Feeble Australia the real story of Lord's
Though Joe Root was the story of the third day at Lord's, Australia's feeble cricket has been the narrative of the match. Why should this be? Have Australians lost it? Is this a cyclical thing?
Though vindictive England fans licked their lips, there was no pleasure in the batting collapse, which was as awful to watch as it must have been to participate in. If one image best illustrated the humiliation, it was the full toss that Chris Rogers mowed at and missed. If one innings best crystallised a career, it was the 30 made by Shane Watson. If one shot summed up the malaise it was the wild throw of the bat by Phillip Hughes.
This pain, and the resulting first innings deficit, was compounded by the inability of the bowlers to make good their effort on Friday evening. Three down overnight, England were not breached again until Tim Bresnan swatted to midwicket 45 minutes after lunch. It was not that Australia bowled badly, far from it. Just that there was no inspiration. Courage and effort count but without skill, flat pitches become a bowler's graveyard.
The most obvious thing about state cricket in Australia at present is the amount of good cricketers but the absence of exceptional ones. The various competitions are keenly contested but the Twenty20 Big Bash is the zeitgeist. This is a problem because performances in the Big Bash get good press and inflate opinion and ego.
There is still a strong reference to the Sheffield Shield but the players are no more than honest and the cricket humdrum by comparison with a decade ago. Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne come round once in a blue moon but the canvas could do with the brushstrokes of less celebrated but still gifted artists such as Darren Lehmann, Stuart Law and Andy Bichel. Most glaring is the lack of spinners. There are plenty of slow bowlers but no one who gives it a rip.
The pitches are not as good as they once were. In Hobart, during the first half of the last season, 50 was a good score and there were not many of them. Seamers profit, swing is not at a premium. Lucrative IPL contracts steal the hearts of young cricketers who talk of big cheques, big crowds, and then receive disproportionate adulation. Call it the Glenn Maxwell situation - a man with a modern cricket talent who takes guard for a good time not a long time.
During the first two sessions today, Australia gave England nothing. The bowling was tidy, the captaincy astute. But the ball did not swing - in either orthodox or reverse fashion - it did not cut, it did not spin, it barely varied in pace or trajectory. In summary, there was no deception, nothing that asked the batsmen to do anything other than watch it well. Ashton Agar is a splendid young talent but he is not a Test match bowler, not yet, not close. By the evening, the nothingness told and England punched away like heavyweights in a lightweight bout.
But these were mere scratches compared to Friday's punishment when the full arsenal of Australian batting mustered just 128. Rogers should not have been adjudged lbw but the more relevant fact is that a Test opening batsman, after more than an hour at the wicket, missed a full toss. As if that were not enough, he lacked the clarity of thought to demand a review. Perhaps the embarrassment was too much or perhaps he thought it wise to leave one in the bank for his captain. Any which way, it was ugly stuff.
Watson played round his front pad, an old flaw, to be stone dead lbw. He chose to review. What a waste. Some boundaries and some blocks brought him those thirty runs. If only he would feel the ball onto his bat and guide it to spaces where ones, twos and threes become as much a part of his rhythm as muscle bound hits to extra-cover and midwicket. And if only he would get that left leg out of the line of fire. The pursuit of Watson has become an unwarranted distraction. He must respond to those who have stuck out their neck in his cause.
Those who watched Hughes tear the South Africans apart in Durban four years ago imagined a star had been born. Compact, inventive and dynamic, this was a rare batsman - one for the ages. But it is age that has withered him. Each step is now taken with caution, each stroke self-appraised. Once confident, even cocky but now locked behind the bars of introspection, Hughes is a defining example of the uncertainty with which the Australians have played their cricket these past three days. Do I stick or twist? Too late.
Is this cyclical? Yes, if the house back at home is rebuilt from its foundation. Investment in the Sheffield Shield is imperative. Hundreds of thousands of dollars find their way into the pockets of men such as Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard; Luke Wright and Owais Shah. Where is the hope in that? Pitches need to return to their indigenous state, so that batsmen learn the art of big innings and bowlers the art of prising them out.
Australia still has a culture for cricket that is unmatched. But the challenges are clear if it is not to slip away. The first job is for the team at Lord's to show they care. Hopeless as the match has become, much can be gained from an apparent defiance. Messages matter, particularly to youngsters who draw inspiration from the men that chew gum beneath the Baggy Green. The Ashes are a symbol of something in Australia's soul. Work must begin immediately to have them back by January 7 next year.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK