December 10, 2013

England lack skill, pure and simple

The tourists have no excuses for their poor showing. They have simply not been good enough against quality bowling on lively pitches

England's limp showing is not necessarily a sign of how poor they have been but of how they have been made to look mediocre © PA Photos

Let's have no talk of doctored pitches. Speak not of the importance of winning the toss. Not a word about DRS or umpiring errors, please. Injuries have nothing to do with it. What we've just seen from Australia is complete and clinical annihilation. Their triumphs in Brisbane and Adelaide have everything to do with high-quality batting, ferocious fast bowling, superior catching and brilliant captaincy. No excuses - quite simply, the better team has won and it will take a miracle (or rain) for shell-shcked England to avoid a 5-0 whitewash, especially with the bouncy Perth pitch to come.

In my Ashes summary from the previous series in England, I believed the 3-0 scoreline flattered the hosts. This series is heading in the opposite direction, with Australia heading for crushing victory margins. Thus far it has been a triumph of execution and England's limp showing is not necessarily a sign of how poor they've been but of how they've been made to look oh so mediocre by an Australian team that has simply not allowed them to get in the contest. Whichever way you cut and dice it, Australia have been awesome.

It wouldn't really have mattered if Michael Clarke had lost both tosses. The way his fast bowlers have assaulted the batsmen, the toss appears inconsequential. The pitch at the Gabba was helpful to the quicks but that is not Australia's fault. England too could have bowled fast and short if they wanted to, but they simply didn't have the weaponry. England's batsmen batted on the same Gabba strip as Australia's and showed none of the skill that was required.

Similarly in Adelaide, Mitch Johnson showed that even on a placid pitch he is in a different stratosphere at the moment. Perth beckons and it is likely to be a bloodbath - Australia should rightfully expect conditions to favour them, and when balls start flying around the throats of the England batsmen there should be no excuses. You know what to expect; you're playing Australia at home, fast and bouncy pitches are what you get here. If you can't bat or bowl well enough to win the series, that's because you're not good enough. Cop it sweet.

When Australia had McGrath, Warne, Gillespie, Lee, Kasprowicz et al, they made no excuses. Whatever conditions were prepared were conquered - they had the all-round skills to beat anyone on any pitch. In that era, it was just damn fine cricket and rightly so. Before that era (and since), there has been a regression every now and again to conspiracy theory about "doctored pitches" when playing away from home - though that has come from lazy commentators and writers seduced by easy headlines and cheap popularity.

The cricketers themselves had too much pride to make excuses - when they were beaten 4-0 in India and 3-0 in England, they just took it on the chin and vowed to avenge those losses when they played on home pitches. We're seeing that skill on display now on pitches that are no more than what you'd expect when Australia play at home.

Yes, England have been awful but that is hardly Australia's fault. To surrender so many wickets to hook shots when you're trying to save a Test just speaks of the state of disrepair that England are in. And that is entirely to Australia's credit, in much the same way that when the ball turns on Indian pitches, it takes skill to negotiate those conditions.

Cricket is a multi-dimensional game that accommodates many different styles and body shapes, which is what makes it so compelling. Unlike rugby, for example, size alone is not enough. It's about adapting to all pitches with no mention of doctored ones. Shane Warne never made excuses, even when he bowled poorly. Great cricketers don't need to.

Let's look at Australia's recent series in India. There was much muttering about home pitches, but what wa different? India won by eight wickets early on the fifth day in Chennai, by an innings and 135 runs by lunch on day four in Hyderabad, by six wickets late on the fifth day in Mohali, and by six wickets in the shadows of day three in Delhi.

England have been awful but that is hardly Australia's fault. To surrender so many wickets to hook shots when you're trying to save a Test just speaks to the state of disrepair that England are in

Most of those games went deep, and the Indian batsmen scored heavily despite never batting first; yet the local media in Australia (not the cricketers) suggested that the pitches unfairly favoured spin bowlers, neglecting to mention of course that Australia won all four tosses, and were entitled to pick as many spin bowlers as they liked. And they were entitled to bat with more skill in those conditions, much like the hapless English were entitled to pick better fast bowlers and bat better in these last two Tests. It's not Australia's fault that England have no answers on Australian pitches. It's a skill thing. Pure and simple.

England were as clueless in Brisbane and Adelaide as Australia were in India. It is likely to get more embarrassing in Perth. These are pitches where good batsmen score runs. David Warner, Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin take a bow. Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and MS Dhoni likewise in India. The cricketers themselves rarely make excuses but uneducated journalists, looking to win over equally uneducated supporters, write cheap copy about doctored pitches, conveniently ignoring that a Johnson thunderbolts at your throat requires as much skill to negotiate as a Ravi Ashwin doosra that spits out of the dust. (Note: true cricket fans and supporters are not always the same thing, but that is a distinction conveniently ignored by many tabloid writers who flit between writing about cricket, football and cake-baking with equal mediocrity.)

It's when you compare results side by side that you get a sense of perspective. Pitches are just pitches. Good players don't make excuses, they just work harder at their game and acknowledge the skill of their opponents. Many writers who have never really played the game at any decent standard sometimes fail to give credit where credit is due, confusing analysis with blind patriotism, and in doing so, doing the cricketers they seek to curry favour with a disservice.

It would be a travesty to read anything but brilliance into Johnson's recent performances and no local writer would dare detract from it by suggesting the local pitches were doctored for him. The beauty of cricket, like tennis, is that it is a global game, played on vastly different surfaces, and that true champions will thrive in all conditions. To suggest otherwise is churlish, small-minded and insular. Our best cricketers, wherever they hail from, deserve better from those paid to write about the game. Australia's performances deserve every accolade that is rightfully being bestowed upon them.

Johnson will be allowed to terrorise the Englishmen in Perth after he was found not guilty of breaching the ICC's code of conduct. If the ICC was consistent and Gautam Gambhir's suspension a few years ago, when he bumped into Shane Watson, was anything to go by, Johnson should have been concerned, especially because he is a repeat offender (Scott Styris incident).

As I suspected, a warning was issued and that was the end of the matter. That'll teach you a lesson Mitch and young Mr Stokes - these warnings are a serious thing, you know, so don't be naughty boys again, please! But unlike poor Gautam, you'll still play in the next Test because we've decided now that warnings are enough of a deterrent.

The ICC, like some cricket writers, seems to lack consistency with its analysis. Everyone's equal of course but some are more equal than others. It's a bit like pitches - both teams get to choose their teams before the toss but depending on the result, some pitches, generally fast, bouncy ones, are deemed "better" than others.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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