August 25, 2009

It was the allrounders wot won it

Andrew Flintoff, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann made a telling impact on the series with both bat and ball

Sometimes, in a team game, a team can be too good for the good of the game. The 2006-07 Australia side, stuffed with all-time greats bursting for vengeance, were like that. The Ashes series that they won 5-0 delivered excellence without excitement. This one, on the other hand, delivered excitement without excellence.

The Test championship, which has relegated them from first to fourth, has been harsh on the Aussies, but fair. They have plunged from the highest heights to mid-table middlingness. The way they played the second half of this series was like their last two years in microcosm. In saving the Edgbaston Test and winning at Headingley, they showed great qualities - grit, resourcefulness, disciplined skill. But when they lost the toss at The Oval, and made one of the great selection howlers by leaving out their spinner, they were ordinary again. Meanwhile England, who bob up and down almost mechanically, like kids on a seaside bungee-trampoline, managed to find their feet and their form again at the critical moment. They didn't even get vertigo - though they were flirting with it when Andrew Flintoff produced that run-out. Flintoff's throw from wide mid-on, a position he had seldom wandered into in an 11-year Test career, was inspired and inspiring, and it settled not only England's nerves, but the series.

As a contest, the 2009 Ashes were terrific: beautifully balanced, always absorbing, packed with drama. The upper hand went first to Australia, then England, then Australia, then England. In a most unexpected twist, it was Australia who collapsed the most - three times in the first innings of the last four Tests. The pundits kept harping on about the century count, which was 7-1 to Australia after four Tests and 8-2 in the end. Hardly anyone noticed the five-for count, which was 4-2 to England. And five-fors do more to win matches, for the simple reason that they take out half the opposition. A rare five-for from Flintoff sealed one England victory; a less rare one from Stuart Broad set up the other - but it was very rare indeed in its suddenness, its precision, its Martin Bicknell movement and economy. Broad's 5 for 37 made his 6 for 91 look like 1 for 128.

It was significant that both England's key spells came from allrounders. The other stat the pundits kept citing was the one showing that all the leading wicket-takers and most of the leading run-scorers in the series were Australian. To look at these figures, which we got the chance to do a hundred times on Sky, you'd have thought that Andrew Strauss was fighting a lone hand. He was, to an extent - but only in the top order. England's bottom half were very handy. In 14 appearances the men at seven, eight and nine (Flintoff, Broad and Swann) made as many runs between them as two, three and four or five (Cook, Bopara and Collingwood), and they got them with more verve. England's second-biggest boundary-hitter, after Strauss, was Broad.

Australia had allrounders in their squad - Andrew McDonald, Shane Watson, arguably Mitchell Johnson - but they didn't have any on the pitch. McDonald was ignored, and Watson, while shining as a makeshift opener, was horribly rusty with the ball. Johnson had made stacks of runs in South Africa, but he mostly flailed and failed here. Brett Lee was missed for his runs as well as his reverse swing, and Andrew Symonds was missed even more. Australia's shortage of allrounders, their Achilles heel even in the glory years, meant that England simply had more players on their side. The Aussies had seven batsmen and four bowlers; England had nine batsmen and five bowlers. And unlike in the Warne-McGrath era, Australia's four bowlers didn't include anyone who could lop off a tail.

If England had marginally the better bowlers in the series, it was mainly because they had more of them. Just as Michael Vaughan did four years ago with Matthew Hoggard and Ashley Giles, Strauss could afford to forget about a bowler for a session or two. Collingwood, who could have been very handy at The Oval with his dustbowl cutters, was only given one over. It was the allrounders, and the five-fors, wot won it, as well as Strauss's own immense performance.

Hardly anyone noticed the five-for count, which was 4-2 to England. And five-fors do more to win matches, for the simple reason that they take out half the opposition

The victory was so slender, and clouded with qualifiers, that there has been little euphoria, and rightly so. Nobody thinks England are the finished article. Their most pressing need, as they go into a tougher series in South Africa, is to grow some more leaders.

If Strauss had been injured this summer, England would have been up the creek without a rudder. His vice-captain in the Caribbean last winter, implausibly, was Cook. Flintoff was a leader, but he has gone now. Collingwood is a solid senior pro, team man and ball-polisher, but even captaining the Twenty20 team seems to be beyond him. And he and Cook are playing for their places now, or should be. If a Martian had looked down on England at The Oval, they would have assumed the vice-captain was Jonathan Trott, who came in and played the Michael Clarke role to perfection. He was a senior player from day one; he anchored the second innings, grinding Australia down, while the allrounders had fun at the other end. Full marks to the selectors for picking him - but at the same time, no marks to them for allowing a bunch of less commanding figures to become automatic choices.

With Kevin Pietersen on the sidelines, the phrase "embarrassment of riches" has been used to describe the batting. Embarrassment, yes; riches, hardly. Only three batsmen have done enough to be inked in for the first Test in Centurion in December - Strauss, Pietersen and Trott. And in picking the squad, the selectors must give Strauss what Vaughan had: several people who can drive the car. If they won't pick the best batsman in the country, Mark Ramprakash - and they won't - the selectors should at least pick men who can think for themselves and run a show, like Robert Key. England started this Ashes series with the wrong opening pair, a brittle middle order, and an attack that was apt to be flaky; they ended it that way too. Somehow, in between, they managed to beat Australia. Three cheers - and no delusions.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Chris on August 27, 2009, 1:42 GMT

    Here's a very simple stat for those looking for a statistical explanation: the team with the higher first innings won (or nearly won) all five Tests. Australia had three disastrous first innings collapses and lost the series. Someone else asked for the *missing stat*. Try this one: Why did Australia lose despite scoring heaps more centuries? Only ONE of their eight centuries was scored in a match they won. Whereas England scored two in their wins, that is, both their centuries for the whole series. Thus the centuries count in victories favours England 2 to 1. (Australia's breakdown of centuries was 1 in victories, 2 in losses, and a whopping 5 in draws.) It could be argued they nearly won one of those draws, which would have made their centuries in victories look much better. However, they didn't, so those centuries proved futile. As England's batting showed, it's not always about big totals, but when you do makes centuries, don't waste them

  • Jayakrishna on August 26, 2009, 21:08 GMT

    Excellent analysis and love the 1st paragraph. Could not have been more true! As for Eng's next assignment, I think Paul Collingwood is the 1st one under the scanner. Cook played a decent knock at Lord's and has age on his side. Plus he never looked troubled by short bowling (which is more than what you could say abt Bell, C'wood, Bopara); a trait that should serve him well in SA. Eng should also be worried abt the performance of anderson and onions in unhelpful bowling conditions, especially since they do not have the force of Flintoff anymore. That alone should be enough to get Harmison into the side....Swann and Broad performed well above expectations, especially with the bat! Perhaps that was the crucial factor in Eng's victory

  • atul on August 26, 2009, 14:26 GMT

    to think ramprakash is the man for england is a bit silly coz u want someone who has long shelf life and there i presume rob key is a far better choice.

  • Ramakrishnan on August 26, 2009, 0:49 GMT

    bingohaley, Its not my intention to hint the superiority of India in any manner, but only to highlight the mediocrity of the England team while facing to their spinners (away from home).

  • Phil on August 25, 2009, 22:47 GMT

    How about this Tom.... When Dan Vettori takes 2 wickets over the next few days, he'll become the 8th person into the Genuine All Rounders club (3,000 runs ; 300 wickets). At present there are 7 members from 7 different countries - Hadlee, Imran, Kapil, Botham, Pollock, Vaas & Warne. Wouldn't Aussie have loved to have had Warne playing in this series.......and have they had any allrounders in the last 25 years who could have goten close to this list apart from him ?? How many notables got/getting close to this list? Flintoff, Cairns, Kallis........not an Aussie in sight. Had it not been for many injuries, England would have had Botham and Flintoff in this exclusive club; South Africa would have Pollock and Kallis; New Zealand would have Hadlee, Cairns, and Vettori.

  • Moe on August 25, 2009, 22:21 GMT

    I think the article is using the analysis method, "after dismissing all the evidence to the contrary, our theory works." The statistics do point to a major anomaly. I did watch bits and pieces of the Ashes and all I saw were English bowlers laboring and being ineffective. For example, in the final test, I watched until the rain break where the Aussies were 80 for no loss. The English bowlers didn't look like getting a wicket after the initial few LBW appeals against Watson. Then, I check the scorecard in the evening, and it's 160 all out. And, it's not the only test match in the Ashes this has happened. Maybe it's the propensity of the Aussies to collapse, but I still feel we are missing a vital statistics that really clarifies why the Aussies lost the Ashes. Maybe the English also collapsed but the lower middle order always buffered the fall. But for the Aussies, without Symonds and Gilchrist, a minor collapse jack-knifed right to the bottom.

  • Geoff on August 25, 2009, 21:58 GMT

    Totally agree with your basic analysis. Australia's problem was that their attack allowed England's tail to make too many runs. Over their great years this has been Australia's greatest strength - bundling it out for next to nothing. My only disagreement is over Alistair Cook. On a number of occasions he made some runs when few others did. I think he has both the temperament and the bread and butter shots to be a regular England opener for years to come. Wih Cook you can see what he needs to work on. That's a big plus. With others it's their all-round game - not quite up to it. I'm predicting he will come through it and make stacks of test runs when he fully matures his game. However he can't do it if he isn't picked. Stick with him please!

  • Sriram on August 25, 2009, 18:09 GMT

    All the talk about Australia played better overall cricket becuse they have better stats than England dont mean anything. For instance, a player can lose a tennis match 6-0, 6-7, 6-7, 6-0, 6-7. That doesnt mean tht he was the better player (because he won more games). What the stats tell you is that Australia had a couple of huge games (Leeds and Cardiff) when England were nowhere to be seen. But in the close game that mattered most, England were better than Astralia.

  • Mark on August 25, 2009, 16:23 GMT

    The issue with Stuart Broad was that in the first three Tests he had forgotten everything that he had learnt in the Caribbean about bowling the right length and line. After 3 Tests his place was under severe threat, but he was mature enough to learn the lessons and correct the mistakes. Credit to the selectors for persisting with him when many would have dropped him and credit to Stuart Broad for knowing what to do. However, as he knows, he has to maintain this development in South Africa. It's well worth remembering that after 10 Tests Andrew Flintoff had 7 wickets @ 66 & 255 runs @ 15.9 (Broad had 26 wkts @ 45 & 373 runs @ 34). After 22 Tests the contrast is almost as stark: Flintoff 33 wickets @ 51, Broad 64 wickets @ 36; Flintoff 683 runs @ 20.7, Broad 767 runs @ 30.7.

    At the same stages of his Test career, Stuart Broad has had returns that far outshine Andrew Flintoff's. That is the talent of the lad and the reason why the selectors are investing in his development.

  • nithiya on August 25, 2009, 15:17 GMT

    Xcellent comment on the stat other pundits were mentioning. all the century they scored never matters if there bowlers arent doing the job, its the bowler who win test matches. lets hope Australia wud stay at this standard for some time so the cricket world can see gud competetion for the pennacle

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