Monday, July 25, 2005

First Test: Australia won by 239 runs



Well, here we go again. Another Ashes, another humiliation for England.

The build-up to this series suggested it might be different. England had lost only two out of thirteen Test match series since the beginning of 2002 (and one of those was the previous Ashes series). A much improved side, they now had world-class players in every department: Andrew Strauss, who made centuries on debut against New Zealand, the West Indies and South Africa; Ian Bell who, after a series of not outs, was sitting on a Test average of 297.00; Andrew Flintoff, arguably the world's leading all-rounder; Steve Harmison, who had reduced the West Indies to tears in their own backyard; and the wild card of Kevin Pietersen, South-Africa-turned-Englishman, who had hammered his way through a series of one-day matches, showing extraordinary courage and seemingly superhuman attacking batting prowess. And they were captained by Michael Vaughan, who had made three Test hundreds in the previous futile Ashes tour and whose captaincy seemed at times to have recaptured the imagination and mental strength of Mike Brearley.

The press and messageboards were full of speculation about how, though clearly still the underdogs, England were going to pull off a surprise victory. England had held their own in the one-day internationals. Australia had been beaten in a one-day match by Bangladesh, the worst Test-playing country in the world. England had saved the final of that series with an unlikely tie. They had taken the Australian attack apart at Leeds and at Bristol. They were younger than the Australians, almost to a man. Their fielding was superb. They had seven batsmen who had made hundreds at international level. Every one of their bowlers was responsible for winning a Test match at some point in the preceding year and a half. And they were playing at home.

Well, fairy tales aren't real, as we all know. What happened in the cold light of a miserable Sunday afternoon at Lord's was that the Australian juggernaut crushed a bedraggled England side yet again, by a huge margin of victory. It was as if an elephant, tired of being stung by a wasp, had woken up briefly from its sleep and rolled over, squashing the insect dead in the process.

Those who are interested in my analysis of this match should click on 'More', below. For others, I shall simply note that my prediction of a 3-1 victory to Australia remains intact. I have predicted England to win the next match but, after yesterday's pathetic display, I am not optimistic of my prediction's preservation. Stupidly I have booked a holiday for the next Test, so I'll have to take a radio with me.

Anyway, onto that analysis I promised. Actually, as my friends at TMS 24/7 have been keen to point out, there are a lot of positives that can be taken out of this match. Lord's has never been fertile ground for us: we have won only five Ashes Tests there - the last of those was in 1934 and all the others were in the nineteenth century. The pitch was two-paced and two-faced, favouring the bowlers in the first innings and (apparently) the batsmen in the second. Harmison responded magnificently, his short-pitched attack damaging, respectively, the helmet, elbow and cheekbone of Hayden, Langer and Ponting. It was as if Malcolm Marshall had suddenly come back to life as an Englishman. Shocked and stunned into committing errors, the Australians were bowled out for 190.

At this point, the match should have been ours for the taking. Against any other opponent, it would have been - we could have coasted to an innings victory. But there is something incomprehensible in the psyche of an English batsman which dates back over twelve years: a mortal fear of Glenn McGrath (there is also a mortal fear of Shane Warne, which is strange since he's a fat yob with the social skills of a rhino whom any self-respecting Englishman would normally barely deign to cast a dismissive eye at - but I digress). Thirty-five, written off as past it, a yard or two slower than he was at his peak, McGrath sauntered in and took five English wickets for the cost of two runs. It was the most devastating bowling display in years, even better than the 7-12 which made Harmison a god among bowlers in the Caribbean. McGrath has this ability to pitch two consecutive balls in the same spot (within centimetres of each other) and have them move in opposite directions after landing. The England batsmen, alternately inexperienced or battle-scarred, had no way of dealing with him.

We should have been bowled out for less than a hundred. But (and here's another positive coming up) just as Australia have a man who seems capable of the superhuman (McGrath) so we have a batsman who can do things his team mates can't. Kevin Pietersen is South African, but left his home country because he felt he wasn't being given the chance that his talents merited. By virtue of an English mother he qualified to play for England. Before this match, I was sceptical about his selection. I feared that, like Neil Fairbrother and Paul Collingwood, he was fated to be a one-day wonder, a man who would flounder and be found out in the longer form of the game. He answered all his critics. On his debut Test match he scored 121 runs and was only dismissed once (to an exceptional catch). One cannot imagine the man he usurped, Graham Thorpe, performing any better.

At 155 all out, England were 35 behind but still in the game. To stay in it, they would have to strike Australia as quickly as they'd done in the first innings. They didn't. They had their chances - six, seven or eight in total, depending on whom you listen to - but they dropped every one of them. It must have been bloody cold out there, or they must have been bloody desperate, or over-excited, or just tired, but they put down catches which if held would have kept them in the match. Australia made over 400 on a pitch and against bowling (initially, at any rate) which demanded 200. No Australian made a century, yet England's bowling and fielding were so poor and dispirited by the end of the innings that the tail made over a hundred runs for the loss of the last three wickets. That was it - set a record-breaking 420 to win, England's morale simply collapsed. Though they started well, they were smitten with the combination of poor judgement and bad luck which tends to hit sportsmen in a bad position. They folded, and the rain came too late.

So, we are faced with the probability of yet another Ashes failure. This was the competition that our selection and performance was supposed to be gearing up for. Perhaps there was too much pressure to draw first blood, as if that were the only way we could ensure our confidence stayed high and theirs low. Perhaps we were struck down by unlucky coincidence - if it's true that every batsman has an occasional off-day, it must be possible for several batsmen to have their off-day on the same day as each other. Perhaps if we'd held those bloody catches we could have kept them down to a reachable total. But somehow I don't think so. There's a distinct difference in psychology between these two sides which has a greater impact than talent, age, flexibility or fatigue levels. Australia are used to winning - so used to it that they no longer question it. This is something beyond complacency; it's a mindset which allows them to play below their maximum ability most of the time, so that they can raise their game should any team have the affrontery to pose a threat. With England, there are all the hallmarks of an inferiority complex. England fear failure - Australia do not accept it as a possibility. I had hoped this English mindset (which affects us in pretty much all sport, not just cricket) would have gone away by now. Apparently not. We are just still not good enough.

Sadly, Australia's domination of world cricket will not end when England or India or South Africa raise their level so they are as good as Australia. It will end when Australia forget how to be good any more. With McGrath, Warne, Martyn, Ponting and Gilchrist in the side, that time is a long, long way off. It will happen. But by then, my son may be opening the batting for England. I hope some Australian spinner, trying to emulate Warne but lacking the latter's skill, feeds him some gentle full tosses.

(More reaction to the First Test at Normblog. Most other blogs have been pretty slow to respond. Even Corridor of Uncertainty is still stuck on Day Four, as I write. Come on, chaps, I know you're all feeling down, but try to say something positive!)


Blogger hungbunny said...

It's only humiliating if you care, Oscar. Why not concentrate on the things we Brits excel at, like... er... um... I'll have to get back to you on that one.

8:19 pm  
Blogger The Moai said...

It was great to believe, for a while. Oh well!

10:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent overview SDC. Very succinct and precise. Good to see that the article is not too downbeat unlike some of the articles I have read in the written press over the last few days - which contain the usual knee jerk reactions! Keep up the good work.


1:38 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home