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So they huffed and they puffed, but still their house got blown down
July 26, 2005
So they huffed and they puffed, but still their house got blown down. After a year of enviable development, tangible team-building and endless on-field success, England's cricketers fell so far short in the first Test at Lord's that it was depressing to behold. "If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail," was Graham Gooch's mantra during England's Ashes maulings in 1990-91 and 1993, but somehow this seemed worse - England were as ready and up for the challenge as they ever will be ... and still they got stuffed.
After the match, Vaughan appealed for calm - as well he might - and insisted that England had the wherewithal to bounce back. "You don't become a bad side overnight," he told the circling vultures, a line he had trotted out after England's last great catastrophe, against South Africa at Cape Town in January. Vaughan had been right on that occasion as well, as England bounced back to win a thrilling fourth Test in Johannesburg. But the numbing familiarity of another Ashes thumping will test their powers of recovery to the limit.
In truth, there were more positives to take out of this match than had been the case at Cape Town. For starters, England won at least two sessions - two more than they'd managed in a desperately hungover New Year performance - and they landed some telling psychological blows courtesy of Steve Harmison, whose mental frailties were nowhere to be seen now that he is back on home soil, and Andrew Flintoff, whose round-the-wicket line accounted for the deadly Adam Gilchrist twice in the match.
But the negatives were writ large across the performance as well. How could one aspect of England's game fire so effectively, and yet the result be so overwhelming? Glenn McGrath's incomparable use of the Lord's slope had a major say in the disaster, but for all the temptation to exclaim "Don't panic!", it would be a dereliction of duty if England ignored the flaws in the current balance of their team.
One of the most worrying issues is Flintoff's position at No. 6. Though his bowling has been fiery and frontline all summer, Freddie's batting has wilted markedly in recent weeks - perhaps undercooked by lack of exposure in the Bangladesh Tests, perhaps cramped for style by the emergence of Kevin Pietersen, or perhaps, he has simply been found out by the best bowling attack he is ever likely to face. Whatever the reason, even Freddie's most ardent fans could not pretend that he is a more complete batsman than Gilchrist, the most destructive man in the Australian line-up, and a man who comes in a whole place lower in the Aussie batting order.
The search for the ultimate allrounder is a strangely English pursuit - a hangover, inevitably, from the days of a certain IT Botham (and even he came in at No. 7 throughout his seminal summer of 1981). Allrounders are not a breed that Australia has ever worried about - six batsmen, one wicketkeeper and four bowlers is the formula they've relied upon to become the best side in the world. And if, in the case of Gilchrist (and, on occasions, Warne) a few of those players can fill two roles, then so much the better.
As things currently stand, England are in danger of diluting a strength to patch over a weakness, much as they did in 2002-03 in fact, when the patently out-of-sorts Craig White was selected at No. 7 and mustered 48 runs in six innings while the Ashes were still at stake. Flintoff might well come good, as White did at the seventh attempt with 85 not out at Melbourne, but Australia will not be toppled if a member of the top six is producing nothing more than bonus runs. Besides, Flintoff is bowling so well it is unfair to jeopardise his confidence with unjust expectations.
Until his brainless dismissal on Sunday, there might have been a case for swapping Flintoff with Geraint Jones, who has combatted Australia's batsmen with greater aplomb than many so far this summer. But there is a further weakness lurking a few places down England's order, and for all that he has been a pivotal part of England's recent renaissance, it might be time to accept that Ashley Giles is not the answer to England's problems.
Duncan Fletcher defended his man after the match, reminding everyone that Giles has answered his critics before, in India two years ago and again last summer, not least when he bowled Brian Lara through the gate to take his 100th wicket in Tests. But Australia is a different challenge, and as Giles's 11 costly overs at Lord's suggested, he is neither a defensive option nor an attacking one, while his batting already looks to have been found out by Australia's pacemen.
It is no longer in England's nature to panic, but they have to readjust their priorities. At present, there is little point in having an enviable four-prong seam attack if the tail, to all intents and purposes, starts at four-down. With that in mind, it is time for the selectors to turn to a long-ignored batting option. He has been a member of England's inner sanctum since the last Ashes tour; he has fronted up to the Aussies all summer without blinking once; he is an improving bowling option, and last but not least, he can catch.
Step out of the shadows, Paul Collingwood. He is not a player to fill the Australians with dread, but likewise, he will not be filled with dread himself. After three years of obscurity, it is tempting to believe that his time has finally come.
Possible XI for Edgbaston 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Andrew Strauss, 3 Michael Vaughan (capt), 4 Ian Bell, 5 Kevin Pietersen, 6 Paul Collingwood, 7 Andrew Flintoff, 8 Geraint Jones (wk), 9 Matthew Hoggard, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 Simon Jones.
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