November 26, 2006

Flawed strategy has England in a spin

England's worst fears were exposed at the Gabba when the ball didn't swing and they were shown to have little else in the way of strategy

'Steve Harmison arrived at the Gabba as under done as steak tartare' © Getty Images

England's worst fears have been exposed at the Gabba, with the ball not swinging and the team shown to have little else by way of strategy.

In Australia, when the ball isn't doing much and the pitch is flat, the captain has to be extremely imaginative and the bowling accurate to dismiss good batsmen for reasonable totals. This is why Australia have been the only country apart from Pakistan to persist with wrist-spin when the rest of the world has shunned the poor old leggie; bowlers like Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill are worth diamonds on flint-hard pitches. Indeed, what would Pakistan do without Danish Kaneria at Multan?

Ashley Giles actually re-invented himself at the Gabba to become a flight bowler searching for wickets rather than a negative trundler who tries the patience of batsmen. He was impressive and seems to have learnt from watching Monty Panesar but he is still a finger spinner and they are no match for the good wrist variety on hard Australian pitches.

How England recover and learn from this painful lesson at the Gabba will determine whether this Ashes series is hard fought or an all too familiar drubbing. In some respects England only have themselves to blame. So much of their bowling arsenal relies on the exploits of Steve Harmison but he arrived at the Gabba as underdone as steak tartare. His bowling in the first innings was nearly as raw.

After Ricky Ponting's side had bowled out West Indies for 138 in the Champions Trophy final, former Indian batsman Sanjay Manjrekar asked me; "How did Australia bounce back so well after such a poor start? No other team in world cricket could do that."

I replied, "It is the system. Young bowlers experience the odd thrashing from good batsmen as they come through the grades and how they bounce back from those setbacks determines if they go on to the next level. If they make it to the top they have had that experience a number of times and they are then schooled in finding ways to overcome a bad patch."

'The England attack may not have performed well on the Gabba pitch but Warne will enjoy conditions that have been extremely kind to him in the past' © Getty Images

A bowler can only become stronger mentally from taking a few beatings and groove his action from bowling regularly in matches. If Harmison prefers to save himself for big matches he will continue to flop on the big stage unless someone can convince him to prepare properly.

England's failure to adapt quickly to Australian conditions has meant the home side has taken an early advantage on the scoreboard and in the psychological stakes. The England attack may not have performed well on the Gabba pitch but Warne will enjoy conditions that have been extremely kind to him in the past. However, a strong Australian showing in the first Test won't necessarily be good news for all their players.

If Australia charge to a commanding lead in this series it will give the selectors confidence to start the culling process necessary to keep an ageing side competitive. The selectors need to inject youth into the side and the best time to do that is when the team is playing well rather than poorly. Mitchell Johnson and Shaun Tait are viable fast bowling candidates and this could eventually lead to a head-to-head battle between Glenn McGrath and Stuart Clark.

The selectors have already shown they are eager to play allrounder Shane Watson and his appearance in the XI would mean one of either Damien Martyn or Michael Clarke missing out. And finally there is Phil Jacques knocking loudly on the door; while Justin Langer has ignored his approaches by playing with confident aggression at the Gabba, his partner Matthew Hayden answered the call and has left the door slightly ajar.

The Australians have been waiting months for a chance to regain the urn and redemption; this was never more clearly illustrated than when Ricky Ponting reacted with such emotion on reaching his century. His expertise with the bat and England's ineptitude with the ball could lead to the regaining of the Ashes and the birth of a few new Australian careers.