England v Australia, 1st npower Test, Cardiff, 4th day July 11, 2009

England's heads stuck in the clouds

On today's evidence, it's going to be nigh on impossible to resist affording Steve Harmison one final, final shot at redemption if England are to claim anything from this series. It really is looking that desperate right now

Psychologically, England have been left with nowhere to hide after a fourth day in Cardiff that, aside from a timely downpour on the stroke of tea, could hardly have been more horrendous for their series prospects. It wasn't merely that Australia took control of the match - that in itself is hardly a new development in Ashes series - it was the point-scoring dedication with which they bossed each and every microcosmic aspect of the contest.

Two particular contrasts stand above and beyond all others. The first and most obvious was the dedication of their batsmen, not least Brad Haddin and Marcus North, two men making their Ashes debuts. Not content with ridiculing England's inability to turn any one of ten double-figured scores into centuries, Australia responded with four of their own, the first time they had ever achieved such a feat in Ashes history.

"You lot think about it a lot more than me," was the gist of Kevin Pietersen's response to the media after his own contemptible dismissal on the first day, but on the evidence of Australia's scorching first innings, nobody thought about Pietersen's performance more than his opponents. Doubtless he was reminded of this during each and every one of the nine deliveries he faced in the gloaming this evening.

"Regardless of where you play and whatever the conditions, if you get in, make sure you go on and get a hundred, and if you get a hundred, try to get a big hundred," said North, with the sagacity of an instant veteran. "We saw Ricky [Ponting] do that and we saw how determined he was to do that. I guess looking back at England's innings, that's something they might have looked at and thought, 'Gee, we might have let ourselves down a bit.'"

Of arguably greater significance, however, was the performance of Australia's bowlers in their seven-over onslaught before the rains closed in. In prising out two vital wickets, Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus were everything that England's own attack had failed to be for three long days in the field. If they were caught stealing a glance at the heavens as the light began to fade, it was only as an incentive to make the most of that 30-minute window. England, on the other hand, were content to trundle with their heads, quite literally, in the clouds.

"It's difficult to pick up wickets when the ball does literally nothing for the seamers," said Paul Collingwood, who was not proud to be the pick of a toiling attack. "You can say you've got to use other methods, cutters and things, but when the pitch is so slow it's very difficult. Batsmen these days have got good techniques and combat the straight ball, no matter how fast it is. It's all about hopefully getting that ball reversing, or swinging conventionally."

Except it is not, as Johnson and Hilfenhaus proved with their tenacity late in the day. Their bustle at the crease was totally at odds with the flaccid impact that England's own new-ball pairing of James Anderson and Stuart Broad had made during their eight-over burst before tea on the second day, a critical passage of play that has since been buried beneath the sheer weight of Australia's runs.

England, remember, had enjoyed a morning of rare levity with the bat, smiting 99 runs in 16.5 overs to post a total that, at the time, seemed competitive. By lunch, however, Australia had hurtled to 60 for 0, with Phillip Hughes - a man on the rack after his travails at Worcester - allowed to spring onto the offensive with the initiative-seizing élan of a latter-day Michael Slater.

Already the selectors are steeling themselves for an uncomfortable squad announcement on Monday afternoon. The gamble of playing two spinners has failed spectacularly, with Graeme Swann's cocky confidence fading with every over, while the three frontline seamers who looked such a neat fit on paper have discovered that their roles are so confused that they are like keeper and slip cordon who each look to the other as the chance sails clean between the gap.

Quite simply, there is no leader to the attack. Andrew Flintoff is England's go-to man, because he's the most imposing presence and has the acknowledged respect of the Australians. But he does not take the new ball - partly out of fears for his fitness, but also out of respect to Anderson, who often says he wants to be seen as the frontman, but then fronts up as pitifully as he did in the end-of-day press conference on Wednesday, when his promise that England would "keep fighting" was delivered with the ferocity of a moist sponge.

And then there's Stuart Broad, whose role in the side is perhaps the least clear of all. There's hardly a pundit in the game who does not believe he is destined for great things, but right at this moment he is neither one thing nor the other. He has the capacity to bowl with spite and aggression, as Ramnaresh Sarwan discovered at Durham in May, and he's also capable of holding up an end. But in this match, he's fallen badly between two mindsets, never more so than when he came over the wicket to present Hughes with three deliciously wide long-hops to resuscitate Australia's momentum.

For a man credited by Michael Vaughan as one of the most intelligent bowlers he has captained, it was a peculiarly vacant way for Broad to start his biggest campaign yet, especially given the success that Steve Harmison - and later Flintoff - had against Hughes from round the wicket.

"Broady's got some great skills," was Collingwood's damningly faint praise at the close of the fourth day, though he didn't seem willing or able to pinpoint exactly what they are. He has now taken 47 wickets at 39.89 in 18 Tests, which are unflattering, no matter how much promise he may hold. In the opinion of Ian Chappell, Broad needs to focus on being the straight man in the attack, but with Anderson swingless and Flintoff incapable of finding the edge with his back-of-a-length approach, another holding bowler is the last thing England need.

And so, yes, all eyes turn to that man. No matter how many final straws he may have loaded onto the backs of the England management, it's becoming increasingly hard to ignore Harmison's claims for a recall. England need a spearhead worthy of the name, and another five wickets for Durham today are indisputable proof of his form.

"Of course he's going to be in the mix, but this attack has done well for us in the past few months and I'm sure we'll be sticking with it," said Collingwood, but on this evidence nobody else seems so convinced. For some perverse reason, Harmison still has a hold on Australia that no other England bowler can match, not even Flintoff, whose method of bettering them in the past has been more of the arm-wrestle variety.

At Lord's in 2005, Harmison left a duelling scar on Ponting's cheek that is still visible to this day. He alone has the shock factor that commands the respect from Australia that has been so patently lacking in this match. On this evidence, it's going to be nigh on impossible to resist affording him one final, final shot at redemption. It really is looking that desperate right now.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark on July 12, 2009, 13:23 GMT

    I feel England when into this Test underdone. For a start the selectors made a big mistake in not picking Harmison. Now in hindsight a match losing mistake. So if England lose this Test I put the blame solely on the selectors. I think everyone was surprised when Harmison probable the most lethal bowler in England was not playing. Who cares if Harmison is hot and cold I for one would pick him for the entire Ashes, even if he goes for 1/100.

    Clearly the problem for England in this Test Match wasn't the batting. It was the bowling department. When Ponitng came to the crease, if Harmison was charging in tandem with Flintoff who knows. It would be Australia instead of England trying to save the match. England's stregth has always been their pace attack. Thats won them the Ashes in 2005. Not the spinners. I would jettison Panesar, keep swann as the sole spinner. Pack the bowling attack with a high speed pace attack dominated by Harmison backed up by flintoff. With Sswann the filler in.

  • Terry on July 12, 2009, 12:09 GMT

    At the start of this series I fet this would be a good chance for us to knock off Australia. Their Bowling has lost so much of the class it has held overt the last 20 years and the batting is inexperienced at this level. We needed to bat well and intelligently and bowl with discipline, and most of all pick the right players. I think we have failed in all areas. Just the team choice. 5 batsmen, 5 bowlers, 1 keeper. Simple. Now i remember a few years ago when you got past number 7 we would soon be all out but to pick a player who average 38 with the ball a very flattering 31, is nonsense. Will Broad take 20 wickets in this series, no. Onions was bowling very well against the west indies but he was left out because of this so called spinners paradise, I dont know where the evidence of this is.

    I think if Geoff Miller can't get the selection right we should be looking for an alternative who know how to pick a team that will win. Lords, Harmisson, Onions in, Broad, Panesar out, simple!

  • Nazmul on July 12, 2009, 11:38 GMT

    Why everyone says 2005!2005!!2005!!!. It has come after so many years. Sometimes i make joke with my friends saying that, England have nothing to cheer about cricket against Australia. So they have got their memory in 2005. So let them dream about 2005 rest of their life. Come on, Australia were sleeping in 2005, even without great player, Aussies can do whitewash for England, and sure this is going to happen this year as well. So poor cricket from Poms. Play some cricket, forget about the moon that had came in 2005 after so many years of darkness. And make sure dont be cocky. English are cocky especially English media.

  • David on July 12, 2009, 10:45 GMT

    What a fantastic coverage, what a fantastic match (if you back AUS). Thanks so much for keeping me in touch. Cheers.

  • Paul on July 12, 2009, 10:31 GMT

    2005 was a freak statistical anomaly. A million to one result. It was the coin toss that comes down neither heads nor tails, but rests on the edge, and when you go to pick it up, rolls away, down the street and into the drain. Perfect example that the probability distribution of cricket results has a long, long tail. It'll happen again - but don't expect any of us to live to see it.

  • Paddy on July 12, 2009, 9:54 GMT

    The best player for England so far is the trumpeter in the barmy army crowd. Hasn't got a note wrong yet.

  • StJohn on July 12, 2009, 9:34 GMT

    I am not sure England has so much of a problem with the personnel, more the application and guile. England were about 100 to 150 runs short on their first innings total, and although neither side's bowlers were much helped by the pitch or the conditions, England's seamers failed to keep it tight and just be patient (something the did well in India and West Indies) and the spinners only looked dangerous for about 10 overs when Australia had already got 500 plus. Some curious captaincy too: e.g. Collingwood looked most likely to take a wicket with his cutters late on day 3 but only bowled 5 overs. But Andrew Miller overly praises the Aussie bowlers for their 7-over effort last night: they were helped by swing, which was largely absent for England's bowlers and which probably owes something to the atmospheric conditions and the lights; and Bopara was unlucky to be given out (North was lucky to survive a better shout for lbw off Swann when he was in his 40s!).

  • Matthew on July 12, 2009, 8:55 GMT

    You poms should be happy, your a chance for a draw and that is already an improvement on the last series

  • Keith on July 12, 2009, 8:41 GMT

    The English bowling frustrates and confuses me. Against the West Indies, it was fiery and destructive. Here it's lame. Some might say, "Well, Australia is better than the West Indies", but the thing is the actual bowling being sent down is not as good. If they had bowled the same as earlier in the season, and Australia had handled it better, I wouldn't mind so much. But why does it look so weak now, compared with a couple of months ago?

  • Jan on July 12, 2009, 8:34 GMT

    This is an average English team. It's sickening to hear over and over again how much promise they have, when they rarely if ever deliver. Stuart Broad is not international quality - his career statistics refer. Andrew Strauss is an average captain. Ravi Bopara is not a number three of test quality. Swann will not win any matches and should not be seen in that light. By overselling their players and looking for ability where there is none, the English are just making it easier for the Aussies, who remain a far better team.

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