What a dramatic and controversial start to the Ashes tour for England! However, despite my love of test cricket, I cannot help but feel that this is too much cricket against Australia, in too short a time – I certainly have not got the enthusiasm that I would normally expect to have. I always thought that it would be tougher for England in Australia, but even I was surprised by the level of aggression being used in the media to undermine England’s confidence. I think this hype is what has led to the “over the top” sledging both on the field and in the press sessions after play. Whether this has also contributed to the depression affecting Jonathan Trott is another matter and only Trott himself would know.
For England, the first test was a disaster after what seemed like a good start for the England bowlers. A quick summary would be that England were simply out bowled and this was a result of Mitchell Johnson hitting some form (he is quite variable in his ability to bowl accurately), but I am not sure it is that simple (sport rarely is). I wonder how well England were prepared for the level of aggression they would face in Australia, it has been known for years that sledging on the field and aggressive reporting are an important part of a successful Australian cricket team (it is also true for other successful sports such as rugby). But, this is the first time I have seen it used, to such a high degree, by a less than successful team, which may reflect the unusual situation of a back-to-back Ashes series. Aggression is a key part of sport at any level and I have used it myself to gain advantage, but you have to be ready for it and not let it dominate how you play – I think this might be England’s problem and the batsmen were not ready for the verbal and physical battering they were about to receive.
For me what I found interesting was the way Australia were able to continue to exploit the well described weaknesses of the England batsmen – Cook flashing outside of the off stump, Trott with the short ball etc. – England only managed to get one Australian batsmen out based on a well known weakness; although it was their captain. What I am suggesting is that England’s batsmen have not been able to overcome their problems associated with a known weakness (e.g Trott always playing through the leg side for any ball on the stumps) and it has been this batting frailty that has caused the downfall. I also think this knowledge has played on the mind of the batsmen (often seen as a slow sown in runs as the Australian bowlers begin to exploit the weakness) and this has got into their mind set. Of course, no one may agree with me, but that is my view.
What is next? Well, no matter how many fines are put in place, the Australians will not stop sledging, barracking or being aggressive so England will face all of that again. The only way to counter the problems is for the top-level batsmen, with the most experience, to stand up and demonstrate they can bat through the aggression – Pietersen, Cook (who showed some of this metal in the second innings), Bell and Prior (who maybe has the biggest problem. Carberry was unlucky in the second innings and I hope his luck is better in the next test, but Pietersen has a major role to play as he may find himself having two types of game to play – a defensive role to sop a fall of wickets, or an attacking role to move the game along at a key time. He has done both and is very capable of doing this again, but he must concentrate and get past the flack that will come his way. Are there any positives for England – well, tongue in cheek, they are better than Australia at reading DRS decisions!
Okay, that is my rant after just one test, but let’s not get too down. England have done this often and can recover, just make sure the games are not lost because of a lack of sports psychology in the dressing room, but are won or lost through sheer sporting ability. Everyone knows the ability of the England batsmen, but it is hard to know their mind set.
Update as of 14/12/2013:
The second test was not the England batting success I hoped for and there seemed to be some real fear of fast bowling in the eyes of the middle order batsmen. A few bright sparks that might signal a recovery, but my main concern was the ability of Australian bowlers to slow England’s run rate and then take wickets. This was continued in the first innings of the third test, where England started to show some fighting grit at last, but are still behind after two days play – they need to get the thoughts of failure out of their heads and start to attach back. Put the Australian bowlers under some pressure, they do not look that solid when forced into long unsuccessful sessions!
Well, the Ashes have gone, but we have ben Stokes to thank for some entertainment and for at least attempting what I suggested above – interesting that the Aussies looked less than solid when he was batting. The sad aspect of the game was the way all of the senior, experienced batsmen once again crumbled, playing poor-choice shots yet again! That was compounded by some woeful fielding by England – we gifted Australia the Ashes. I am in total agreement with Sir Ian Botham when he says England have been bullied out of this series – maybe there is a place for a new Sports Psychologist in the England setup (I never thought I would have to suggest that)!
The title of this blog should now be four down and whitewash imminent! The 2nd innings batting by England in the fourth test was the worst performance I have ever seen by professional cricketers. I have just read Alec Stewart’s views on this and I agree with his views, but I find it sad that Michael Carberry is struggling to score freely – I have always know his defensive leave was suspect, but he seems to have completely withdrawn his shots. It will be interesting to see how England approach the final test of the series, but I do not hold out a lot of hope. Changes to the batting line-up are likely to be more important than to the bowlers, who have done okay. However, my view remains unchanged – there is a problem with the mind-set of the England batsmen, who have lost the ability to make good shot selection when the bowling gets tight and runs dry up. The question for me is “who can sort that out and how”?
So that is it – 5-0 a white wash! Introduction of new blood made very little difference to the performance of the senior players, all of whom played terrible shots – the leaves being two of the worst since Gatting vs Warne – and showed no resilience. There is very little to take from this series and I simply will go back to my opening comments about a ten match series being too much for everyone. I think it has been for England as it was clear during Australia’s time in England that they were beginning to get the measure of England and it is clear to me that they gained an upper hand in Australia through psychological pressure (both in the media and on the field) and by changing tactics to attach the recognised weaknesses of the England top batsmen. In contrast, England’s tactics did not vary much and they stubbornly stuck to what they have been successful with before – but that was never going to win in Australia. Bowler’s lengths, fielding close to the bat and the positioning of fielders all need to improve in pressure situations!
The next real test of England comes from India in the summer!