Thursday, 9 July 2015

Australia Rooted Again.

The opening day and ordinary one
for Clarke
Australia's first Ashes day of 2015 was a very ordinary one.

In conditions that could not have been more perfect for the visitors, they put England onto their knees and then let them stand up swinging and did little or nothing about it.

This Australian team has been noted for the aggressive style of cricket they play under an inventive leader but yesterday at Cardiff, from the skipper down, they played like school boy amateurs. Instead, lead by the new core of revival which marks the direction of Andrew Strauss' "new England", Joe Root, it was England who played the aggressive cricket, rode their chance and accepted their lucky breaks and in doing so, won the day comfortably when they should have lost. Not even late wickets could mar a strong English performance.

Near total responsibility for the failure by the Australians o n the first day must lie with Michael Clarke. Sure, he cant bowl the ball for his bowlers but it was up to him to apply the appropriate tactical acumen to counter Root, Garry Ballance and Ben Stokes when they refused to be over awed and instead shoved the ball back across to the Australian side and asked them what they were going to do about. In most cases, they got no reply.

Clarke has been hailed for the inventive nature of his on field captaincy, which has often created opportunities but he not only failed at key moments to seize opportunities offered but he failed in the most crucial requirement of a Test captain by never mounting and maintaining pressure. Without doubt, the Mitchell's were dreadful on the opening day, with neither Starc or Johnson able to bowl a consistent line. They could be forgiven for erring on the side of a full length because the conditions and the ball demanded it but they couldn't place the ball on the same spot in the same way as the junior bowler, Josh Hazlewood did. It did mean that half of his bowling attack was completely ineffective but instead of demanding consistency and providing the opportunity for rhythm to develop, Clarke chopped and changed his bowlers, sometimes in spells as short as one over. Its an approach which has often bought success on bouncy wickets and hot days under the Australian sun, but Cardiff was overcast, cool and just perfect for swing bowling ... an art form which prospers from longer spells when bowlers can hone in on a spot and tempt batsmen. As any trundler will tell you, two overs under those conditions are an indication of a captain who lacks trust and patience and it rarely brings out the best in bowlers.

Hazlewood was Australia's best
This restless captaincy had other consequences as well. Hazlewood, easily Australia's best on the day, finally got to see longer spells as the afternoon wore on and others, including his skipper, failed but by then Root was doing as he liked and riving imperiously. Despite this, the kid from a small country town looked like the polished city professional, bowling the testing line and length at off stump as required by such occasions and still passing close by the edge of even the best batting yesterday.

Nathan Lyon was also very good but having benefited from an early bowl and a sign of his captain's confidence amid mocking from the media and the English team and then delivering a killer blow by deceiving Alastair Cook with bounce and turn, he was removed immediately and didn't bowl again until after lunch. Once again, Clarke was turning the wrong valves and allowing the pressure to dissipate rather than build.

Shane Watson, selected apparently more for his change bowling rather than his batting, didn't bowl enough or at the right times. When Starc and Johnson couldn't hold their line, he should have been the first Ghostbuster to be called. It was, according to coaches McDermott and Lehmann, why he was in the team. When he was eventually summoned, he looked better than the left armers but again, was discarded too soon. If his fitness means he cant bowl in spells longer than three overs, why is he playing?

Haddin drops Root second ball
For Brad Haddin, this day will be the mark of his end. It is a difficult, two paced pitch and half of the bowling he had to try and stop behind the wicket was spraying them, so little blame can be sheeted him for the 13 byes which zoomed past him but his footwork was imprecise and the ball seldom buried into the heart of his gloves. This was highlighted by the glaring error which saw Root dropped second ball and cost Australia momentum and the chance to rattle through England. He was moving in two directions when the chance came, dived instead of moving to the ball and spilled the chance younger and eyes and body would have accepted on the other nine occasions out of ten. Time and again, the ball escaped to the outer edges of his gloves and the sight of such a fine gloveman grasping for the ball was sad enough to make seasoned keepers turn their attention elsewhere. The signs have been evident in the past twelve months. Spectacular grabs from flashy dives are more the sign of a keeper not doing his job well; moving late or feet not getting into position early enough to position him for a stable take. It wasn't just the dropped catch which Root so gladly cashed in on, its was lots of other stuff which signalled that Haddin's time has come. Under testing conditions, the keepe'rs work has to be perfect in the small things. Instead of making it look easy yesterday, Haddin made it look harder.

Hazlewood and Lyon were positives on a bleak day, as was the Australian fielding, Haddin aside. David Warner snared a beauty low and coming forward in the gully which opened the early breakthrough and even when the best of the Englishmen smashed the cover from the ball, the fieldsmen did their work cleanly.

Joe Root was all elegant drives and
powerful cuts
All of which speaks little of the English, which would be unfair. After Adam Lyth was duped by a cracker from Hazlewood, Cook duped into playing an ambitious shot by Lyon's deception and Ian Bell continued his disastrous run of single figure form, England were a leaky ship in danger of sinking. Whilst Root clearly led the way with wonderful drives and powerful square cuts - two of the most elegant shots in the game - and more than a little bit of luck, Ballance ground out a near four hour stay at the crease in adding 163 with Root. These Yorkshire boys are tough little buggers and so they proved. Ballance is deeper in his creases than an Italian tailor and plays most of his shots from behind the batting crease. It was an approach that saw him bowled repeatedly against the Kiwi seamers and if the Australians had been able to keep the swinging Duke on the spot, it might have done the same here but Ballance soldiered on and played a hand as vital as his more elegant partner. Ben Stokes added to the effort with a belligerent showing, top edging a pull shot over Haddin's head for six early doors but smiting without relent throughout. A later six, coming down the track at Lyon, very nearly ended in the Taff, which passes by Sophia Gardens. Only the scaffold of a camera position high above the stand could stop its progress and keep the ball from a swim.

England came to Cardiff with intent and a plan to attack. They were good things to bring to the table and have set the tone for what may well be a much closer series than many have predicted. Much depends on what Michael Clarke can answer with. Hopefully, his further decisions will contain some prudence and pay homage to the concept that pressure wins Test matches as often as instinctive brilliance. You can't make the latter a successful tactic without the former.

Finally, let it not go unsaid ... oh how Australia missed Ryan Harris yesterday. With smarts lacking from the captain and half of his bowlers on day one, a clever and tenacious bloke like Harris would have been a valuable commodity. Perhaps now, those who have sneered at the thought that Harris was the leader of the Australian attack and not Johnson, might reflect on the difference his absence made yesterday.

Postscript: Commentary moment of the day belonged to Michael Vaughan. When asked about Adam Lyth, a player Australians have seen little of, Atherton explained that Lyth was an aggressive batsman who kept it pretty simple. "He's not the sort of bloke you would want to have on your trivia team." Gold Athers!