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Ashton Agar's historic Test debut revealed England's over-reliance upon James Anderson and a worrying trend to freeze under pressure
July 11, 2013
Report : Agar's world records create extraordinary day
News : England seek clarity over Trott dismissal
Features : Hot Spot under the spotlight
Features : Hughes comes of age
Matches: England v Australia at Nottingham
Series/Tournaments: Australia tour of England and Scotland
Grounds: Trent Bridge
To allow one No. 11 to set a world record score against you might be considered unfortunate, but to allow it to happen twice in a year suggests, as Oscar Wilde so almost said, something approaching carelessness. Tino Best last year, Ashton Agar this: it is all hard for England to take.
Let us start by giving credit where it is due. Agar batted beautifully and deserved his success. With a lovely, easy swing of the arms, a readiness to get into line and a compact defensive technique which should serve him well for many years, this was not a fortunate innings but a classy innings.
It was just a little reminiscent of the international debut of Ben Hollioake, another Victorian, who smashed a quick 63 against Australia on his ODI debut as a 19-year-old in 1997. His unabashed, charming grin that spoke volumes for the simple joy of a young man playing the game he loves, was more than a little reminiscent, too.
So England's bowlers could be forgiven for struggling to end Australia's 10th wicket stand. On a pitch that is far better than the scores suggest, Agar and Phil Hughes exposed many of the earlier errors of the batsmen of both sides and prospered by adhering adages that many more experienced players would have done well to heed: blocking the good ball, punishing the poor and not chasing after wide deliveries.
In years to come, England's players and spectators present at Trent Bridge may consider themselves blessed to have witnessed it. In the short term, they may consider it agony.
The stand between Hughes and Agar exposed more than a blameless pitch and some raw talent, though. It also exposed England's uncomfortable reliance upon James Anderson and their propensity - a propensity demonstrated several times in recent months not least in the Test at Ahmedabad, the Champions Trophy final Edgbaston and in the Test against South Africa at The Oval - to freeze under pressure.
The last time England were punished by a No. 11, when Tino Best thrashed them around Edgbaston, they could claim some mitigation. Anderson and Stuart Broad had both been rested and Best made merry against the less experienced seam trio of Tim Bresnan, Steven Finn and Graham Onions.
The fact that Finn was present on both occasions is not coincidence. He is a talented, exciting cricketer who could develop into one of the world's top fast bowlers. But, three years after his debut and 18-months after he was dropped in Australia for conceding four runs an over, he is still struggling to maintain a consistent line and length and here he conceded in excess of five-an-over.
It was not just his insistence on banging the ball into the middle of the pitch - Agar hooked and pulled him for a succession of commanding fours - but his habit of wasting an off-side field that included several slips by bowling on Hughes' or Agar's legs or over-pitching and gifting half-volleys.
His pitch map looked like it had been painted by Georges Seurat: spots everywhere; more a mountain range than a pitch mountain. In all he conceded 23 runs from 16 balls at Agar and forced Alastair Cook to recall Anderson into the attack.
That is a worry. Anderson had already bowled for an hour, his control of reverse swing helping England take five wickets for nine runs in 32 balls. He delivered eight balls at Agar at the start of his innings but could be forgiven for thinking his work was done when he came off with nine wickets down.
While Anderson denied any concerns over the burden he is expected to carry for this side, he is clearly one of England's most precious assets and requires careful workload management. There are only three scheduled days between the first and second Tests and any injury to Anderson would prove a hammer blow to England's Ashes hopes.
Anderson's burden was increased by the injury to Broad. While Broad took the field at the start of the day, he did not bowl for more than 30 overs, which raised questions about the wisdom of allowing him to field when clearly below his best.
For a while, though, England's tactics were close to unfathomable. Perhaps failing to respect Hughes or Agar sufficiently, they appeared to attempt a swift kill and, in the process, failed to maintain the basic disciplines of line and length that had earned them a strong position in the first place. And, as the ball sailed to the boundary again and again, there was a noticeable absence of help or advice being shown to Cook by his senior colleagues.
It may be wrong to blame Cook, though. At times, with the seamers Finn and Broad in particular, he set fields that demanded a 'fourth stump' line and good length only to see his bowlers deliver such short and leg side fare that Agar and Hughes accepted it with glee.
Even Swann, usually so reliable, appeared a little rattled as his attempts to entice Agar into mistakes with flight were met with lovely straight sixes and his attempts to force him back were met with a clever sweep and fine late cut. Neither Broad nor Finn delivered a single yorker and, while Anderson's pitch map contains a concentrated square of attack, Broad's and Finn's are chaotic.
While it may be stretching a point to suggest England panicked, there was a lack of calm, a lack of coherent plan and a lack of Plan B, all of which underlined the fear that, whatever happens in this series, England are some way from contemplating a return to the top of the Test rankings.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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