England v Australia, 1st Investec Test, Trent Bridge, 2nd day July 11, 2013

England freeze when faced by the unknown

Ashton Agar's historic Test debut revealed England's over-reliance upon James Anderson and a worrying trend to freeze under pressure

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 ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • itch on July 12, 2013, 11:29 GMT

    What a beautiful article and analysis. Thank You and keep up the good work!!

  • A on July 12, 2013, 11:06 GMT

    @Rowayton, you are absolutely right. England frequently seem to stop trying to get a batsman out once they have a non-batsman at the other end. They feed the batsman easy singles and help him to grow in confidence. They have been doing this for years, but as far as I can tell, no other Test-playing nation does this. The coaches really need to get this mind-set changed. They need to attack the batsman just as much as the tail-ender.

  • Nicholas on July 12, 2013, 9:55 GMT

    @jackiethepen and Rowayton: I'm not saying we should play the blame-game; I just noticed that in pretty much every other team - the captain runs over and has a chat with his bowlers and sets fields and plans etc. - even against tail-enders. England? Once in a blue moon have I seen that! Cook goes back to his fielding position; the bowlers stroll up to their marks and act/bowl like the next wicket is a simple formality as opposed to something which they need to fight and perform well for. Suddenly... oops, the tail-ender starts swinging and scoring freely! Cook stands with his head in his hands; Prior lifts his gloves over his face; the bowlers panic and start dropping the ball short... Death bowling is, and has been for quite some time, a major weakness for England.

  • Nicholas on July 12, 2013, 9:43 GMT

    @jmcilhinney (post on July 12, 2013, 1:59 GMT): Yup - certainly no love lost here. I know yorkers and things can go horribly wrong and end up as juicy full tosses, just as easily as 'searching for that perfect length' can end up dropping short, - but England have got to start treating tail-enders as batsmen and not simply just relying on them to eventually get themselves out! We've seen and talked about this in the shorter formats as well: England are abysmal at death bowling. Bowl at your best and get the whole team out before celebrating and thinking ahead to what's next.

  • Android on July 12, 2013, 8:52 GMT

    For England fans, the skills of Broad and Finn have been a great concern for some time. I don't think we can afford both of them in the same side. Their occasional bursts of wicket-taking cannot hide the fact that their accuracy ... and tendency to pitch too short ... are real problems for England, especially when the batsmen don't make masses of runs to defend.

  • Gemma on July 12, 2013, 8:21 GMT

    I wonder whether England are a touch over-coached. It is clear that it is a good team, but they seem to have got out of the habit of thinking for themselves while in the field. Seeing Clarke's style of captaincy in comparison makes this all the more obvious.

  • Chris on July 12, 2013, 7:56 GMT

    To be fair, no one has really had to get Hughes out before, he has normally done that for himself; and Agar was a complete unknown. We saw this against the Kiwis that England needs to find out about the opposition the hard way before settling in to it's winning rhythm. My greatest concern is how sharply the bowling stocks fall away after Anderson and Swann. The Ashes is a long, hard series, and relying on two bowlers to remain fit is a big worry, no matter how good they are. Especially since the Aussies have the biggest room for improvement of the two sides over the course of the series.

  • parjanya on July 12, 2013, 6:04 GMT

    Bang on. Andy Flower needs to pull up his socks.There was no plan A,let alone Plan B.Mike Holding dryly remarked that Finn and co. took about 90 minutes to figure out where to bowl at Agar.Sir Iron Bottom said it was embarrassing. England looked clueless.Certainly not looking the part of the ASHES WINNERS.They better watch it.Oz have got a great lift,just the sort that inspires a team to great heights.only anderson looks the part for England.

  • David on July 12, 2013, 2:16 GMT

    It's not just Cook and Strauss Nick - these sort of dumb tactics for number 11s have been going on forever. One of the notable things here was that England did not appear to be seriously trying to get Hughes out (even though he was only about 21 when Agar came in). In so doing, they may have given him sufficient confidence to have a major impact on the series. I saw somebody elsewhere note that this was exactly what happened in the famous Border/Thomson last wicket partnership of 82/3. Border, who had been out of form, was played into form by the English tactics of giving him easy singles and in the next game made 89 and 83 which greatly helped Australia regain the Ashes. I don't usually pay out on players, but I thought Finn was awful in this innings. He should buy Eddie Cowan a lottery ticket - without his donation Finn's figures would have looked very sick in a low scoring game.

  • John on July 12, 2013, 1:59 GMT

    @R_U_4_REAL_NICK on (July 11, 2013, 20:21 GMT), we haven't always agreed just lately but we're as one now. I know that's it's easier said than done to get it right on the field all the time but it is frustrating to see the England bowlers, again and again as you say, drop the ball short when that is clearly not what's called for. It might be a mistake to do it for a ball or two here and there but to do it for overs at a time is obviously a conscious effort on their part and does nothing to dispel the stereotype of the dumb fast bowler. I was actually rather annoyed that Broad started bowling short again during the over that Agar finally fell. It seems that he finally did feel a bit or pressure when on 98 but seemed completely immune earlier. Finn probably looked at that dismissal and saw it as vindication of his tactics early on, which helps noone but the opposition. Mind you, why wasn't Cook talking to his bowler and telling him to bowl line and length?

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