Force Majuere: who is responsible?

It is difficult to beat the other lot when they bat, bowl and field better than you. It’s even worse when they cherish and enjoy the contest and your lot turn up looking like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Australians lay in bed all over the continent this morning contemplating another loss in England. Or is this the Australian players struggling to motivate ahead of the Test? Both are possible, it seems.

Australians lay in bed all over the continent this morning contemplating another loss in England. Or is this the Australian players struggling to motivate ahead of the Test? Both are possible, it seems. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day

England comprehensively punished Australia and deserved their victory. They played better than form suggested and Australia – who are still a better team than England for now – were poor and repeated two glaring mistakes of past England tours. They bowled too short and too wide for too long, expecting their quicks to blast people out as they do in Brisbane and Perth, and their batsmen went hard at the ball instead of playing later as the swinging conditions require.

Poor preparation?

Australia has a problem with slow pitches; they lost seven Test matches in India and England in 2013, and the following year they lost at Port Elizabeth in South Africa and twice in the Gulf against Pakistan. Now they’ve been utterly embarrassed in Wales. Has Australia recognised this weakness or ignored it?

Poor execution?

Few expected Australia could chase down the 411 set by England but with two days to play (the fifth with rain predicted), many more expected a demonstration of resilience. Perhaps a decent fight that might take them close, to at least 300, and if inclement weather arrived – as it did today in Cardiff – then a draw was possible. But they rolled over and died.

As day broke today in Cardiff Australian captain Michael Clarke was last seen running down the street to beg England for one more chance.

As day broke today in Cardiff Australian captain Michael Clarke was last seen running down the street to beg England for one more chance.

At one for 97 going into the last over before lunch, there were clear nerves and anxiety beginning to show throughout England. The huge wicket of Warner on the last ball before the break eased the tension and triggered a force majuere.

Within 5 overs the Aussies were 5/106. When Watson departed, perhaps for the last time ever in a Test match, Australia had lost all of their batsmen and were 7/151. It was a disgrace and none of the Australian batsmen took responsibility to resist the superior fight and attitude England brought to the contest.

Shane Watson’s body language summed up Australia’s approach. He looked encumbered by the world’s problems and trudged about sporting an agonised grimace apparently loathing the task of having to play cricket. Watson was picked because of his superior bowling when compared to Mitch Marsh but when Clarke called on him to bowl in the vital second innings, he failed to lead by example or make an impact. His Test career looks over. Brad Haddin’s keeping (and batting) will also concern Australia.

It was a tough gig watching that collapse. Bill, here again, sums it up nicely.

It was a tough gig watching that collapse.

Australia’s bowling

Although their bowling was erratic on day one Australia actually bowled well in the second innings. Starc was in agony with an ankle injury but steamed in and bowled 145km regularly. He was accused by Shane Warne and others of lacking heart when he left the field on a hot day in Brisbane last summer against India. It seemed this was in the back of his mind and his contribution was admirable. But the damage done is likely to exclude him from the second Test at Lords. Another huge loss for Australia.

Suddenly the two men who England’s batters will have studied the most – Starc and Ryan Harris – aren’t playing and Australia will have to go to Peter Siddle. Pat Cummins is the other man on tour but talented as he may be, Cummins is likely to bang it in shorter than any other. The concern with Siddle is that he’s a bit similar to Hazlewood. At least Johnson is still fit. He bowled very well without luck in Cardiff and Cricket Forth predicts that he will lift on the slope in London.

There’s a direct correlation between Johnson’s form with the bat and him taking wickets and he scored more (77) than Rogers, Smith, Clarke, Voges, Watson and Haddin combined in Australia’s second innings capitulation. With Australia’s bowling seemingly getting weaker the batting will become all the more important.

Let’s get back to discussing England though

The ICC needs to take action against the ECB because there are clearly different rules for Jimmy Anderson; why is he allowed to use a taped up tennis ball and swing it 2 metres? This guy is a legitimate superstar and must be nearing par with other great swingers like Wasim Akram (and your best mate’s parents, didn’t you know?). The Aussies haven’t got a clue. He was backed up well by Stuart Broad who was quick, extracted bounce where others could not and built the pressure that provided the lesser Moeen Ali and Mark Wood with wickets.

Wood is a great find. He has not taken a backwards step against Australia in his third Test and looks a great character and competitor. Ian Bell played himself back into form in the second innings and Ben Stokes has showed Shane Watson what an all-rounder looks like.

The series is not over yet though. Now let’s get some sleep before the second Test.

Moving Day: Shane Watson versus England (and the Australian public)

England is on top at Sophia Gardens and the stage is set for Shane Watson to silence his critics and keep his side in the Test. The first two days have been difficult for Australia and England has proven resilient and disciplined with bat and ball.

Coming in, Australia’s bowling was its strength and England was primarily concerned with how to manage that threat. Flat and deadened pitches were expected and Cardiff has delivered. But from a position of strength in bowling, Australia now looks slightly uncertain with the ball.

The series started terribly for Australia with the loss of their main strike bowler and pack leader Ryan Harris. England feared Mitchell Johnson after he murdered them in 2013-14, but will feel slightly less threatened after he finished with 0/111 from 25 overs. Johnson received a huge, stadium-wide standing ovation after ‘scoring a ton’ and the taunting will get louder in the second innings if wickets elude. Johnson bowled far better than the stats demonstrate and remains a potent weapon.

England’s resilience was proven after they moved from 3/43 to 430. They stole 87 runs for their last 3 wickets at the start of Day 2 and pushed the Aussies off the field looking flat. England were led by the superstar Joe Root (134) – who was dropped by Haddin on 0 – and an excellent lower order dig by Moeen Ali (77), who is probably the most overqualified number 8 to play Ashes cricket. Ian Bell’s failings are papered over for now. He has 11, 1, 0, 0, 1, 29, 12 and 1 from his last 8 Test inns.

The Aussies navigated a tricky 45 minutes before the lunch break. Broad and Anderson hovered and their superior knowledge of the conditions was demonstrated by their fuller length. England plundered runs square of the wicket, proving that Australia’s bowlers banged it in too short, too often. Broad and Anderson were at the stumps and at the pads, full and swinging both ways and were rewarded when Warner snicked up for 17.

England’s discipline persisted and their well-executed plans rewarded them with a position of ascendency. They have removed Australia’s top five batsmen and although each of their bowlers contributed to Cook’s plans of building pressure, the Australians will be smarting at the nature of their dismissals; five questionable shots and five catches.

Thousands of Australians have joined a growing chorus of ridicule directed at Shane Watson and were outraged when he retained his place in the side of ahead of Mitch Marsh. But as soon as Harris went down, Watson became a certainty. He is a better bowler than Marsh and provides stiffer support to Starc, Johnson, Hazlewood and Lyon, but his batting is most maligned and now it is what Australia needs most to stay in the match.

Watson is 29 not out and Australia trail by 166. Nightwatchman Nathan Lyon joined him in the fading light yesterday and only Brad Haddin remains in the shed for Australia. Starc and Johnson can bat a bit but Watson must deliver if Australia is to get back at England. Day three – moving day – awaits.

Australia become number 2 and England give India a real blue

Seismic shifts in world cricket. They’re busting up proceedings all the time. Last week England were in  tatters. They hadn’t won in 10 Tests, their Captain was eyeing off a bloody guillotine and the wicket-keeper had walked away. Today their Captain sits comfortably at slip and marshals a buoyant and aggressive bowling unit who have the scent of Indian blood firmly ensconced in their nasal passage.

Overnight their batsmen plundered an indolent India and declared after scoring over half a thousand runs. Their new wicket keeper battered 85 off 83 – leading to ridiculously premature comparisons with Adam Gilchrist – and Gary Ballance and Ian Bell looked a million pounds on their way to 156 and 167. On Day 1 Ali Cook had at least bequeathed some of the pressure on his batting towards his leadership qualities by scoring a gritty 95. Now he has India precariously perched on 1/25.

England must win this Test Match. Mathematically, if they don’t they can still win the series, but the bounce they’ll get and the critics they’ll savagely retort (including me) at least in the immediate short term will propel the dressing room and startle India – who are known for lacking a bit of fight when things get tough away from home. But, let’s not get carried away. England’s had two better days at playing cricket than they’ve had for a little while. The uncertainty of Cook’s leadership and tactical nous remains and administrative and dressing room issues require much more work.

A development that might stir up an incredulous response from Australian cricket fans is the change in ICC Test Rankings overnight. South Africa have retaken number one billing off Australia after winning a 2 Test Series 1-0 in Sri Lanka. It could have been so different. On a dreary last day of the 2nd Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo South Africa resisted a desperate Sri Lankan bowling attack to nut out a thrilling draw. With the Proteas leading 1-0 their foci lay on preservation and defiance. At 6/118 with 13 overs remaining rain fell. But, it quickly subsided and the Proteas had to face the wrath – or more accurately the Rangana Herath, who took 5/40 off 45 overs. But, South Africa’s tail clung on at 8/159 securing a 1-0 win and a return to the top of the pops.

In other news the ICC is to “investigate” pro-Gaza wrist bands worn by England’s Moeen Ali during the Test v India. Apparently political messages are banned by the ICC. And Kevin Pietersen has signed up to play for the Melbourne Stars in Australia’s Big Bash League in the southern summer. Could be the first time the bloke isn’t unanimously booed at the MCG?

KP has also come out and said that he “feels sorry for the geezer” when discussing former England Captain Andrew Strauss’s recent on air gaffe where he labelled KP “an absolute c***”. Clearly the personality feud continues even though both men are now ex team-mates.

10 Tests without victory: Has England lost its spine?

England are only 1-0 down in the series against India, but it feels like they’ve just been beaten 5-0 again. The reaction to yesterday’s defeat at Lords and the projections radiating from England are all dire. A lack of quality, bad execution, ordinary tactics, poor fielding and troubled county and player development systems… I’ve read it all in recent days, but the dressing room problems that stalked England’s tour of Australia appear most relevant.

India bounced England’s batsmen out on a day five wicket, that on day 1, looked as green as the 18th at Royal Liverpool. Chasing 318 for victory with 4 sessions to play, England were in the box seat, but Ishant Sharma shredded them with 7 wickets – many of which were caught in the deep. England asked India to bat first on a green top and failed to capitalise, with their seamers consistently bowling too short on a pitch demanding a full, seam-nibbling length. India toiled hard with the bat throughout and set a competitive 4th innings chase. It was more than a touch ironic that short bowling undid England’s batsmen in the end. The difference between carefully executed, field appropriate short bowling and banging it in too often has never been plainer.

Twelve months ago England were ranked 2 in the world and were on the way to beating Australia 3-0. Now you’d be forgiven for thinking it was 1999. It’s not and England shouldn’t be this bad, but a packet of off-field problems are destroying them in the middle.

The big question for me is why somebody like Matt Prior is now quitting after two Tests?

“To treat injuries” is his reasoning, but Prior is the third (Trott and Swann) top 11 player to walk out on England mid-series is less than 9 months. They’re all legitimate reasons you say? Well ok, maybe so, but if England were preparing as well as they should be then Trott’s mental state would have been exposed and managed internally before he was obliterated after one Test in Australia and Prior’s “injuries” (and perhaps stomach for a fight) been adequately appraised before this absolutely vital home series against India. The bloke has quit when times are tough and injuries aside, I wouldn’t expect he’ll play for England ever again as some of England’s insiders are smarting.

The second issue is Alistair Cook. A great player with an incredible batting record that has seemingly been in steep decline ever since Andy Strauss stepped aside. Cook seems like a “lovely lad” as described by Strauss overnight, but is he a leader of men? I’m not convinced and the sight of bowlers changing fielders behind his back without consent and the general body language of certain players towards him looks bad, but I wouldn’t be demoting him during this series. This again, for me, comes back to preparation. If the head honchos at England cricket do not believe that he is the man to lead the  side then why go into this series with him at the helm? Why do these things keep needing to be dealt with mid-series?

Australia’s terrible, ill-fated tour of India in 2013 threw up several mid-series dressing room fiascos. When these incidents began to emerge on the subsequent tour of England and it was evident that they had not been managed, the head coach was sacked and a new leadership group redrawn before the first Test. Some decried the timing, but it has turned out for the better.

Cook absolutely needs runs to take some of the sting out of the criticism being fired his way. But, he could score hundreds and if England keep losing and their bowling and fielding plans lack shape and distinctive strategy, then his leadership will continue to be questioned.

The upshot is that England are only 1-0 down with three Tests to play. India are a very good side, but they’re not at the top yet and England is a difficult place to win (Australia hasn’t won in England for 12 years). Cook and the rest of the England unit must fight on and win this series at home, or be the subject of a rabid inquisition unseen in English cricket for at least a decade.