Ashes myths and realities
England prepare doctored pitches that crumble like dry biscuits after day one. Australia's fast bowlers prey on loose English techniques outside off stump. England focus on playing defensively from the outset. ECB instructs curators to prepare pitches to suit a team that scores heavily in first innings of the Tests.
These sort of headlines or generalisations are all too easy to produce but do they really stack up? Being the cricket tragic that I am, I've done an amateur analysis of some stats from the recent Ashes series to see what conclusions can be drawn. It will be interesting to compare these numbers to those in the forthcoming series in Australia and gauge how pitch conditions or a change in tactics may significantly affect these patterns.
Coin toss: England 3, Australia 2. All teams winning the toss chose to bat first. No team that lost the toss (batted second) won.
Much of this can be attributed to the fact that it was a relatively dry summer in England, which means we did not have the green seaming decks that we often see in a typical summer. England were clearly happy to play to their strengths, so this suited them, but it would be too simplistic to make the over-the-top claim that it was "blatantly doctored", as newspapers in Australia claimed halfway during the Oval Test. Given that England scored at over five runs per over on the last day, the pitch there couldn't have been that bad to bat on. I haven't seen too many pitches anywhere in the world (including in Australia) where teams can score at that rate on the last day. If it was that much of a spinner's pitch, how come Nathan Lyon did not take a single wicket in that innings and went for 4.4 runs per over? Michael Clarke's two overs cost just 4 runs.
Australia were clearly unlucky to have won the toss in the two matches that were rain-affected. This partly explains the 3-0 scoreline, which I believe flatters the hosts a little. Interestingly though, in the three Tests that England won, both teams regularly scored as much (more or less) in their second innings, which again reinforces my point that the pitches were not doctored to the extent that it became a nightmare as the game wore on and the spinners supposedly dominated.
Look at it another way: just about every game went deep into the fourth or fifth day. It's hard to label them "poor pitches" when the game goes that long and the fourth-innings scores are 296, 235, 37 for 3, 224 and 206 for 5. In fact, the third-innings scores too were decent enough to make a mockery of the claim that these pitches were bone-dry and made to crumble: 375, 349 for 7 dec and 330 by England in the third innings contrasted with 172 for 7 and 111 for 6 by Australia, both while taking risks to set up declarations.
No games finished on day three with broken fingers for batsmen, like at the MCG last summer. I can't recall any criticism of that pitch when the game ended before tea on day three. Quite rightly, no one blamed the pitch for good bowling and inadequate batting.
Only twice did the team batting first post the highest total of the game in this Ashes, Australia's efforts at Old Trafford and The Oval. Yes, technically England scored 361 at Lord's but considering they declared at 349 for 7 in the second innings, it can be argued that the pitch was no worse as the game wore on, and it possibly even got better. So the conspiracy theory that you had to score big in the first innings of a game because the pitch would deteriorate badly has no basis in fact. In all three Tests that Australia lost, their second-innings totals were either higher than the first innings ones (Trent Bridge and Lord's), or were headed that way (Durham) until they suffered a spectacular meltdown that had more to do with the enigmatic Stuart Broad rather than an unplayable surface.
Revealingly, the spinners from both teams didn't play that much of a role in the fourth innings, Lord's notwithstanding. In all the other Tests, of the 28 wickets that fell in the final innings of the game, only five of them accrued to the spinners. Those numbers seem unworthy of the cheap excuses like "England prepare doctored pitch to suit Swann". Reverse swing was a factor perhaps, but that's a skill thing rather than an underhand conspiracy by the ECB.
This suggests that England batted with more circumspection, for a correspondingly higher return. No surprises there. It may also reflect that Australia were chasing the series after going 2-0 down at Lord's and were understandably more aggressive from that point on. Until then, England's scoring rate was actually quicker, despite Ashton Agar's rollicking innings at Trent Bridge. So it could be argued that both teams changed tactics slightly halfway through the series to reflect the scoreline but at the outset, when the series was still "live", England were the pace-setters.
This stat can be interpreted in so many ways. The obvious conclusion is that Graeme Swann is a superior spinner to Agar or Lyon, and that's no surprise despite this not being vintage Swann. Ryan Harris was the standout fast bowler of the series and was unlucky not to be on the winning side at least once, but he rarely had an innings where someone else came to the party too. In many ways, had Harris finished with fewer wickets, Australia may have won a game or two. If the other bowlers had "stolen" some of Harris' wickets it might have resulted in Australia bowling England out for less.
England's bowlers took turns to shine. Swann was consistent, Jimmy Anderson lost a bit of zip towards the end, but Broad timed his surge to perfection, so it balanced out nicely. England were lucky not have serious injuries to their key bowlers until near the end - the Oval Test exposed serious depth issues that may come back to haunt them in Australia.
This naturally leads on from the earlier stat where Australia's quick bowlers took more wickets than England. It might also provide a clue as to where the two bowling teams aimed their attack. Looking at these numbers, it appears that England may have bowled straighter, fast and spin alike. Australia's bowlers, aided by an excellent performance from Brad Haddin (particularly after Lord's, where he crucially missed Joe Root) seemed to have targeted the stumps less. This may have been a mistake in hindsight. Normally in damp, drizzly, overcast English conditions, you would expect to get most of your dismissals caught behind, so perhaps Australia were a bit slow to change tactics when they realised that it was a hot, dry summer.
The Australian spinners induced six keeper catches, compared to two by England, despite bowling considerably fewer overs than Swann. Was this a deliberate tactic to bowl different lines and was it the right tactic? When you consider that Swann bowled to more left-handers, it is indeed surprising that he only picked up two catches to the keeper (although Jonathan Trott caught a few at first slip). His arm ball might have been his main weapon, whereas Nathan Lyon picked up a few prize scalps with balls that slid across the right-handers from round the wicket, Kevin Pietersen in particular.
A lazy analysis might suggest that England were perhaps more loose outside off stump and Australia were more prone to playing across the line. I think the latter is indeed true but I'm not convinced that England were that careless to balls outside off stump. Harris and Siddle may just have bowled some corkers that didn't necessarily result in leaden-footed slashes. A more interesting analysis might be to see how many genuine nicks were also caught in the cordon, but my memory doesn't serve me that well. I can recall Alastair Cook taking all the catches that really mattered, but I can't remember Australia putting down any crucial chances in the slips that changed the course of a game. Someone will no doubt correct me!
Overall, my prediction is that these numbers will change significantly in Australia. England may have to bowl a different channel on harder, bouncier pitches, and I predict scoring rates will be slightly higher for both teams. There is also the distinct possibility that the team winning the toss may not necessarily choose to bat first without a second thought.
Three-zip? Bit harsh, methinks, but England were clearly the better team and played the big moments better, in triumph and adversity. For Australia, if Harris and Clarke stay fit, there's blue sky ahead. Keen to hear your thoughts and analysis of these stats.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane