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Melbourne victory

As the tumult and the shouting dies, it may be worth looking back at the crucial phases of play that ensured the brilliant England victory at Melbourne.
It was a handy toss to win, but a “gutsy” decision to bowl first – after the same ploy came nastily unstuck at Perth. Well done Andrew Strauss. But who could have imagined the Australians collapsing to 98 all out, a record low at Melbourne in Ashes history? Six catches by Matt Prior deservedly brought attention to his high quality of keeping throughout the series.
Then the gods really smiled when the combination of heavy roller and a burst of sunshine combined to produce the easiest batting conditions of the whole match for openers Cook and Strauss. They took full advantage and virtually sealed the fate of the Australians by the close on the first day.
Then the phlegmatic Jonathan Trott played one of the great Ashes innings to ensure that there would be no possible salvation for the home side. He adopts the technique common to so many of the very best batsmen whereby he scores the bulk of his runs on the leg side. It means that he always has the line of the ball well covered with any edges sliding off the inside of the bat into the second line of defence i.e. his pads.
Even so it still seems preposterous to allow anyone to score 70 – 80 percent of their runs in a relatively small arc without taking suitable stop gap measures. Rather than asking the bowlers to change their normal line of attack, surely it makes sense to shift the field according to the batsman. If you can force the Trotts of this world into changing their style, it is at least some kind of a victory even if it is not always immediately rewarded with their wicket.
He clearly frustrated the opposing Captain, Ricky Ponting, culminating in the final indignity of his argumentative episode with umpire Aleem Dah. He got off pretty lightly with a fine which neither dents his bank balance very much nor really deters other like minded Captains from following suit. The first lines under the Fair and Unfair Play section in the Laws include the placing of responsibility squarely with the Captain to ensure that the game is conducted “not only within the Laws but within the Spirit of the Game”. A suspension cannot have been far away.
There was a moment in the Australian second innings when a major rescue act seemed just possible. England had bowled for over three hours with only a run out to show for their efforts. Watson 50 not out, Ponting 20 not out – if either could do a Jonathan Trott there was still a glimmer of hope. Then came the dramatic spell of swing bowling by Yorkshire's mister dependable, Tim Bresnan with the three prize victims, Watson, Ponting and Hussey. The selectors must take a bow here for selecting him ahead of England's leading wicket taker Finn.
I was interested to hear Watson's take on what happened. He thought that the rougher pitch conditions at Melbourne compared with the previous venues made the ball “reverse” swing earlier than usual, when it was still hard enough to do damage.
One area where this England side has been the best I have ever seen is in the close catching. They make some of the slip catches look so routine that we will need to rethink the old adage that there is no such thing as an ”easy” one off the outside edge. Add to those some of the brilliant ones by Collingwood and Swann and they seldom gave any of the Australians a second chance.
Now England faces the ultimate challenge of winning the Series outright in Sydney. My side in 1963 was hoping to do just that and we were thwarted by a dead pitch and an outfield so slow that that there was barely a boundary the whole of the first day. It had rained for a fortnight before the match making it impossible to get the mowers into action. It would be a rotten shame for the same sort of outcome this coming week but the forecasts are sadly discouraging.

Australian revival

So where did it all go wrong? Was it just the predicted unpredictability of both sides? Or was England suffering from misplaced feelings of superiority after the substantial Adelaide victory? Probably a bit of both.
Things started to unravel for Andrew Strauss halfway through the first Australian innings. The first problem was that in a four man, three fast bowler attack, you cannot afford any passengers. And there was clearly something amiss with Finn from the start. He was scratching around with his footmarks after his first over and was not running in freely. Then he forgot the cardinal rule which is not to get carried away by the high bounce of the Perth pitch by bowling too short. Gone was the intense discipline that Broad provided at Adelaide, even when he wasn’t taking wickets. Australia got at least 80 too many runs in that first day.
Then it was Australia's turn with the ball and they made the most of the conditions. They bowled quicker, swung the ball more (not least because they bowled a fuller length) and had the extra bowler on a pitch to suit. But there was a frailty about the England batting against good pace, much of it due to unsuitable techniques.
In the first innings, two of our first seven, Collingwood and Prior were definitely bounced out – to use the normal dressing room vernacular – possibly Trott too. Collingwood narrowly avoided a very quick throat ball from Johnson and was then hopelessly late on the next ball – looking for another short ball, a cardinal sin. Prior was guilty of trying to get away to the off side as an evasive tactic before he knew the line of the ball (as was Ricky Ponting in the second innings): another basic failure of technique.
There has been a sea change in dealing with short pitched bowling ever since the advent of helmets. In pre head-protection days, batsmanship at Test level was virtually determined by the ability to hold your nerve against “bouncers”, to keep your eye on the ball, to make a last split second move, usually to the off side, letting the ball slide past your cheek and over your shoulder. Those who remained sideways provided a smaller target and moved laterally more easily. Those who batted more “square” to the line of the ball got caught with nowhere to go and took many a blow to the body. The late Ken Barrington was one such – brave as a lion but unable to avoid the consequences of the way he played.
Come the helmet and the old precept of “always keep your eye on the ball” became a thing of the past. Even such a prolific run scorer as Graham Hick was a head turner and must have been hit on the back of the helmet enough times to have spent months in hospital without the protection. Ducking down and throwing the shoulders backward are further variations. It amuses me that the current crop of TV commentators pay lip service to the old precepts but they mention them “en passant” as though they are of little importance. Only when you see Michael Hussy bat, embracing all the long established essentials, are you able to spot the difference compared with others less accomplished – on both sides.
Coming to the matter of batting techniques generally, there are a number of departures from classical principles, none of which seem to produce better results. There is the top hand round the back of the handle. There is a fashion for walking round the ball for a defensive back stroke (Trott and Smith) and there is a general disease of squaring the shoulders. The common denominator is evidenced by the feet finishing with toes pointing up the pitch and, in the process, there are always signs of the bat coming down from off to leg. Finally there are all the different “pick-ups” with the closed face low position prevalent (encouraged by the poor grip).
Special mention has to be made of Pietersen in this context because he is more unorthodox than most. I had never thought to see a fully committed front foot player achieve so much at Test level. They say that there are always exceptions from the norm and he certainly qualifies for that description. But let's look at his two dismissals on 0 and 3. In the first innings he missed a leg stump inswinger to be lbw – so far so normal but he was only just in and was playing a full bloodied swish to leg. Too dangerous by far.
Then in the second he was struggling to find a place to score. He is used to playing straight bat forcing shots on the rise on the off-side but the higher bounce at the WACCA ground makes that both difficult and dangerous. His get-out waft outside the off stump looked dreadful but it is something he gets away with regularly when the bounce is lower.
Now you may understand why I get such a kick out of watching Test cricket. In my mind I analyse the bowling and batting techniques involved for every ball of a match. Some would say that such little things only please little minds. OK, I plead guilty but it is a pleasing little world to live in and does little to contribute to the sum total of human sadness.

Aftermath of England Victory at Adelaide

There was one line of commentary from Adelaide that summed up the plight of the Australian team. Nasser Hussein provided the following pithy insight. “Xavier Doherty was picked to get Pietersen out. But they can’t get Pietersen IN to get him OUT.” Of course when they did eventually get him in, Pietersen went on to his highest ever Test score which sealed the match for England. So much for my doubts about the Pietersen technique and resolve.
I remember a newspaper quote after Pietersen secured the Ashes at the Oval in 2005` with a swashbuckling 150+. The scribe introduced a whimsical footnote after all the plaudits wondering whether Pietersen had already played the finest innings of his England career. Until last week this assessment was proving uncannily accurate but I would put his Adelaide innings in the same bracket as that at Oval.
It was hard to fault England at any stage through the five days. They caught everything, they fielded slickly, including two sharp run outs and bowled to a plan. What more could a Captain wish for. There was only one possible missed opportunity that struck me.
It was well into the Australian second innings during a fairly ordinary spell of bowling by the tall right arm Finn. As a variation against the obdurate Hussey he gave it a try from round the wicket and immediately beat the bat a couple of times. He did the same in his next over before even the commentary box woke up to the fact that, for the first time in the match, the Kookaburra ball was starting to reverse swing.
I expected Strauss to pick up on this possible lifeline with a change of field, an extra slip or at least something to make the batsman think and have to reassess. An option was to give the toiling Swann a breather and see if Anderson could get the same movement. In fact Strauss just took Finn off as though nothing had happened. I know that Raymond Illingworth would have done no such thing.
Going back to the Australian plight, you only have to see their selections for the Perth Test to realise how limited their options are. It was no surprise that Mitchell Johnson was dropped after Brisbane but to bring him back so soon is a desperate measure. I was surprised that they dropped Hilfenhaus and he deserves to be back. I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually play four fast bowlers hoping for a repeat of Headingley 2010. If they do I trust that Strauss will bowl first if he wins the toss.
Losing Broad is the last thing that England wanted and he will definitely be missed despite his lack of wickets in the first two matches. What he provided was really good control going for less than three an over whilst shouldering his full share of the workload. Tremlett is the logical replacement.
The possible pitfall for the two very tall men, Finn and Tremlett, will be to bowl too short on the livelier Wacca pitch. When they see the ball bounce shoulder high through to the keeper there is a tendency to shorten up just for the fun of seeing the ball fly. They will need good advice and good discipline to get their length right.
Already there has been a huge improvement in these basics by the England attack. When I did my selection stint in the early 90's, I made a habit of counting the number of balls that “MIGHT” have hit the stumps in the first hour on the field. That I never reached ten was a damning indictment. I can’t say that I have been religiously ball counting this Series – considering that it is more a case of when I wake in the night when I get to watch – but I am pretty sure that there would be at least double the tally.
The rather lack lustre England showing against Victoria should have a sobering effect on the dressing room, which may not be a bad thing. There is much hard graft yet before any idea of keeping the Ashes can be assured.