Rusty England hint at cricket's corrosive future
We saw it with the bowlers yesterday, the batsmen today. England's already forlorn-looking team are undercooked and ill-prepared. They haven't helped their cause, of course, but neither has the fixtures list which permitted just two warm-up games before the first Test - the most anticipated in years. Worryingly, there is no sign of the crammed schedule abating in the future.
It might end up as the defining image of the series: Steve Harmison's first ball to Justin Langer which landed just inches from the cut strip. Andrew Flintoff fielded it at second slip, as if Harmison was issuing a message to his captain that the radar wasn't only faulty but that its warranty was nearing expiry. For all his woes in this match - and, let's be realistic, ever since his decline which began in South Africa in 2004 - Harmison is the victim in more ways than one, and he will not be the last. He had just two games to prove his fitness and form before Brisbane, missed one through injury, and turned up yesterday looking the very same Harmison who suffered from the yips on his first Ashes tour four years ago.
He is a bowler who needs overs, like a watermill needs a running stream. Glenn McGrath, as he demonstrated late this afternoon with two wickets in consecutive balls, does not. It was his first first-class game in 11 months yet he landed the ball on the same sixpenny piece. Comparisons between the two bowlers cannot and should not be made. McGrath is a freak, an engine which hardly needs oiling. Harmison's motor needs to be ticking, especially in winter.
This isn't to excuse his waywardness, though. Even Kevin Pietersen, a part-time spinner, bowled accurately. But after removing Shane Warne to finally put his name on the scorecard, Harmison immediately looked like a different bowler, bouncing in with confidence and getting the ball to jump off a length. He can still do it, he hasn't lost his pace, bounce or propensity for nasty throat balls. He's just forgotten how. So far this year he has bowled 316 overs; in each of the four summers from 1959 to 1962, Fred Trueman bowled in excess of 1000.
Like Harmison, England's batsmen looked frightened and sleepy. Their feet were cemented, shot selection indeterminate - and all this on a batting surface gifted by the Gods. They too have had scant time to prepare and just four innings in which to spend time at the crease. Again, as with Harmison, these are not excuses but neither do they help a team's cause. It will only get worse, too, with the ICC Future Tours Programme (FTP) cramming in an unprecedented amount of cricket over the next six years. Consequently, tours are becoming unfeasibly condensed leaving little or no time for warm-up preparation.
England will probably lose this Test, and they probably deserve that result too. But what price is cricket paying for the boards' blind greed? Earlier this year Tim May, the chief executive of FICA, complained of the bloated schedule and warned of player burnout. Well, they need a chance to ignite and catch fire before that will even become a possibility.
Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo