December 6, 2006

Second Test, Adelaide

England's 'good cricket' makes failure worse

Gideon Haigh

Uncertainty is a glorious feature of cricket – except occasionally when you’re writing about it. Such an occasion has just been had, when almost to a man the media consigned the Adelaide Test to the oblivion of a drawn, only to see Ricky Ponting’s team turn around and win it. I didn’t explicitly tip a draw, but I didn’t think Ponting had done enough to win it – nor did I think Australia really deserved to. I’ll leave being wise after the event to others. It’s time to grab that mirror and take a good hard look at myself!

I didn’t think England would be as bad as at Brisbane. In fact, they were better for four days and hugely worse on the last, so I can’t take much credit for that. I didn’t think the toss would be decisive, any more than it was during the very similar Test here three years ago between Australia and India; on the other hand, I also believed that Australia had been shut out of the game by the second evening. Poor mad fool.

In a podcast before the game, I said that Les Burdett prepared his pitches with a result in mind in the last hour of the last day, and I thought the pitch played pretty fairly throughout: the best bowlers of the first four days, Clark and Hoggard, got the results. So I refrained from writing a ‘these pitches are destroying Test cricket’ piece. Phew.

Mind you, I also expressed the belief that Australia on the fourth day had reverted to a bad habit of indulging individuals at the game’s expense, and dawdled towards the end of their innings, intent on preserving their series lead rather than striving to extend it: an admission of some weakness. I was surprised that Ponting didn’t do more to make England uncomfortable, whether by pushing on more obviously, declaring earlier, or opening the bowling in the second innings with Warne supported by a flock of close-in fielders, perhaps with Clark at the other end. I expected Warne to be a threat on the last day, but didn’t believe he’d been given enough time to do his thing. So I bollocksed that up. Actually, this wasn’t one of those relentlessly efficient Australian wins of yore. Five players contributed next to nothing. The batting is frightfully dependent on Ponting and Hussey. The bowling is still reliant on Warne’s varying humours; McGrath’s spell on Tuesday was embarrassing. But by golly, they trailed that whiff of victory like a bloodhound, a veritable Hound of the Baskervilles.

In one of his famous Roses despatches, Neville Cardus reported wending his way home after a disastrous Yorkshire collapse at Headingley, and being accosted at Leeds railway station by a local eager for the cricket score. Lancastrian Cardus perkily reported that Yorkshire had been rounded up for less than 100 and slumped to heavy defeat. His interlocutor looked grave. After a pause, he said finally: ‘They did that, did they? Ah thowt better of them.’ Well, having seen them play with such spunk and spirit last year, I thought better of England. You always overvalue that which you see with your own eyes. Having not seen England choke in similar circumstances at Multan a year ago, I did not factor it in as a precedent. This leads me to suspect that we’ve all underestimated the significance of Michael Vaughan, behind whose veneer of civility lurks a far steelier individual than Andrew Flintoff. Vaughan would not have trotted out Flintoff’s daft line of reasoning last night, that the match was pretty good for England because they dominated so much of it. England’s good cricket doesn’t redeem its failure; it makes the failure worse.

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Posted by Caroline on (December 8, 2006, 12:41 GMT)

Glad to see the comments about Vaughan - he seems to be a very psychologically-minded Captain, who measures his actions and responses very carefully, as opposed to Flintoff, who works by instinct. I don't know if it makes it worse that they played well for four days - it just feels pretty bad allround!

Posted by Kevin Framp on (December 8, 2006, 7:30 GMT)

Gideon....a pleasure to read the blog, as always, and I think you're absolutely right about Vaughan. It's been noticeable I think that England's team selections and tactics have been more conservative on this tour-and one wonders if that is the influence of the (always conservative) Fletcher over the neophyte captain Flintoff? England never took a backward step under Vaughan in 2005, even in the game they lost. They have rarely threatened to take a forward step without him on this tour-from selection to crease.

Posted by Mark on (December 8, 2006, 2:34 GMT)

No doubt the absence of Vaughan is crucial. His captaincy was a primary reason behind Englands success last year. Indeed he is such an excellent captain that, like Mike brearley, he is worth selecting for his captaincy alone. He has such a wonderful combination of competitive focus, tactical acuity, calmness of demeanor and psychological alertness that his presence in the team instantly enhances its perrformance. Even though his batting has appeared to suffer since he took over the captaincy, he would still be preferable to Ian Bell at no. 3 because he is so much more assertive in his approach. To have selected Flintoff as a captain always seemed a mistake. Strauss would have been a wiser choice. The manner of Flintoff's cricket, particualrly his batting, does not suit the demands of captaincy. He is primarily a player of the heart, and captaincy requires him to be a player of the head. Though Flintoff is in many ways a good captain, the captaincy does not enhance but detracts from his performance as a player. He is too good a player, and too important to England's prospects, to be compromised in this way. How stark is the contrast between his titanic performances of 2005 and the way he lamely surrendered his wicket on Tuesday. By selecting Flintoff as captain England have sacrificed much of the influence of their best player. Without the captaincy, Flintoff could focus his efforts on being the side’s champion and inspiration. This he did magnificently. With the captaincy he is still demonstrably an outstanding cricketer, but his exuberance is muted and his batting seems uncertain.

Similarly, the absence of Panesar - of a spin bowler capable of causing the Australian batsmen even a modicum of the discomfort Warne elicits - would seem to have proved fatal. In 2005 there were three noticeable weaknesses in England’s performance: the lack of authority in Bell’s batting, Jone’s inability to concentrate, and the absence of a counterpart to Warne - Giles is a good cricketer who contributes to the team well in all phases of the game, but his bowling lacks menace. The first of these concerns has been partially addressed, but on the evidence of this match, continues to be a problem. There is much to suggest the other two areas of concern could easily be remedied by the selectors. The obdurate refusal on the part of the team’s management to do this constitutes an almost criminal negligence, the price of which would seem the premature end of the series as both a contest and a spectacle.

It ought be pointed out that this preoccupation with Gile's batting, though not entirely mistaken, is indicative of a defensiveness which England can ill afford. Surely, there performances of 2005 should have demonstrated the necessity and effectivenss of a relentlessly aggressivee approach. Rather than worrying about being not having enough runs , the emphasis should be on bowling the opposition out for less. The reasons given for the non-selection of Panesar and Read reveal an outlook which can retrospectively be recognised as the seed of Englands bewildering tentativeness on Tuesday.

What is so frustrating is that each of these problems: the selection of the captain, and the selection of the team - are simply a consequence of poor judgement and are entirely self inccurred liabilities without a ball being bowled. Given how formidable a team Australia is, given the absence of Trescothick, Vaughan and Jones, it was an imperative to ensure England made best use of what resources it had available. That is has not done so is reason to lament.

Posted by Kathryn on (December 7, 2006, 12:49 GMT)

The messaage to England from the last day of the second test of the 2006-7 series is simples as it is stark. It doesn't matter how few players Australia rely on in batting or bowling. It doesn't matter how old the Australian players are. It doesn't even matter how bad the English mindset was The simple fact is that England lead by about 100 runs and had 9 wickets in hand, before the fourth innings was to begin, on the morning of the last day - YOU SIMPLY DO NOT LOSE TEST MATCHES FROM THAT POSITION!! but with a stunning bowling effort, a team can WIN from such a poor position.

Australia may be a "dad's army", it may rely on Warne, McGrath, and Lee too much in Bowling, and may rely on Ponting, Hussey, and maybe Clarke in the batting - with all that against Australia, who could England rely on in a crisis??

Posted by Richard on (December 7, 2006, 11:23 GMT)

Your assertion that Australia's batting is overly reliant on Hussey and Ponting is not backed up by the facts - Langer and Clarke each scored centuries in the last two tests (the latter being particularly important in getting Australia's score on a par with England's), while Gilchrist's quick 60 on the morning of the 4th day was highly important in getting the game back on track. You also underestimate McGrath. England had lost the 1st test when they were dismissed cheaply in the first innings - this was largely McGrath's doing. Australia were dawdling at the end of their first innings? Chasing a score of 550 sometimes requires some patience and accountability - the extra 50-odd runs achieved towards the end were important in getting the total close to England's. If the rest of the tail tried to bat as brazenly as Stuart Clark, they may well have got out just as cheaply. Aside from this, Australia's "dawdling" was nothing compared to that of England's on the final morning.

Posted by John on (December 7, 2006, 10:19 GMT)

I love your blogs, Gideon. Failure by the Poms (or incredible success by the Aussies) - the result is the same for me. It healed a wound I have carried since the Summer of '78-79. I witnessed the complete dismemberment of the shadow Aussie-eleven by Brearley and his team. In my eyes it was a case of kicking someone really hard when they were down. If truth be told, I still felt the anger about that - until the other day.

Posted by Tony on (December 7, 2006, 6:57 GMT)

Dear Gideon I have to say I agree with practically everything you wrote in this article. Which is nice I suppose as you have probably already received a number of less complimentary responses taking you to task for daring to imply that some of the after-match bragging from the Australian team rather overstated the positive thinking great cricket line while ignoring the fact that the loser in this case was hugely complicit in its own downfall.I must say I initially felt they did rather sneak in the cat-door and steal this match, but it seemed churlish to deny them the accolades..... Not that it matters: in any war the victors write the history so the chest thumping version will doubtless reign. Funny is it not , how so many extremely agressive players often fall into defensive mindedness when captaining their teams? I would suggest Flintoff is looking a little that way, as is Ponting on the rare occasions when his team is forced on to the back foot. My memory goes back to Dexter - a sublime strokeplayer who rarely blocked when he could drive but a frequently negative captain.And Kim Hughes, and I'm sure there are others... Incidentally , you mention Multan, which I saw, and the parallels are interesting.In both cases England had bossed the game and needed only a normal ,modest batting effort to secure their objective- a win in Multan, a draw here , and both times a fairly useful start (60+ for 1) was followed by the careless loss of 3 wickets and subsequent panic.They nearly did something similar in the last Test in South Africa in 2004/5,when they contrived to lose 4 quick wickets when faced with batting just 40 or so overs to secure draw and series. It is almost as if they tend to switch off when it appears that the hard work is done , and try to just coast to the line . One for the sports psychologists?

Let us hope they can come back from this to give us a memorable match in Perth.

Posted by Suresh Kulkarni on (December 7, 2006, 5:03 GMT)

Hi Gideon. I am a regular reader of your articles and find them really absorbing.

Coming to the adelaide test, I tend to agree with you that Australia didn't realy deserve to win it. However I do believe that England deserved to lose it through their weird selection thought process. The defensive, negative mindset was the main reason for this defeat. Its difficult to believe that its the same side that won a thrilling ashes campaign last year. But then its not the same really. I think what is missed most is Michael Vaughn's astute and attacking leadership. Perhaps he had more say in the team selection over Duncan Fletcher than Andrew Flintoff seems to have. To me the game was lost not really on the last day but on day 3 and 4 when England did not have the bowlers to put Australia under pressure. What are the considerations for playing Giles, Anderson and Jones is beyond anybody's common sense except that of Fletcher and Flintoff (who said that he was happy woth the side he got).

Posted by gordon on (December 7, 2006, 2:29 GMT)

Gideon this is my first response to your blog. Its an ok piece and I guess captures the feeling of surprise many Aussie fans are experiencing after this result. However along with most writers and particularly those of UK heritage , I feel you are somewhat damned by your faint praise.

Why is it that this Australian team that has now one 13 out of 14 matches since the tour of the UK ( and nine on the trot) after an incredible 53 out of the previous 69 prior to that tour ( ie from the time the last 16 game winning streak began under Steve Waugh), why are we not proclaiming them for their spirit and skill. We/you should be celebrating their aggressive approach. This team has changed the way cricket is played through their thrilling aggressive batting led by Gilchrist and Ponting, their wonderful fielding and interesting diversity in bowling from Lee and McGrath to Clark and of course Warne.

Cricket has never had it so good and the crowds that come to watch Australia not just here in Australia or this season but since the late 90's are a testimony to that fact.

This success is not just down to Ponting and Hussey. Clarke ( and what a refreshing statement he is) has scores of 56 and 124 to his name, Langer 82 and 100 no, Gilchrist here a fine 64. Even Warne 43 here, Lee 43no and 7no and Clarke in Brisbane 39 have scored runs in these two wins.

So come on mate, don't fall into that habit of patronising the Poms and playing to that audience with your Roebuck in reverse.Give credit where it is due. Write a piece that tells your readers that we are witnessing perhaps the final years of the greatest Aussie era and represented by a team who have proved yet again the value of aggressive passionate and above all a never say die team approach to the game.

Incidentally this was just as apparent in the UK in 05 when this spirit gave the series its life and memories. Time to give em a pat on the back and say thanks for showing us yet again what team play is about..not just two batsmen or two bowlers please!

Posted by Steven on (December 7, 2006, 2:01 GMT)

As the ABC radio commentary suggested on Monday afternoon 'England could lose the test match rather than Australia win it'. How true big match experience on foreign soil is something that you gain not learn. When playing Australia in cricket you are playing the best, you have to play for five days not four. Well Mr Fletcher you say that A Giles and G Jones are in the side for their batting ability so England can bat down to 8, like Australia do. Well not everyone has an Gilchrist or Warne, don't tell Brad Haddin or Brett Lee and co. Surely if you want to bat to no.8 pick an allrounder and have three specialist bowler not four that make three positions. It should be said that G Jones kept wellwhich is his main job. How can England win a game without attacking for five days and without using the arsenal to do so.

The Ashes are coming home.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gideon Haigh
Born in London of a Yorkshire father, raised in Australia by a Tasmanian mother, Gideon Haigh lives in Melbourne with a cat, Trumper. He has written 19 books and edited a further seven. He is also a life member and perennial vice-president of the South Yarra CC.

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