Mitchell Johnson

Carry on, reform or radicalise: where to for Australia’s batting line-up at Trent Bridge?

To win in England for the first time in 14 years, Australia must now win two Tests in a row. Radical action and all selection options must be considered. Including Shane Watson.

Sure, Australia can win one and draw one and retain the Ashes. To some that is the primary goal, but the longer the streak without a series win in England continues the bigger the monkey grows. Fourteen years is long enough.

I think Australia must shed any hint of conservatism and go hard at winning both Tests. Well that’s stating the obvious I suppose, but to achieve that objective radical thinking is required. Michael Jeh over at ESPN Cric Info has kicked off the radical ideas by suggesting Australia should consider picking Steve Magoffin.

The 35-year-old Magoffin is currently kicking about with Sussex and has finished in the top two wicket takers in Division One County Cricket in the last two seasons. Jeh cites the successful example of Chris Rogers; a sage old character who knows the conditions. Magoffin has played 131 First Class matches and averages 23 with the ball. But it won’t happen. If anyone’s going to get a go, it will be Peter Siddle.

Although it could improve, the bowling isn’t really the problem anyway. Mitchell Johnson is right when he says that Australia has not bowled in partnerships. They did at Lords but not in Birmingham, where too many pressure release deliveries were offered. Case in point: Hazlewood traps Adam Lyth LBW in England’s 4th innings chase of 120-odd and then bowls a wide, half-tracker to England’s best batsman who smashes a four the next ball. In fairness though, Australia’s bowlers weren’t given a chance by the Aussie batsmen.

People have been saying that if you win the toss and bat then you win the Test, but that’s nonsense and Birmingham proved that. Perhaps Clarke should have bowled, hindsight-ologists will say. But perhaps he was spooked by Ponting’s decision to do so in 2005. Who knows, but citing ‘conditions’ every time the batsmen fail is a cop out.

The fact is Australia’s batting seems like a one trick pony; they can bully and dominate opposition attacks when the match momentum is in their favour, they look great setting a declaration total. But at 3/50 they’re increasingly less able than past sides to fight their way back to ascendency. Temperament, mentality, psychology, technique, whatever you like. When the crowd is behind England and it gets a bit hard out there, jenga time.

It happened in 2005, 2009, 2013 and it’s happened in four of the six innings Australia has batted in 2015.

Trent Bridge will not be any easier. Like Edgbaston, the crowd will be rowdy and right into Australia and they need to harden up. Johnson’s response to the crowd at Edgbaston was fantastic and his management of the pressure is the template.

Selection musings

The next time Australia tours England will be 2019 and the prospect of 18 years without a series win should be enough to motivate armchair sports frothers to ponder what can be done to win at Trent Bridge. Obviously we can’t play the game, but we can speculate about the team.

The conservative amble

Simple. Stick with the same XI and tell ’em to execute better.

The responsive centrist

Adam Voges hasn’t done enough. Time for a rest sunshine. Shaun Marsh gets the nod here.

The reformist agenda

Voges still goes and Shaun Marsh still comes, but slots in at four and Michael Clarke heads down to hide at 5. The bowling needs to be reignited too, so either Starc or Hazlewood makes way for Siddle.

The radical approach

Go make a cuppa tea, take a deep breath and sit down before reading this.

Rogers, Warner, Smith, S Marsh, Clarke, M Marsh, Nevill, Watson, Johnson, Hazlewood/Starc, Lyon.

Yep that’s right. Either Starc or Hazlewood sits out for Watson and he bats at eight and bowls his heart out after Johnson and Starc/Hazlewood take the new cherry. Mitch Marsh offers further back-up with Lyon. The batting has been a nightmare and Watson was a part of that in Cardiff, but this radical idea may just stiffen Australia’s batting without losing too much from the bowling. Watson’s Test batting average is better than Andy Flintoff’s and his bowling average is almost identical and many consider Flintoff to be one of the greatest all-rounders in modern cricket. Just saying…

England has benefited immensely from the runs of Moeen Ali at 8 and he isn’t scoring them through luck. He’s a genuine batsman who bowls some handy spin. His 77 at Cardiff and 59 at Birmingham were game changers.

Ok, calm down. Have another cuppa, stats aren’t everything and Watson’s Test career is probably over and the centrists or reformists will probably win. However, if Voges keeps his spot perhaps Shaun Marsh comes in for one of the bowlers and Mitch Marsh goes to 8?

England

They were superb at Edgbaston. Steve Finn was brilliant and they’ll take some serious stopping now that Ian Bell is in form alongside Joe Root. They have lost James Anderson though. The impact of his absence cannot be overstated. It has been somewhat glossed over in the aftermath of Finn’s contribution but it does weaken England’s bowling, which strengthens the centrist and reformist agendas in Australia’s selection debate.

A friend of mine in England suggested that Adam Lyth should be dropped for Adil Rashid who will slot in at 8 while Moeen Ali will be promoted to open with Cook. He argues that Ali would compliment Cook’s style and that Rashid provides an extra spin option and is a capable middle-order batsman. Johnson’s short-ball dismissal of Ali at Lords could stymie this option though, but it certainly has merit.

Whoever is picked I’m predicting… in fact I’m not predicting anything. This series is too hard to figure out.

England Cooked: Bell’s Lyth hangs in the Ballance

If Australia were beaten convincingly in Cardiff, England has been mutilated at Lords. They were dead lucky to crack 100 on a pudding of a cricket pitch where Australia had scored 820.

If Stuart Broad didn’t counter-attack and top score with 25, England were destined for a sub-100 annihilation. So heavy was the 405 run defeat, at least four English players face the chopping block for the next Test.

It’s an intergalactic reversal of fortunes that will leave betting agency strategists ripping shreds of hair from balding scalps. Adam Lyth appears to have already done that. He was worked over, again, by Mitchell Starc in the second innings and is under to pressure to stay in the team. England’s used about 12 openers since their tour of Australia in 2013-14 and it seems Cook might have to open the batting by himself if the current trend continues.

The top order is failing. England have been 3 for 70 or worse in 11 of their last 13 Tests. Garry Ballance is all at sea against genuine pace and Ian Bell’s Lyth also hangs in the Ballance.

The Pitch

Before the series it was speculated that England might order the preparation of flat and soft pitches to negate Australia’s ferocious pace attack. But in June Cricket Froth warned that this would be counter-productive; “England does not have a frontline spinner. Whatever is done to tame pitches for Australia’s fast bowlers will have equal effect on the hosts.”

And so it did. Jimmy Anderson went without a wicket at Lords. A lifeless feather bed suited to scoring thousands when the sun was shining was equally unhelpful to England’s own formidable pace attack. But Australia has something England do not; genuine express pace through the air and with that, sometimes you don’t need a favourable pitch. Although Anderson and Broad are sharp, Johnson and Starc are Orient (express).

Johnson bowled well and without luck in Cardiff but you could clearly see England’s batsmen were wary, if not fearful.

In the fourth innings at Lords England’s fear was exemplified in their swatting evasion and eventually, for Cook, Ali and Buttler, their dismissals. Australia were hostile. Johnson extracted bounce and carry and struck Joe Root in the face and prized out Moeen Ali, who had no choice but to protect his life when one reared up into his bearded boat. He was caught at bat pad.

England's best batsman could not evade Johnson

England’s best batsman could not evade Johnson

All of Australia’s bowlers were in on the act suggesting that they hunted as a pack and sustained an unrelenting pressure that asphyxiated England to the point of hapless defeat.

What happens now?

The teams take a 10 day break before the third Test at Edgbaston. Birmingham is a completely different prospect to the private school-boy filled Lords. It’s a rowdy, fancy dress, beer swilling type atmosphere and the Barmy Army – banned at Lords – will be back on-board.

It is Warwickshire-man Ian Bell’s home ground and this might be the fact that saves his Test career. He’s a brilliant player who is deeply out of sorts and if Ballance goes, he may even find that selectors toss him a career defining challenge; bat at three.

At six wickets down last night the ECB were already tweeting about possible replacements: they announced a county century by Johnny Bairstow with a thinly veiled implication. Ballance and Lyth are also under the pump and some might be surpirsed to know that Marcus Trescothic is still getting around for Somerset. Could he replace Lyth? Steve Finn and Mark Foottit linger for Mark Wood’s place.

Trevor Bayliss, England’s new coach, is known to be conservative though and he may support the use of the same squad next week.

In a county match at Edgbaston on the weekend former New Zealand off-spinner Jeetan Patel took 5 wickets for Wawrickshire suggesting that Birmingham might be a spinner. Does England have one? Adil Rashid perhaps.

Shane Watson won’t get near the Australian all-rounder position after Mitch Marsh’s solid performance at Lords. He could get back in if Chris Rogers fails to recover from vertigo/illness and Australia elect to open with Watson instead of Shaun Marsh, the other option.

Watson got into Australia’s Test side at Edgbaston as an opener in 2009 when Phil Hughes was dropped after two Tests. It would be a strange quirk if Watson made it back into the side there next week.

The series is alive and England can be expected to retaliate.

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.

Cook won a toss, but dropped a Root

England’s Captain won his first coin toss of the series and surprisingly elected to field. When Australia slumped to 5 for 97 Alistair’s Cook’s decision was vindicated, Vic Flowers led the Barmy Army into song and for a brief moment the 4-0 scoreline was forgotten. Enter Brad Haddin and Steve Smith.

They put on 128 in an afternoon session that England will seek to forget, or analyse deeply if they’re serious about rebuilding, which we can somewhat doubt given the fact that they bizarrely dropped Joe Root. The 23 year old batsmen is one of England’s best prospects and would get a game in most Test sides as a lad for the future. He is not the worst performing bastmen for England on this tour, at times he has done well – a notable 87 in Adelaide – and has had to put up with batting at opener, 5, 6 and 3 in the year 2013 alone. If England want to rebuild for the future – as they have repeatedly stated – then Joe Root must be part of that future. Dropping him for this Test is a silly mistake.

Enough of that. Steve Smith, at 24 perhaps Australia’s closest comparable player to Joe Root, scored a brilliant hundred today, which rescued and returned ascendency to the hosts. Brad Haddin, who is the only player within a country mile of challenging Mitchell Johnson for Player of the Series, provided a substantial foil scoring 75 off 90 balls. In the circumstances, Haddin’s 75 represented a brutal counter-attack that smothered England’s bowlers. Haddin is not shy of on-field needle and sprayed England with aggressive verbals, body language and stroke play.

England’s bowling line up suffered with the loss to injury of debutant Boyd Rankin, who went off twice for an unknown injury. Perhaps Rankin should be playing for Ireland given that he was born in Derry in Northern Ireland. I only digress to this because Ireland has produced a number of Test standard players recently and the time is nigh for them to be included in Test cricket so that players like Rankin and Eoin Morgan can represent their own country.

After Ben Stokes, a brilliant find for England and a great prospect for the future, took his sixth wicket Australia had made 326. The Aussies nipped out Michael Carberry before stumps to have England somewhat reeling at 1/8. Carberry’s dismissal was not a good look for the talented Sir Viv impersonator from Surrey. An obvious leg slip trap was set and he obliged flicking a hip ball into the hands of a delighted Nathan Lyon. Carberry had got away with an unchallenged snick behind the ball before and surrendered weakly the ball after. At 33 Carberry had to wait far too long for an extended chance with England, but unless he shows more fight in tough circumstances his tenure is under threat too.

Australia cruise to a 4 nil lead as England capitulate, again

A short time has passed since I last doused this blog with fresh words analysing the Ashes Series. Christmas commitments, holidays and playing host to international guests squeezed my time and robbed me of the personal creative introspection I need to write anything worth glancing at.

Despite being time poor in the festive season, as I’m sure all of you were too, I still managed to absorb the ultimate cricket exchanges. I’ve spent much of the last couple of days at the Melbourne Cricket Ground watching the action live in human eye definition.

I spent time with the “Aussie Army”, had a few beers at the Cricketer’s Arms on Punt Road and stood among the Barmy Army. Good friends are always an asset in life and especially when they’re members of the Melbourne Cricket Club, an elite and privileged crew with an average 25 year waiting list. My MCC member friends allowed me, as a guest, to enjoy Day 4 in the comfortable surrounds of the members section. An amazing experience complemented by padded seats, good food and generous wine portions.

What a day; a Chris Rogers century, 8000 Test runs for Michael Clarke (Alistair Cook reached this milestone on Day 3), an unbeaten and entertaining Shane Watson 81 and a fourth consecutive resounding victory for Australia. The ease with which Australia finally took England’s scalp in this Test defies or inaccurately portrays how close England came to setting up a win.

England had Australia in a submissive position on Day 3 of the fourth Test at Melbourne when they began their second innings with a lead of around 50. At 0/65 after the luncheon England looked to be erecting the relevant foundation to build a solid lead. At 4/87 the foundation was still there, but the scaffold required to support the lead had begun to fall away. I think that had England established a lead of over 300, Australia would have capitulated, but when England lost 5 wickets for 6 runs near the close of Day 3 and Australia’s openers finished on 0/30, the hosts needed only 201 to win with 2 days of play remaining. England threw it away with devastating style, in part due to relentless high quality bowling from Australia, but also in part due to whatever cancer is eating away at England’s dressing room morale and attitude.

This has been a disastrous series for the tourists. It seems that internal conflicts exist, perhaps factions and cliques are at play and I’m sure that we will here more about these in future as players’ and coaches’ tongues are inevitably freed from the restrictions of international cricket. The leadership of coach Andy Flower and captain Alistair Cook will be questioned. I think that, at least, Ashley Giles will replace Flower in the near future.

The early-series departure of Jonathon Trott – a fine player – and the mid-series retirement of Graeme Swann – possibly England’s greatest spinner – added to the turbulent and unsettled disposition of the England squad. Something or many things have gone awry, but this shouldn’t detract from the super performance by Australia. Four Tests have been played and the same 11 players have provided Australia four victories. Five of Australia’s top 6 batsmen have scored centuries, as has wicket-keeper Brad Haddin, and all four bowlers have taken wickets. Mitchell Johnson has taken over 30 for the series, an enormous return for a man previously condemned by many opposition and Australian cricket fans.

Onwards to Sydney where the fifth Test begins on 3 January. Can England resurrect some of the high quality we know exists in the squad? Or will Australia execute the clean sweep?

Paying Homage

I must make special mention of one of the world’s finest cricketers, Jaques Kallis, who at 38 announced his retirement from Test cricket earlier this week. Kallis just scored a century against India and has 45 Test centuries in his career, second only to Sachin Tendulkar. The South African will bow out having scored over 13,000 runs at an average in excess of 55, at least 292 wickets at a bowling average of 32 and over 200 catches. What a wonderful player.

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When will Australia declare and can England fight and survive?

Smashing feet and hands Mitchell Johnson has continued his resurgence by assaulting England’s batsmen and putting Stuart Broad out of this Test. Australia are on the brink of victory, England on the slippery slope to oblivion.

How the chips have fallen

On Day 1 Australia won the toss and batted. Within minutes a disastrous run-out (a felony in a Test Match) put Australia on the back-foot. By drinks in the 2nd session Australia were 5/150 and sailing to a below par score. The stage was set for young number 5 Steve Smith who scored a fine century and assisted the hosts to put on the most runs ever scored in a day at Perth (326). Smith was aided by solid batting from Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson and Australia’s tail helped to secure an eventual 385 run total.

England began well with Cook and Carberry navigating the new ball and posting 85 runs off 25overs. After Carberry’s departure partnerships were scarce and wickets fell periodically. England can feel aggrieved by Joe Root’s dismissal. It was a tough call.

At 4/180odd on day 3 England were still in the Test with a strong chance of at least a draw, but tight and relentless bowling picked off England’s batsmen who were hurried out for a total of 235. Needing to bowl Australia out cheaply in the second innings England’s struggles, compounded by Broad’s absence, were exemplified by David Warner and Chris Rogers. The Australian openers put on 157 for the first wicket and drove England out of the game. Warner’s second century of the series carved England to pieces and the matter of declaration timing and the unleashing of Australia’s bowlers again now rages as the most popular topic at water coolers in Australian offices.

Warner, Clarke and Haddin have combined to score 4 more runs (1054) than the combined total of England’s squad (1050) in this series and it seems the trend is set to continue.

How are England doing?

A ragged England displayed their worst characteristics during the last 30 minutes of day 3. Test cricket is a psychological game and assessing micro interactions and on-field choices is a viable method of determining where a team or an individual is at. Here’s the picture that unfolded during that final 30 minutes on Sunday evening.

Severely under the pump and way behind in the game, but with potential to salvage a draw still available to tap, a defeatist England portrayed a team on a sharp decline ambivalent about fighting for a draw.  In the fading sunshine bemused faces were carried by nonchalant and exhausted bodies.

We’ve heard how influential the Barmy Army have been in the good times, spurring on England’s bowlers to rip through batting line ups and fire the team during fighting sessions, but yesterday their influence seemed poisonous.

As England’s players lobbed about unenthusiastically in the field, the jovial Barmy Army led by their happy trumpeter, sang and clapped as if at a birthday party. The malapropos tunes of the trumpet drifted across the WACA and seemed to deflate England further. The ill-matched fandom inspired a half-baked appeal from James Anderson and Matt Prior for a “catch” down the leg side to Steve Smith. Prior’s tongue-in-cheek appeal was over spiced with desperation.

Cook, Prior, Swann and others shared a laugh, but they provided the comedy for the rest of us when, in ridiculous circumstances, England chose to review a Joe Root appeal for LBW. Root, bowling around the wicket to Shane Watson pitched the ball about 12inches outside leg stump, hit the pad about 3inches outside leg and appealed as if it was a sure thing. The umpire almost laughed while declining the appeal, but Cook engaged the DRS. It was a pathetic referral and an insight into England’s diminished attitude and fortunes.

Meanwhile, the Barmy Army chanted the theme to Escape to Victory, again, for the fifteenth time that day and for the forty fourth millionth time in recent history. A refreshed repertoire is required on and off the pitch if England are to save this Test and keep the fight for the Ashes Urn alive.

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2-0 to Australia: Are England done and dusted?

I’m not writing an obituary or presenting a detailed postmortem of England. We don’t have a carcass to analyse yet. They’re on life-support in the back of an ambulance heading west across the Nullarbor with a slim chance of revival.

Many cricket writers and spectators will offer their analysis of why England are 2-0 down and why they have been battered from pillar to post by Australia. It’s too early for that.

Since Darren Lehmann’s installation as head coach there’s been notable differences in the way Australia conducts business. At the heart of their business model is a determinately aggressive attitude and cause commitment unmitigated by internal conflict. Power politics, disputes and petty distractions littered the dressing room prior to Lehmann’s reign, but now every player in that camp is invested into whatever the leadership has articulated as necessary to win back the Ashes, and it’s working. They field as if possessed by a spiritual connection to feeding sharks mauling scraps, eager to obtain the ball and stymie every English run. They have batted with composure and they have found fighters when collapse seemed likely.

Two nil up and heading to Perth, where the weather will beat down on the tourists and the pitch will batter them from underneath, is a perfect status for the home side and a fair indication of the action. Australia’s western capital will supply 40 degrees of heat throughout the third Test, turning the WACA ground into an inescapable furnace. The Fremantle doctor will blow and invite explosive in-swinging wrath from Mitchell Johnson, while the surface – commonly regarded as the fastest cricket wicket in the world – will heap yet more pain on an English batting order that has, at times, genuinely looked afraid.

Can England get back?

Had England taken their chances on Day 1 of the 2nd Test in Adelaide (they dropped several catches), this match may have panned out differently. Australia should have been on the ropes and struggling to make 300 in their first innings, but England grassed a handful of chances and Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin forced them to pay dearly on Day 2. Had Mitchell Johnson not been able to unleash that destructive spell on the middle and lower belly of the English order on Day 3 then other outcomes may have transpired too. Australia are well on top in this series, their ascendency undeniable, but don’t scoff, there are still avenues of return for England in a series that is not yet half way over.

A glimpse or two of fight emerged from Joe Root, Kevin Pietersen, Ben Stokes and Matt Prior who showed that there is desire to hit back, but their reach is questionable and Australia are feeling mighty.

Perth

Australia won’t change their team unless one of the troops is unfit. NSW quick Doug Bollinger is on stand-by if an incumbent bowler needs to be withdrawn. On the other hand England will consider several changes. Coach Andy Flower has sent back-up batsmen Jonny Bairstow and Garry Balance ahead of the squad to play in a practice match. They’ll play right up until the eve of the 3rd Test and be unable to prepare with the rest of the squad. It is difficult to decipher if this signifies that their inclusion is unlikely, but England could do with an extra batsman. Graeme Swann hasn’t troubled Australia’s batsmen in two Tests on the bounce so perhaps one could stage an argument that he should be withdrawn in favour of Tim Bresnan.

The Needle

The needle shall continue at Perth. Kerry O’Keefe and Drew Morphett – two great ABC radio commentators – described an “ugly” scene late on the fourth day at Adelaide. They felt that the verbal exchanges and the accidental physical contact between Mitchell Johnson and Ben Stokes had gone too far. Skull O’Keefe and Morphett implored the ICC match referee to intervene and present an ultimatum to both dressing rooms to simmer the exchanges down. I’m not sure if this intervention has occurred – Johnson and Stokes were charged, but cleared on appeal – but, I doubt the temperature of this contest will decrease.

Australia are on a mission, England under siege and the Ashes can be won and lost within the week.

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