Sunday, 12 July 2015

Kings, Princes and Bad Captaincy

Four days in Cardiff
The first Test at Cardiff was won by the better team: literally, in all aspects.

England made a dream start to their home campaign to regain the Ashes and in doing so, restore faith in a new direction built on the ethos of team and not the spectacular deeds of individuals. Gone was the adherence to the cult of personality which had previously been the yeast which rose England to the top of world Test cricket a few years back but collapsed disastrously in the UAE and Australia soon after, when improper kneading had failed to take the hot air from individuals.

Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook have the first but not the last laugh over Graeme Swan, Kevin Pietersen and the assembled media who have so vehemently criticised selections and team management. The cult master,Andy Flower, has been excised from the England ranks and what has replaced it is as old fashioned as the Pennines, a great spine of a thing which stands firm down the very centre of Great Britain.

Joe Root - man of the match
At Cardiff, an old team game set into a modern context triumphed over accomplished individuals. It was like comparing Shakespeare to Facebook. On their knees in the first hour, England rallied as the cherub-faced Knight, Joe Root, recovered from an early wound to slay a cocky and badly led dragon nee kangaroo, which soon fell back from his blows. His page, Gary Ballance, stood his ground long enough for the tide of battle to turn England's way and from the end of the first day, no other result was likely.

Root was England's star, scoring heavily, catching brilliantly and even taking late wickets as the quicker men tired from their toil. He even managed a school boy giggle as his King Alastair (previously known as Captain Cook) lay grovelling from juggling one two many balls. In the forty five minutes of KA's absence, he even captained well ... as one would expect of a Prince.

The maligned English bowling attack - rated as lesser mortals even in these pages - were superb. Their control, their patience and their adherence to plans for each opponent were delivered to masterful perfection. The seamers were the heart of the attack, bowling in what modern parlance refers to as "channels" - perhaps in this instance English channels in which they drowned the Australians. There was no panic when Smith attacked, no distress when Rogers used all of his experience to reach a fine first innings 95 and no looks of exasperation as Warner escaped their early attempts on the fourth morning and blossomed. They never re-grouped for they never ungrouped. This was a solid, thoughtful and concerted approach to the problem of how to bring the Australian batting machine down from the heavens to stand judgment from peers.

Captain Cook
Through it all, the leadership of Cook was paramount and rose above expectations, taking his team with him. No longer contending with dissenting opinions from the self-anointed ones who used to walk on their own water and now surrounded by eager disciples, he pulled every stroke correctly. Where once he had appeared unable to be decisive, at Cardiff he touched the strings adroitly to have England making the most delightful tunes. Failing twice with the bat, he never the less caught brilliantly, taking two outstanding snares which even the likes of fielding freaks like Mark Waugh could admire and respect. His understanding of the conditions and the need for patience filled his bowlers with the confidence they needed to know that they would be allowed to find their lengths and line over longer spells and to wear away with attrition and consistency. He put his tactics discretely in the way of the Australians, gradually confusing them into shots they didn't want to play by creating subtle doubt. The inner pressure on Watson was to play straight and get his bat in front of the biggest front pad in world cricket, but Cook countered with men in his eyeline who stood straight and close, making suggestions by their placement, that same straight bat might play the ball into their hands. Watson perished twice to his own fears in a most usual way.

By contrast, Australia were woeful, collapsing under pressure and bad management. Their contribution to losing the game was as great as England's pressure to win. On the first day, they had exactly the start they required with all of England's best cards laid bare but a failed catch by Haddin the subsequent panic and failure to interpret the conditions by their skipper Clarke, doomed them before two sessions were exhausted. By tea on Wednesday, the match was decided.

Time and again on that first day of the contest, Clarke whipped bowlers on and off in response to English counter attack. Quick rotation of his bowlers is a particular style of his captaincy which has met with considerable success but here it was a glaring inflexible policy which failed to grasp the need for Starc and Hazlewood to bowl longer spells to understand and adjust to the conditions. They couldn't control their line or the extra swing of the Duke ball because they didn't get enough consecutive deliveries to do so. Like Bill Lawry years ago, this was captaincy by numbers, where two fours in an over condemned a bowler back to a fielding position to smart and mull over his captain's lack of confidence. Then there were brain farts which removed bowlers who had broken through at the start of spells. In the first innings, Lyon was thrust into the attack early and removed Cook in his second over, only to have the ball taken off him at the end of the over and not returned until after lunch. In the second innings, Hazlewood came back mid innings, removed the dangerous Root with the first ball of the spell, bowled a wicket maiden, went for three in his second over and was replaced by a hobbling Starc.

Impatient, restless captaincy
It was impatient, restless captaincy which in the end must bear the majority of the responsibility for the loss of the Test and placing the Australians even more against the wall than the pre-match loss of Ryan Harris and mid-match injury to Starc had placed them. The multiple starts the Australian batsmen made in the first innings didn't help, nor did their mid innings 4-9 collapse in the second but these events all followed that inattentive, belligerent first day when Clarke refused to entertain the experience of his previous visits to England.

There were some highlights. Mitchell Johnson got better as the game went on, bowling well without even the slightest luck in England's second innings and then batting with equal supplies of skill and guts on the last day when others wilted. He will be even better at Lords. David Warner's second innings showed perspicacity and focus, wafting at balls like flies at a summer bbq in the early stages but fighting on till misjudging the length of an otherwise innocuous Moeen Ali wobbler just as his hunger pains had set him to automatic on the stroke of lunch. Josh Hazlewood was impressive with the ball but fielded better than most tall fast bowlers can and showing continued form with the bat. Steven Smith showed enough to think he will score runs in England if he has the class to think about what went wrong at Cardiff and take the game back to England. Chris Rogers set the tone of how to counter the English in the first innings and was out to a cracker in the second.

The glaring worries for Australia are Starc and Haddin. Its hard to imagine Starc being fit for Lords which means their third choice for one of the seamers spots, the long serving and loyal Peter Siddle, will likely return. None try harder and his bowling coach will know that if on his game and used well, he is exactly the type of bowler Australia lacked in Cardiff. If there is no Harris, there must be Siddle.

Haddin - footwork slow and indecisive
Haddin had a dreadful Test match and if he were a rookie and not a long serving former vice-captain and most beloved member of the team, he would be replaced at Lords by Peter Nevill. The cognitive functioning which in elite athletes is so instant, has dulled with age. No amount of hard work , resident skill or experience can compensate for it. His footwork was slow and indecisive, often leaving him those short moments behind the positions he needed to be in and diving to catch up. Yes the wicket was difficult but Jos Buttler kept well and was tidy: Haddin wasn't. The dropping of Root on the first morning, so crucial to the ultimate result, was just the most extreme example of his slowness to respond but his batting made it even more obvious. He was a mixture of hurried shots, edges, uncertainty and rashness which are the hallmarks of a man who is relying on instinct but is betrayed by the failing physical acuteness which age brings.

The only obvious question mark leading into Cardiff was Watson but this has been resolved once and for all. His batting in the second innings was full of merit and courageous but he was a drowning man. Favoured over the younger Mitch Marsh on the grounds of his bowling, his captain gave him only thirteen overs as England made merry and removed him quickly, as though allowing him the ball had only been a courtesy. He has played his last Test. He failed one last time to live up to great expectations and he will forever be a man lost to his own demons of self-doubt. The greater failing was that of the selectors to seize the day and play Marsh ahead of him.

England have the ascendancy and in it's place, Australia have injuries and the loss of confidence such a poor performance gifts you. Clarke, having led his team to despondency must now show his mettle and bring them back.

Funnier things have happened. After all, it sport right ... not life?