Monday, December 18, 2006

The Ashes - 8

In American parlance, the boys in the Baggy Greens are 3 and 0.

Australia deservedly won back the tiny sacred urn this morning; something all too predictable for England fans from the moment Steve Harmison's opening ball of the series went straight to second slip. As always used to happen (i.e. before 2005) England have played well in patches in the three tests so far, but haven't consistently been able to put pressure on the Australians. When we won the Ashes last year, there was no let-up from England. All the bowlers did well, and not once did Australia make a total of more than 400 or declare an innings.

I still don't think that the Australian team, although very strong, is all that much better than England, but they have got players who are fit and in form, which has made the difference. I personally backed the England selectors in two of the key decisions they made: I supported the reappointment of Flintoff as captain, because I thought he would be able to lead from the front and inspire the players, as he did in India last winter. I also backed Jones as the wicketkeeper, a little harsh on Chris Read perhaps, but Geraint has looked a proper batsman at times in his career (albeit infrequently) and his glovework is test class, despite what his detractors might say.

In hindsight, those decisions will be questioned by the media and fans for a long time to come, and I think they were probably wrong. Andrew Strauss was doing well as captain, and his form had improved with the increased responsibility - perhaps the burden of batting, bowling and captaining was too much for Freddie's broad shoulders to bear. Read's supporters will point to his good batting against Pakistan in the summer and I suspect he will play for the final two tests here, although playing Australia away is a tough assignment and I don't know if he'll score more runs than Jones has (mind you, he could hardly score fewer).

The decision I thought the selectors got wrong from the start was the non-selection of Monty Panesar. Whether for Ashley Giles or James Anderson, he should have been in the team from the first test in Brisbane. It's Geoff Boycott's second favourite aphorism (after "batting is easy, my gran could score a hundred against this lot wi' a stick of rhubarb") that "you need to take wickets to win matches". Monty has been doing this since he arrived in test cricket in February and dropping him was a big error of judgement. Giles and Anderson took 5-565 between them in the first two tests. Panesar took 5-92 in the first innings in the third. If we'd batted better in our first innings at the WACA, we might be looking at a different scoreline now. Sadly, Ashley Giles has left the tour to care for his wife, who is seriously ill. Whether this had any effect on his form is hard to say.

The Ashes are back in Australia, and in the words of an old show tune, England need to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again. The gamble of reuniting the majority of the 2005 team has failed and we need to stop resting on those particular laurels. I suspect we'll pick the same team for Melbourne, but with Read in for Jones. Jones had never made a duck in 33 tests before this one, but bagged a pair in this game. I think that speaks volumes about his confidence. There's a chance that we might play Ed Joyce as the extra batsman, for Mahmood, but I reckon he'll stay on drinks duty. Jamie Dalrymple might come in as the second spinner at Sydney.

There are thousands of England fans in Australia already, with thousands more flying out this week to watch the final two matches in Melbourne and Sydney. The players owe it to the fans, who have forked out massive amounts of money to watch the team, to put in better performances over the next two weeks. With the pressure off, I hope they'll do so. The Australians are now all talking about a whitewash, but even they will find it hard to sustain their levels of intensity over 5 tests. Let's try to win the second half of the series and take something positive into the New Year.

Because if you think this tour has been depressing, just wait for the World Cup.

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