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Until Duncan Fletcher came along in 1999, the England team had some powerful traditions. The selection was haphazard and irresponsible. The bowling was inconsistent. And the batting, with the odd glorious exception, was apt to be stolid. All three of these tendencies, Fletcher and his men now seem hell-bent on restoring.
Adelaide, the most old-fashioned of Australia’s Test grounds, produced an old-fashioned day of vigilance and attrition on one side, perseverance and mind games on the other, and perfect balance overall. In other words, Test cricket.
England did well to lose only three wickets, but Australia did well to concede only three an over (even allowing for a squishy outfield). If you play the old trick of adding two wickets, something the new ball may yet deliver, then Australia are slightly on top. The pitch is so dry that the time to make runs is in the first innings. England could be all out for 350, as they were last time at Adelaide, from a similar position. Or they could push on to 500 – and still concede a first-innings lead.
The pitch has turned so much, so early, that England’s most likely wicket-taker would have been Monty Panesar. If he was playing. When he was left out last week, it was the most depresssing England selection for 14 years. But this was worse, because Adelaide is more of a spinners’ ground, and because the bowling was so toothless at Brisbane without him. He should have been the second bowler on the team sheet, after Flintoff.
England’s selection policy has gone to pieces on this tour. Bowl rubbish and your place is unquestioned. Bowl really well, early in your Test career, and you get dropped. Miss a year through injury and you can have your place straight back, even though you haven’t taken any wickets to speak of – and didn’t take many in the past. With values like that, the management hardly deserve to get back into the series.
The batsmen, however, do. Too limited to take the Edgbaston 05 route and bash their way out of a corner, the top order opted to do it by blocking. Ian Bell, so fluent against Pakistan a few months ago, turned into Chris Tavare in Brisbane, and stayed in that mode for two hours today. Off his first 95 balls, he scored just 23. Here was the doughty rearguard the traditionalists were calling for last weekend. They shall not pass. All shall sleep.
It was impressive, but also in danger of being self-defeating. Paul Collingwood was better, busier, smarter at finding the gaps in an intricate field. For possibly the first time, Ricky Ponting was in danger of being too clever. Why did Stuart Clark only have a few more overs than Michael Clarke?
Eventually Bell emerged from his shell, and he was rocking along – 37 off his last 53 balls – when he got suckered into a Strauss-style hook. He has now reached 50 four times against Australia without getting beyond 60. He is a fine supporting player, but a no. 3 needs to be more than that.
It was left to Kevin Pietersen to bring some modernity to the game. For the third Test in a row, he had the better of a thrilling duel with Warne. The old boy had been back to his best in the first two sessions – probing and threatening, yet going for no more than two an over.
Bell managed only nine off 44 balls from him. Pietersen faced Warne nearly as much, 42 balls, and smacked them around for 29. Collingwood, foraging astutely, has collected 43 off 69 balls from Warne. Between them, these three have given England a chance to make Australia’s elderly geniuses really feel their age.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Tim de Lisle
Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden. He fell in love with newspapers at the age of seven and with cricket at the age of 10. He started in journalism at 16, reviewing records for the London Australian Magazine, before reading classics at Oxford and writing for Smash Hits, Harpers & Queen and the Observer. He has been a feature writer on the Daily Telegraph, arts editor of the Times and the Independent on Sunday, and editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, where he won an Editor of the Year award. Since 1999, Tim has been the rock critic of the Mail on Sunday. He is deputy editor of Intelligent Life, the new general-interest magazine from the Economist. He writes for the Guardian and makes frequent appearances as a cricket pundit on the BBC and Sky News.