Third Test

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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I need sleep, but I can’t let go of this riddle!

Here we go again. It’s Day Five, we’ve had play, we’ve had wickets and I think I’m going to need that defibrillator again. This is unbelievable. The problem is, it’s raining now!

England are rocking at 3/33, but father time and mother nature are mating again and they want a draw. Every Australian fan and neutral is screaming for more dry weather and wickets. You guessed it too. We’ve had more controversy with umpiring and DRS. Ally Cook was absolutely plumb, Jonathan Trott was out, but Kevin Pietersen… well. The umpire gave him out, he reviewed, hot spot did not support the original decision, but he was sent packing.

The increasingly impossible riddle of original decision versus referral, leading to hotspot, close camera analysis, deviation detection, noise, player reaction and gut instinct is enough to shatter the sanity of players and fans of both sides.

My initial and gut instinct was that Pietersen was not out. It wasn’t as clear as Usman Khawaja’s miss on Day One, but there was little evidence he hit it. The inadmissible snickometre detected something though, so I will say that at best Pietersen may have feathered a tiny thread of seam string. The close up photo showing the position of the ball indicates this might, just might, be the case.

Anyway. The second session is yet to commence due to rain. The full covers are out and I’m a jittering wreck of a man. I need sleep, I have heaps of work to do, my fitness is declining. This series is battering me, a ludicrous cocktail of pleasure and pain and I can’t let go, not now. I know I’m not alone either.

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Incredulity Inducing Cricket Council – we’re in the dark, again

England’s vise-like grip on the Ashes urn has tightened to an almost unrelenting point, at least for this series anyway. If we manage to play on Day Five, then the first ball bowled has to be delivered by an Australian to an Englishman, and it will probably need to be a wicket taker.

Australia will surely declare overnight, but with the benefit of hindsight one may argue that Michael Clarke should have pulled the pin already.

With rain pencilled in for Day Five causing the likely loss of many overs, and with a lead approaching 300, the case for declaration mounted last night. I rocked back and forth steadily going round the twist from sleep deprivation, and at one o’clock this morning I pleading for a declaration. This feeling was emboldened when rain did arrive, the players departed and Tea was taken. The rain subsided, tea and scones were had, but Australia batted on.

On cue, as if realising they hadn’t interfered and shaped the game for a couple of hours, the umpires imposed themselves.

Tony Hill, of New Zealand, and Marais Erasmus of South Africa, dragged the players off the field at 1625 local time, enforcing the ICC’s bad light ruling. Michael Clarke was furious. The umpires had asked the England captain, Alistair Cook, to bowl spin from both ends, he understandably declined. No more play occurred and 36 overs were lost forever.

The bad light ruling drives me nuts and it didn’t please the parochial English crowd at Old Trafford, who booed and expressed visual discontent. There are England fans out there undisturbed at the loss of play, pointing to the contribution it makes to their Ashes campaign. I’d rather see the players resolve the contest, not the umpires or the weather.

Bad Light

Bad light is a safety ruling designed to protect players and officials, but it seems immensely subjective. Context and local expectations seem to shape the standard.

I’ve sat at Queens Park Oval in Trinidad – a rainy, forested island adjacent to Venezuela – and monsoonal gloom dominated. I sensed that if this light were experienced in sunny Perth the umpires would be off, but that light is par for the course in the southern Caribbean. I’ve also been at Lords, freezing cold in a gale, clad in a thick jacket with the day far too dark to consider sun glasses, yet play continued without any issue with the light. Again, if that light were experienced at Newlands in the bright beaming South African city of Cape Town, it would have seemed like night. I know the umpires utilise light metres, but it does seem subjective.

The weather factor

The premise of bad light is usually to protect batsmen and to a much lesser extent, fielders. But, when the batting team is currently going at 6 runs per over (4.77 for the innings) it’s hard to argue that their vision is impeded and safety threatened. The lights were on at Old Trafford and things seemed tenable.

If I were an England fan I’d be disappointed with the prospect of rain too as I’d be backing my team to fight and withstand Australia’s desire for rapid wickets. England certainly has the quality and it would be a scintillating contest. That’s what it’s all about for cricketing purists, high stakes last day cricket.

I can understand praying for rain when your side is six or seven wickets down late in the day trying to save a Test, but I can’t fathom the welcoming of weather interruption on Day Four when both sides are still fighting it out. That’s just not cricket.

The play that did go ahead

England’s batsmen Matt Prior and Stuart Broad did very well in the opening exchanges. The latter frustrated Australia with a succession of boundaries interspersed by defiance. England consumed time and picked off Australia’s lead, surpassing the follow-on indicator, before finally succumbing for 368 about 150-odd behind.

Australia shuffled the batting and sent out David Warner, a move that will generate topical debate. One logic offered for the reshuffle is that the left handers struggle against Graeme Swann so having three of them at the top of the order would provide them time against the seamers, before facing the Nottingham spinner. From hazy recollection, Swann was on after 4-5 overs. His ball to bowl Usman Khawaja around his legs was phenomenal. A real peach and he went straight for Broad to celebrate, as if it were Broad who suggested the ploy.

The fragile Aussie top order managed a collection of starts as the imperative for reasonably quick scoring brought about risky shots.

With the lead now 331, if somebody could kindly erect a roof at Old Trafford so we can get in a full day’s play watching England attempt to resist Australia’s attack, I’d be very grateful.

If not, then the Urn remains in England and we go to Chester Le-Street in Durham on Friday for the Fourth Test, England 2 up.

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Proper Test Match batting – Day One, Third Test – Old Trafford

Finally Australia have put on a display of proper Test Match batting.

I locked myself in for the evening, along with half of Australia and much of the rest of the cricketing world, in the hope that we would at least make a contest of this match. It’s all at stake in Manchester; careers, legacies, levels of interest and of course, the Ashes urn.

No change to the England side that demolished Australia at Lords. Three changes for Australia with Ashton Agar moving out for Nathan Lyon (don’t worry, Agar is 19 he will feature again) and Phil Hughes making way for David Warner. Mitch Starc got the nod to replace the injured James Pattinson.

The day’s play

Australia won the toss and on a wicket that looked great for batting all day and beyond, it was a vital moment. A solid base was needed and Rogers and Watson began to construct it with Rogers the aggressor and Watson the cautious, watchful one. Unfortunately for the latter he got out again on a start, 19. But, it was a pearler of a delivery from Tim Bresnan. No batsmen in the world could resist that nibbling line and perfect length and Watson prodded to the delight of wicket-keeper Prior.

Rogers persisted and raced beyond fifty exhibiting a fine array of shots. His new partner Usman Khawaja seemed terrified of Graeme Swann at Lords, so it was no surprise that he was quickly set up to face his dreaded phobia. Swann took his wicket in dramatic circumstances and I’ve already reflected on the Usman Khawaja DRS fiasco.

2/92 at lunch, a reasonable start. After a round of ham sandwiches, a packet of crisps and cup of hot water infused with sub-continental tea leaves, it was out for the second session.

Rogers and Clarke pushed on, but the gritty 35 year old opener was distracted by persistent movement up at the pavilion. A few overs passed and with constant interruptions up there, Rogers grew increasingly discontent. It contributed to his downfall, with a cunning full delivery by Swann trapping him LBW, right after another incident of unsuccessful communication with the buffoons up on the deck, one of whom turns out to be club cricket mate of Rogers.

England sensed a blood bath and they circled. But, the methodical and much ameliorated Steve Smith provided precisely the foil that Captain Michael Clarke needed.

In the Lords Preview I talked about the need to bat 120 overs plus in the first innings of a Test Match, and that the ability to leave the ball was a critical component of this. On a bouncy pitch more akin to an Australian wicket both Smith and Clarke executed leave after leave with aplomb. The result was an England bowling attack who began to show signs of irritation and fatigue. As I did at about 0145, trudging off to my own pavilion a little happier than most times this series.

Final Day One observations

Although not in the same galaxy as the Khawaja incident, England had their own brush with DRS dissatisfaction. They thought they had Smith caught behind for 25 before Tea, but the field umpire disagreed, they confidently reviewed and while there was some strange tick noise, there was no other compelling evidence. Mike Atherton said it was justice to Australia – a rubbish statement. Smith consumed both of England’s reviews and remains unbeaten on 75. Here in the southern hemisphere we hope he nails his maiden century tonight.

England will fight back, they’re too good not to. The Old Trafford crowd showed signs of becoming more boisterous and will increase it’s cacophony of support in the coming days. Australia must bat on for as long as possible and not even consider the D word, at all.

The stage is set for David Warner to blast Australia to a big score once Smith and Clarke reassert Australia’s ascendency on Day Two resuming at 3/303. Let’s hope the infamous Manchester weather remains clement.

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Is the DRS rubbish or are some ICC umpires utterly useless?

That is the volcanic inferno inducing question, once again.

After only one session of cricket in the third Test here we sit, not discussing Australia’s reasonable start with the bat (2/92 at lunch). Instead, all across Australia and parts of the world social media fumes over the sheer incompetence and totally unsatisfactory performance of the field umpire, and the third umpire operating the Decision Review System.

I was absolutely ropeable at the outcome of Usman Khawaja’s review. He was clearly not-out, missed it by two inches; no noise, no hotspot, no deviation. Why England appealed I have no idea, but they did and the field umpire obliged. The batsmen reviewed, then in an act of total absurdity, the third umpire concurred and Khawaja was sent packing.

I received about 11 text messages from fellow Australians raging over the inexplicable outcome. I bashed out about as many diatribes to friends and colleagues. Social media burned with hatred and the targets were many; the ICC, the umpires, the DRS, England, technology, you name it.

DRS or Umpire fault?

As the cloud of frothing anger begins to recede (is that possible?) the key point of debate should focus on whether the technology or the umpire is to blame?

There’s no question that the third umpire, Kumar Dharmasena, completely stuffed this one up. He had access to compelling evidence and his job was to overturn the field umpire’s horrendous decision. He failed.

In what circumstances is human error least acceptable?

With or without DRS humans will make mistakes. We can accept that. We have to. We’ve all copped a howler, benefited from one, or witnessed one from the stands or the couch. But, the circumstances of this dismissal are unforgivable. DRS was designed to reduce the instance of howlers, not introduce new ones. Accountability is required and answers are needed.

India refuse to play with DRS, perhaps they’re feeling pretty vindicated right about now.

Who should play for Australia next?

The ten day break between Lords and the upcoming third Test at Old Trafford is like an oasis for Australia. A bounty of space and time devoid of Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann. There’s been no time for relaxation, jelly and ice cream though. A section of the touring party has been battling Sussex at Hove, while the rest receive counselling.

Some of Australia’s fans are in need of counselling too after we copped a seventh defeat in ten Test Matches in London last week. With James Pattinson returning home injured, David Warner piling on 193 for the A side in Pretoria, and Ed Cowan posting 66 and a 77 not out against Sussex, heart rates remain high with conjecture raging about Australia’s XI for the next Test.

Australia’s immensely bad batting, which I discussed in depth in the Lords Preview and again in Australia’s Invertebrate Batting, has generated vociferous commentary. If we analysed some of the propositions circulating, we’d have about fifteen different 11s. I’ve made my feelings clear about the big picture and some of the factors affecting Australia’s batting demise, but with some radical ideas frisbeeing about in relation to who should play next, I’m in the conservative camp when it comes to selection for the remainder of this series.

Stick with the squad

You can’t go ringing up blokes and dragging them in from all corners with inadequate preparation, and dump them in the middle of an intense Ashes contest. Some people have demanded “bring in young guys and start building”. This popular line is trotted out in all sports, whenever things aren’t great, but it’s a shallow throwaway. This is already one of the youngest assemblies of Australian Test players in the past 25 years.

Mishandling our player resources is now a habit that requires breaking. The last thing we need to do is inhibit some young lad’s development by having him terrorised by England’s attack in front of the Barmy Army, who will be deployed in force for the first time this series at Old Trafford.

You don’t develop players in the Test team, you develop them in First Class cricket and pick accomplished and proven candidates to play Test cricket. Clearly this hasn’t happened for Australia with recent selection lacking philosophy and consistent logic, so it’s time for some continuity.

Chopping and changing is something to avoid in these circumstances

He’s a strong candidate and it looks likely he’ll play in Manchester, but I believe David Warner should not be rushed back in on account of one score for Australia A. Over 1300 runs were scored in that match with 3 centurions, a double centurion and a collection of worthy starts. This indicates the pitch was like the Great Eastern highway.

Warner scored 33 in the second dig and reports suggest he had to be separated from a heated confrontation with the opposition wicket keeper. He was sent there for disciplinary reasons and to fix an ailing attitude. Has the penny dropped for Warner? I’m not sure, I’d tell him we want another hundred for the A team when they play Sth Africa A again on Wednesday, but I believe he’s just arrived back in England to rejoin the squad so it seems he’ll play and hopefully prove me wrong.

As for the top order that failed at Lords; We can argue that Phil Hughes shouldn’t have been brought back so soon (or at all) and that Watson is an opener, a number six or a T20 specialist. Simon Katich should not have been deposed in 2011, but he should not be brought back in now, and we should not play Mathew Wade (0 & 30not out v Sussex) – a future wicket keeper who should bat at 7 – as a top six batsman.

Ed Cowan was dropped after the First Test so to reinstate him in the Third creates a revolving door and perpetuates a culture of self-preservation and fear.

Frankly, there should only be two certain changes for Old Trafford

Jackson Bird or Mitchell Starc in for the injured Pattinson and Nathan Lyon in for Ashton Agar. Naturally, this assertion lacks detailed pitch and weather analysis and the fitness of our players could affect selection come Thursday, but I’m hoping for some continuity both in the line up and the batting order.

My Old Trafford XI

Watson, Rogers, Khawaja, Clarke, Hughes, Smith, Haddin, Siddle, Harris, Lyon, Bird. (12th man Starc)

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