Thursday, 11 July 2013

There's Still A Heartbeat

Clarke - unplayable from Anderson
The opening day of an exhausting run of Ashes Test which start now in Nottingham and end in Sydney in the New Year, was full of rash shots, fine bowling, quality fielding and an Australian spirit which has been on leave. As unlikely as it sounds, Darren Lehmann is already all over this team.

After a fighting, even first session, Australia dominated the rest of the day except for a disastrous half hour in the last session. In charge thanks to a rousing effort by the reliable warhorse Peter Siddle, three wickets fell in the first seven overs as Australia responded to a poor England effort. A new Shane Watson, restored and rejuvenated to the top of the order, made the same full throttle mistake, smashing three classic fours to point, cover and mid on and then sending an edge to second slip. Ed Cowan, on and off the field during the English innings, was out next ball to a dreadfully undisciplined slash to second slip from a jubilant Steve Finn. Michael Clarke, the third of the failures, has good grounds for excuse, losing his off bail to Jimmy Anderson. It angled in and swung out and was unplayable. There have been few deliveries better in Ashes history.

Chris Rogers batted solidly but Anderson was all over him and broke one back at his stumps which looked out, even if the batsman's review showed it was just clipping the margins of the stumps. Steve Smith, batting one spot higher than expected, then led the resistance until the end, having only one near miss against Finn but playing a nice selection of pull shots from the quicker men and giving Graeme Swann an audacious welcome, sending his fourth ball over the fence at long on.

Earlier in the day, Jonathan Trott and Jonny Bairstow were England's best. Australia bowled the right lines but England's top seven were easily sucked into losing their wickets. Trott was imperious. He loves batting against Australians, with three hundreds in nine Test innings and an average in the 80's and he looked to be heading for another big score. He was fed balls on his leg stump early - tucker which has made him run fat - but as usual, he was equally good outside the off stump. His weakness is his gluttony for attacking the loose ball, regardless of its width outside off stump and after Siddle and Watson bowled close to his castle for a while, Trott lashed at a full, wide ball and dragged it back to the woodwork. For a moment, his frustration looked to be sending him for a chat with the match referee as he shaped to smash the remaining stumps with his bat.

Siddle 5-50
All the quick men swung the ball but it was Siddle's leg cutters which did much of the damage. After Pattinson removed Alastair Cook with a ball which did no more than angle across the celebrated left hander, Siddle took the next five, four of them between lunch and tea. At 1-78, he got Joe Root with a yorker which might have been ball of the day but for Anderson later on. Pietersen clubbed three fours and then hung his bat at a leg cutter, sending it to Clarke at second slip, a position he occupied for the innings after giving Watson his customary first slip role. After adding 54 with Bairstow, Ian Bell went the same way, caught by Watson this time. Matt Prior lashed out at a ball wide of the off stump, lifted it as he often does in such circumstances and Phil Hughes took a sharp, high catch at cover point. His fielding has come a long way since the days when Clarke was looking to hide him.

Pattinson and Mitchell Starc finished off the Englishmen in six overs after tea but the most notable event was a bouncer from Pattinson which Stuart Broad tried to hook and missed, the ball striking him a painful blow on the shoulder. The tall paceman didn't appear in the field during the Australia's response. Good planning again, as Broad is poor against the short ball.

There was so much more to see than the performances.

The Australians, it seems, were just here to play cricket. Lehmann was caught on camera often, smiling and shaking hands in that big, gregarious way of his that forces people to like him. Warner, spending time on the boundary subbing for Cowan, accepted the stirring of his own supporters with laughter and his own applause at their wit. Gone was the brooding. His smile had returned on the day he was dropped from Test cricket. Siddle had his mojo and Pattinson was a big man bowling fast. Watson gave lip but to the opposition, not his captain.

Clarke, himself, turned back the clock to the first twelve months of his captaincy. His work in the field was top draw. He shifted his bowlers around according to need and situation, even removing Siddle after a one over, one wicket spell. When Siddle started with four poor overs, he changed him to the other end and the results were immediate. He used the new boy, Ashton Agar, in short spells, allowing him a taste rather than the full banquet. He gave Watson the ball to share with Siddle after lunch, with responsibility of bowling the dry line to Trott and that's exactly what he did.

Bairstow made a strong 37(51)
All the time, his smile had returned, his encouragement of his team both privately with individuals and the corporate clapping and shouts to tell England and her spectators that Australia is here to play was just good management. He repeatedly spoke with Watson and Haddin, asking their opinions on changes. There were quips sent down the wicket to Agar to break the tension. This is the Clarke that Mickey Arthur stifled, dragging him into the minutia of forms and rules and regulations. Free of selections, he looked like a man who has taken of his winter coat and is enjoying the spring.

It wasn't all perfect.

The selection of Ashton Agar will remain a gamble unless Australia can lead by 200. The wicket will help him but his form on tour has so far indicated he has talent but slow bowling is so easily exposed when it lacks experience. Nothing he has done yet justifies the gamble. Like the old style leg spinners, he bowled one bad ball an over, starting with a low full toss outside Trott's off stump which went straight where it belonged to the cover boundary but to his credit, he followed up with deliveries which made England's best batsman look uncomfortable. He didn't, however, bowl to Pietersen. With only ten first class matches, Agar is massively over exposed.

Darren Lehmann has said that there is more to life than the game and if you get relationships right and play for each other, then winning cricket will happen. It's making a habit of it that will be this side's trick.

They've made a good start.