July 21, 2009

Will England choke?

History tells us that England can easily get vertigo when on top. Will this piece of history repeat itself?

The eye-catching stat about England's victory is that it is their first at Lord's over Australia for 75 years. But that fact, irresistible as it is, is a bit random. A more revealing fact is that this was England's first emphatic win in a live Ashes Test for 12 years. All their victories since - all six of them, scattered through 31 Tests - had been either narrow or consolatory. Four were narrow, three mere consolation (one was both). In two of them, Mark Butcher made hundreds; in one, Andy Caddick took 10 wickets, in what turned out to be his final Test. There were glory days for Dean Headley and Phil Tufnell, and match-winners' medals for Mark Ramprakash, John Crawley and Richard Dawson.

So the parallel here is not just with 2005, when England were so nearly 0-2 down, as they were almost 0-1 down a week ago. It is with 1997, when the first Test, at Edgbaston, was close to being a mirror image of Lord's 2009. England shot Australia out cheaply, then made a big score built on one formidable partnership (for Strauss and Cook, read Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe, who added 288). They allowed Australia to make more in their second innings than they should have (477), but not as many as they could have (they had been 327 for 1). And they knocked off the runs comfortably, powered by an exultant crowd, just as Andrew Flintoff fed off the fans yesterday.

And then it all went wrong. In their next innings, England were all out for 77. They escaped with a rain-assisted draw, but Australia won the next three Tests. Two things happened: England choked, and Australia's champions asserted themselves - Glenn McGrath took eight for 38 at Lord's, Steve Waugh made two hundreds at Old Trafford, and Jason Gillespie grabbed a seven-for at Headingley, where a young larrikin called Ricky Ponting made his first Test hundred. They also had Shane Warne.

Will this piece of history repeat itself? England are certainly capable of choking. Even at Lord's, in the midst of a fine performance, you could see them getting vertigo when on top. After Cook was out on Thursday afternoon, England lost all 10 wickets for 229, on a flattish pitch, against a thinnish attack. They then bowled very well, inducing a collapse themselves (six for 49), only to take their foot off the gas - or the throat, take your pick - and allow the last two wickets to add 63.

The narrow decision not to enforce the follow-on was the right one, and not just because it had a happy ending. As Scyld Berry spotted and the massed ranks of ex-pros didn't, recent follow-ons have tended to be followed on by key England bowlers suffering serious injury - Simon Jones in 2005, Flintoff in 2006, Ryan Sidebottom last year.

But England still had a bit of choking to do. They teetered when Ravi Bopara and Kevin Pietersen were together, as two normally bullish cricketers got bogged down in a personal quest for form. They blinked when Strauss made his declaration, which managed to eliminate the draw (anathema to an Aussie) while failing to snuff out the faint chance of a glorious win (red rag to an Aussie). And they wobbled again when Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin were mounting their inspired fightback. Strauss's field placings were often bizarre: two slips and a gully, for the new ball, when the other side are five down and you're pressing for victory? Flintoff, fired up by reading his own rather mixed obituaries, saw the need to attack. He supplied both the cutting edge and the sense of being in charge that Strauss, for all his many qualities, has still to muster. It took a showman to run the show.

Most Aussie seamers find an English length an elusive thing. So congratulations to Ben Hilfenhaus, who has located it rapidly. And a message to Ponting: get Stuart Clark in your team fast. Siddle may huff and puff, but Clark just might blow our Strauss down

Knowing England, there will be more wobbles to come. They have two crocked superstars, a problem at number three, and lingering brittleness in the middle order. But there are two reasons why they should upset the rankings and win this series now. One is that Australia have so few champions left to ride to their rescue. The other, not unrelated, is that most modern Australian bowlers, in contrast to the batsmen, find England an inhospitable place.

If you look at Ashes Tests in England this decade, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle, with their averages for this series up in the forties, are following in the laboured footsteps of Michael Kasprowicz (four wickets at 62), the elderly Gillespie (22 at 43), Shaun Tait (five at 42) and Brett Lee (29 at 45). Australia's third best bowler in England since 2000 is… Nathan Hauritz, with his tidy nine wickets at 29. Just think what he might have done with an undislocated finger.

Every single recent Aussie victory on English turf has been down to McGrath and Warne, who both averaged 19 over their last two Ashes tours. Between them they took 122 wickets in 10 Tests (two of which McGrath missed, for reasons you'll remember). Most Aussie seamers find an English length an elusive thing. So congratulations to Ben Hilfenhaus, who has located it rapidly. And a message to Ponting: get Stuart Clark in your team fast. Siddle may huff and puff, but Clark just might blow our Strauss down.

Tim de Lisle is the editor of Intelligent Life magazine and a former editor of Wisden

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ashok on July 22, 2009, 16:32 GMT

    England are lucky to to be 1-0 in the Ashes series. They saved the first test by the skin of their teeth. The second test was marred by 3 doubtful decisions against Hughes, Hussey and Katich in the second innings. Even so Clarke and Haddin made England sweat for their victory, which could have gone the other way had one of these 3 questionable decisions had not gone in the favour of England. The England batting relies heavily on the openers Strauss and Cook giving them a good start, as does Aussies batting. But Australians got centuries from Ponting, Clarke (2), North and Katisch. Australian pace bowling has been wayward which is the difference. Absence of Lee & Clarke has caused this wayward pace attack. If these 2 replace Siddle and one other player, then the Aussies will be a bette teamr. Also with the loss of KP, England are on their backfoot, if Flintoff does not produce. There is a good possibility that the Aussies may win the remaining 3 matches to choke England once more.

  • Anosh on July 22, 2009, 14:16 GMT

    Johnson can be a world class bowler has shown the potential in the past but I can not trust him much for the rest of the series ... Aussies need to decide between Johnson n Clark in the upcoming match ...

    As far as batting is concerned ... Hughes reminds me of Salman Butt from Pakistan ... How long can you afford to but Hughes in this Ashes? Hughes has to fire in the Warm up game else he needs to be replaced with Watson ... Watson can be helpful with the ball too ...

  • Dylan on July 22, 2009, 4:15 GMT

    History also suggested that they wouldn't win at Lord's again... but they did. The great thing about cricket is that anything can happen, Australia could win the last 3 matches, they could all get rained out (knowing England, I would rather put my money on that) and the list goes on. But with due consideration, I think England will win this series, purely because Australia's strike bowler (Mitchell Johnson) has misfired with the ball. And when you look at the replacement bowlers you've got a close-to-retiring Brett Lee, and a Stuart Clark that hasn't even bowled a ball in test level this year. Plus, a few of their batsmen have struggled to get runs like Hughes and Hussey - and I still can't believe that the selectors continue to brush aside Hodge!

  • Andrew on July 22, 2009, 1:41 GMT

    After seeing england escape with a draw I had a bad feeling about the lords test and we lost. Now that Australia have been hammered, i am actually looking forward to the third test and believe Australia will be more like they were against Sth Africa. I hope its the case. I think Mitchell Johnson will start coming good in the practice game and make amends for his poor showing in the third test. He will be hurting knowing it was him who lost the test. And if he is any type of sportsman worth having he will be hungrier than ever to write the wrongs. I also have a feeling a huge innings from hughes is coming. Fingers crossed.

  • Benjamin on July 22, 2009, 0:10 GMT

    Flintoff of Dhaka I feel the same way about the English team. Strauss is far from calm and confident. His stated post match he'd had the worst sleep in his life (night 4). At 5 down still needing 200+ he's in total control yet he's so fragile. He hasn't got an attacking bone in his body. Sure he hit 160 but I could have made 160 with the rubbish Johnson dished up. Lucky he has Fred at his disposal.

    As for the English attack the Aussies would need to commit suicide to allow England to win. 1st Test 5/640 - 2nd test 6 players got out playing rank hook shots to at best, average deliveries. Had they showed application in the first dig there is no way they would have dropped this match. Englands true trump card was their fifth bowler R.Kurtzen. He has an uncanny knack of destroying any line up.

    Hats off to the poms they played the better cricket for 90% of the game, but given their dominance the win was far from convincing - the self doubt is still very evident. Fred is the difference!

  • James on July 21, 2009, 20:17 GMT

    First and foremost: another great piece Tim. Entertaining and insightful as always, with a lovely pithy phrase to end the piece! As for the team selection of England and Australia. Firstly, Bell shouldn't play for England unless he can prove to have the correct strength of mind. He's played at number three for years and failed to convince. He's classy - one of the classiest around - but he's frail, mentally. So dump him; we don't need his sort. I'd also bring Harmison in for Broad. Broad's bowling is a little 1D at the moment and not quite Test class. Same with his batting. In years to come he'll be awesome, but not now. Harmison, meanwhile, is hostile and on the money. With him and Flintoff we have a pair of bowlers that will put the fear of God into them. As for Australia... Johnson's form is baffling more than anything else. But I think Clark must play, same with Lee. I fear them both. Hilfenhaus and Siddle? Not nearly so much.

  • Vivek on July 21, 2009, 16:52 GMT

    One change that England should make is that they put in Harmison is getting a ridiculous amount of wickets for Durham, for Broad, who didn't look like troubling the Aussies a whole lot. The Aussies got to get Clark in Playing XI. Flintoff was brilliant will play an enormous role in Edgbaston. Well played England!!

  • Tom on July 21, 2009, 13:45 GMT

    Agree with everything you said really. I think leaving out Clark is a big big mistake

  • Geoff on July 21, 2009, 12:14 GMT

    i was astounded when clark was not picked for the first test, even more astounded he wasn't picked for the second. now that I don't expect him to play in the third, perhaps he will be picked, maybe at the expense of Siddle.

    The other question I have is where is the back-up batsman? Ronald McDonald and Shane Watson aren't batsmen, and they're barely bowlers - especially when you have Brad Hodge, with a wonderful record waiting in the wings. What does he have to do?

  • Walter on July 21, 2009, 11:13 GMT

    @AdityaMookerjee, How on gods green earth can Monty be more complete than Hauritz? Monty has 1 ball and one ball only. The very thought of trying something different than that results in failure(10 wickets this entire season..including Ricky pontings wicket) While Hauritz is already at 9 just counting the 2 ashes tests( and forgetting he bowled with a dislocated spin finger). Your reasoning eludes me completely..

    The thing is, be very wary of a hurt Aussie team...South Africa beat them in AUS and got whipped(as much as i hate to admit it) second time round. England need to bring their A game if they want to bring the Ashes to England. Johnson will bounce back, and if Clarke finds a spot the english will have their work cut out for them.

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