July 29, 2013

Seven straws for Australia to clutch at

They go to Old Trafford down two Tests, but not everything is gloomy. Like, how their heads aren't messed up by that sexy siren called Success

Several English cricket fans I have spoken to recently have expressed a hope that Australia will fight back in the Ashes, and make the series competitive and exciting. Several others, it should be added, have expressed the hope that England grind their baggy-green noses into the dirt with the remorseless persistence of a grazing cow with a lifelong vendetta against grass.

For those in the former camp, it is hard to be optimistic, with a third Test looming on a pitch which is likely to assist England and Ashes defeat almost inevitable, but here is the official Confectionery Stall guide to straws at which Australia can clutch.

1. Phillip Hughes has matched Alastair Cook run for run
Their personal head-to-head current stands at 83-all. And Hughes boasts a better average than the England skipper, thanks to his not-out in the first innings at Trent Bridge. Admittedly, he has since been out three times for two runs, but he is nevertheless averaging higher in this series than Pietersen, Trott and Prior. If you had promised (a) Australia and (b) Hughes that, after two Tests, he would have a better average than England's four leading batsmen of the previous year-and-a-bit, they would have bitten your hand off. And replaced it with a golden, animatronic bionic hand in gratitude.

Straw-clutch rating: 2/10. Hughes may well be dropped this week. The likelihood of Cook, Trott, Pietersen and Prior all staying statistically somnolent for the whole series is approximately the same as the probability of Graeme Smith winning a Most Stylish Cover Drive competition. Minimal. And for Australia to be 2-0 down having restricted those four players to a collective average of 21 must be about as encouraging for them as seeing a "Welcome To The Abattoir" sign must be for a sheep who is disembarking from a lorry after a rather overcrowded non-voluntary road trip.

That said, the Australian seamers have proved they can discomfort England, as, generally, good swing bowlers have over recent seasons. If the ball swings, they will be confident of continuing to make further inroads. And will hope that their own batsmen do not continue to pave those inroads with economy peanut butter.

2. If one team in world cricket knows how to win a series from 2-0 down, it is Australia
They are the only team in the history of the Test game to have done so. And if one team has a track record for tanking a two-match lead to lose a rubber, it is England, who were the Australians' victims on that occasion.

Straw-clutch rating: 0/10. Those experiences date back to the 1936-37 Ashes. Regrettably for Australia, all of the players who contributed to their stunning win in that series have been ruled out of this one due to being long dead, including, most disappointingly, Donald Bradman, who scored 270, 212 and 169 in the final three Tests. And any lingering mental scars in the England camp are likely to be insignificant - the last of the players involved left the England dressing room for the final time in 1948.

3. Steve Smith has taken as many wickets as Stuart Broad, and at half the average
Furthermore, the Australian leggie is currently averaging lower than Shane Warne managed on his first two Ashes tours of England.

Straw-clutch rating: 2/10. Broad has not bowled badly, and England have good pace reserves. And whilst Smith might have taken three cheap wickets in the first innings at Lord's, as Rene Descartes once said: "Averages? Schmaverages." Furthermore, Smith might technically be averaging less with the ball than Warne did in 1993 and 1997, but he is also averaging less with the bat than the great man did on those two tours, and in 2005. Which is disappointing, given that he is a batsman.

4. England have totally failed to dominate Nathan Lyon
England would have wanted to target Australia's No. 1 tweakman, who has a decent Test record - 76 wickets at 33 - and took nine wickets in his most recent Test. So far, in two Tests, they have not even landed a glove on him.

Straw clutch rating: 3/10. England may not have landed a glove on Lyon, but this is largely because they have not yet landed a bat on any delivery he has bowled, after he was dropped for the first Test. He has just had an unproductive match against Sussex, and his confidence, already dented after a largely unproductive 2012-13 season, is unlikely to have been stratospherically boosted by being jettisoned for an entirely unproven teenager. Nevertheless, Lyon may still play a useful, or even significant, role in the rest of the series. Or he may stay in the pavilion, twiddling his underused thumbs.

5. Australia have neutralised Steven Finn
Finn has, at various points over the past couple of years, looked like he was becoming the fearsome, world-class paceman he has long promised to be. After two early wickets at Trent Bridge, he was blunt and erratic, then dropped from the team, and now dropped from the squad. Australia have seen off a major threat.

Straw-clutch rating: 1/10. England do not currently need Finn. Anderson and Swann have swamped their batsmen, Bresnan showed promising signs of a return to his 2010-11 form, and Tremlett, also decisively impressive in the last Ashes, is back in the squad. Besides, Finn's time will come again - he is not yet 25, and has a far superior record to Anderson's and Broad's at the equivalent age. Finn has already played 23 Tests, and has taken more Test wickets at a better average than Malcolm Marshall, Imran Khan or Glenn McGrath had managed by the time they reached the mid-point of their twenties.

6. None of the Australian batsmen is suffering from burnout
With ten Ashes Tests over the space of six months, maintaining mental and physical freshness will be critical. Australia's top-order batsmen have been clinically successful in ensuring that they do not suffer from debilitating crease fatigue.

Straw-clutch rating: 10/10. There is nothing worse for a batsman than scoring too many runs. Ian Bell's 2013 Ashes average will almost certainly deflate. One or two of the Australian batsmen's stat may well improve. The psychological impact of seeing Bell's average sink morosely below 70, whilst Steve Smith's roars upwards above 20, could be series-turningly decisive.

7. Australia have hit the same number of sixes as England - four
Both sides have also quacked the same number of ducks - four each.

Straw-clutch rating: 9/10. If you can match your opposition six for six, and duck for duck, everything else will inevitably fall into place, and all your matches will be tied. Not enough for Australia to win the Ashes, but enough to restore pride to the droopingly-baggy green.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer