England get Perthed
It’s pretty flat in western Australia, but England can turn most surfaces into a rollercoaster. After soaring yesterday, they slumped today. Perth is a very particular place to bat. Whenever Australia have had a decent attack, it has been a graveyard for English batsmen, because the bounce and carry turns the typical English ploy of propping forward on off stump into catching practice for the cordon.
Some distinguished players have made hardly any Test runs at the WACA. Graham Gooch managed 116 (spread over 17 years), Alec Stewart 120, Mike Atherton 100, Ian Botham 92, Mike Gatting 92, Nasser Hussain 76, Michael Vaughan 43, Marcus Trescothick 38, Keith Fletcher 26. In modern times, only three types of Englishman have consistently been able to cope: left-handers (David Gower 471, Chris Broad 178), extreme technicians (Geoff Boycott 319, Mark Ramprakash 187), and South African exports (Allan Lamb 200, Robin Smith 101 in one match) – men who grew up an ocean away, rather than a whole world. The present England team don’t have any technicians, so today was all about representatives of the other two breeds: Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen.
Strauss has had a weird series – always in form, never in the runs, thanks to a combination of bad hooking and bad luck with decisions. He has made runs almost every time in the warm-ups, as if he was a dead-match bully, which he very definitely isn’t. This is not a man who wilts under pressure, or who worries when he starts a series poorly, as he did in the 2005 Ashes. Today he controlled his temptation to hook, and looked like getting his first major score on Australian soil.
The square drives were pinging through extra cover, which is quite an achievement at the WACA. The mood music was upbeat. He made a quick start, then consolidated, then came out of his shell again. He spanked a cover drive off Stuart Clark, only to fall for the obvious follow-up, the one pushed wider. But he missed it. There was no edge, and he was still given out by Rudi Koertzen, a man whose mode of dismissal is so stylish – a gunslinger’s glare and the left arm coming up in super slo-mo – that he likes to give it plenty of airings.
On past form, England wouldn’t have got many more than Australia’s 244, but Strauss was the man most likely to make a hundred. Pietersen was kept quiet by tight bowling, then by super-defensive fields and the stifling presence of Matthew Hoggard, the deadest deadbat in world cricket. Pietersen showed glimmers of his genius and an ability to adapt, but that does not as yet include the ability to marshal a tail like Steve Waugh or Mike Hussey. He is too much the showman to be a good shepherd.
England lost the first Test because they only had half a bowling attack. Having finally fixed that problem, they now find they only have half a batting line-up. Everybody except Strauss, Pietersen and arguably Collingwood, is at least one place too high. Alastair Cook, as predicted, has become this year’s Ian Bell. At number three, Bell is confirming that he is a gifted number six.
At six and seven, the overstretched Flintoff and the out-of-form Jones have become an awfully soft underbelly. They are fine in those slots when they are at the top of their game, as at Trent Bridge 2005, but that’s a long time ago now. They find themselves so high up because of England’s dogged belief in the fifth bowler, and as one of them is captain and the other is on the management committee, they are partly responsible. So it was cruelly ironic that the man they handed their wickets to, like a couple of Christmas presents, should be Australia’s fifth bowler, Andrew Symonds.
Flintoff, who started the series as the leader of the pack, trying to be captain on the side, is now more of a captain who bowls a bit and bats hardly at all. He hasn’t even held a catch. The widespread assumption has been that if he gets injured, England are sunk. As it is, he has just about stayed fit, and they are sinking fast. If he were to miss a Test, it might not be the worst thing, for him or for them.