England v Australia, 4th Investec Ashes Test, Durham, 3rd day August 11, 2013

English ascendency not going to plan

Their top three are having the kind of series that usually sees England lose - and yet they are winning

Back in 1997, Andy Flower smiled. No one else was there. He was alone in his room after a match-drawing innings against Matabeleland. It was just him, some pieces of paper and an oil lamp. The paper was scorecards from Tests and first-class matches the world over. Andy had spent a lifetime collecting them, he had file cabinets built to accommodate them. Trusted colleagues would send them to him. When he was not fastidiously combing over VHS tapes of his technique or being fitter than a sheep dog, Flower was looking for something in all these numbers - he didn't know what it was, but he knew it would give him an edge over someone else, and that is he wanted.

The smile came from an epiphany Flower had. Early wickets truly were the key.

The evidence was obvious. By keeping your top order out there for as along as possible, you made bowlers go into fourth, fifth and sixth spells. That would mean when the middle order came in, they could capitalise on a tired attack, a deflated field and scoreboard pressure. All that blood sweat and paperwork was worth it.

It is almost possible that the above is made up, and it was actually years of playing professional cricket around the world that taught Andy Flower valuable lessons that he formulated into team plans and regulations. At their best, the England team executed these plans in a brilliantly unthinking way. Alastair Cook refused to sweat or play a poor shot. Andrew Strauss stayed calm and did his job. Jonathan Trott refused to blink or attack. England won quite a bit of cricket.

There were other factors, players and tactics that they used, but it was their foundation. When it fails, they do too. The two most recent series England have lost were against South Africa and Pakistan and in both instances the top three averaged less than 30. That trend goes back to 2008 against South Africa, which was before Flower was coach. The last time England's top three averaged below 30 and they won a Test series was against Sri Lanka in 2001. When Flower was still a Zimbabwe batsman.

It was always important always - no one ever says, let's throw wickets away at the top so our middle order can save us. But England built a gameplan around it. And not just a gameplan, but an Andy Flower gameplan; it might as well be typed on gold paper and laminated.

This series England are averaging 29.21 for their top three. Yet, they are 2-0 up. So far, in order of occurrence, they've been 102 for 3, 121 for 3, 28 for 3, 30 for 3, 64 for 3, 27 for 3 and 149 for 3. It's no 517 for 1. At the start of their second innings here, they were 49 for 3, which was 17 for 3 in the state of the game. Australia were on top. Ryan Harris looked like an immense Anime monster, Peter Siddle had not even come on yet. Yet by the close of play England had travelled comfortably to a 202-run lead.

Australia's bowling attack is pretty good. They have five decent options and a part-time wristspinner. Their bowlers can hit the right lengths for long periods, they can build pressure, their lines have been very good and their captain can, on occasion, be very forward thinking. Against a top order not in perfect mechanical order, they've been good.

If the Avengers came up against Ian Bell right now, they would lose. Bell is supernatural. If Elvis ever found form like this, they would have renamed earth in his honour

Cook has helped Australia, like he has helped many sides since the headier days of 2011. Back then it looked as if the only way to get Cook out was to send 200,000 protesters to Leicester Square and start a social media campaign. Now you just wait for him to play a bad shot. This year he is averaging 36. He has made no hundreds this series.

The praise that Joe Root gets at times suggest he is the Candyman, Johnny Cash and Jesus Christ rolled into one. Yet his back-foot technique is getting a working over by the Australians, who try not to let him use it. Root's 180 at Lord's was so good you hoped he didn't have a flaw but if Australia had a fully functioning cordon and he had been caught on 8, he'd be averaging 12 in this series.

Something weird has happened to Trott of late. The Trott of legend, and Twitter infamy, was the much-scratching, overly defensive player. Now he's been replaced by someone Steve McQueen could play in a film. He's playing shots, and looking super cool doing it. He isn't making runs, though. In this series he averages 24.25 with one fifty. His strike rate of 60 is higher than any other England batsman, including Kevin Pietersen.

Pietersen is not in great form but his hundred at Old Trafford saved the game for England. At Trent Bridge his 64 helped set up a winning total. And his partnership with Ian Bell on Sunday was what ended Australia's hopes of having a good day. Australia have tried to play against his ego, and they've done well at times. But when he is in full form, he's untouchable to them. At Old Trafford they tried to sledge him and he laughed at them while saying something along the lines of "Do you think I worry about going out? I don't worry about that at all. Not at all."

Then there is Bell. If the Avengers came up against Ian Bell right now, they would lose. Bell is supernatural. If Elvis ever found form like this, they would have renamed earth in his honour. The only way to slow his scoring down is with a third man, everything else is meaningless. Australia couldn't get him to leave the wicket with a bulldozer and, in the form of Harris, they sort of have one. Bell can be weak against Saeed Ajmal's doosra and his own mind. Australia have no doosras, and they can't penetrate his mind. Ian Ronald Bell will stop dominating once he is good and ready.

Jonny Bairstow is a worry for England, and Matt Prior is in bad form. But by the time Australia get to them, they're so far behind that it has rarely mattered.

It may not be England's grand plan and they not be executing their skills in the way Flower would want, but they are better than Australia. Today, as Ian Bell floated around the crease, Andy Flower might have smiled again. It wasn't a plan coming together; it was something prettier and more perfect than that.

Jarrod Kimber is 50% of the Two Chucks, and the mind responsible for cricketwithballs.com

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 13, 2013, 10:32 GMT

    I think it's pretty accepted that Eng aren't in top form and that despite the 3-0 scoreline, this series has been fairly even. The key aspect is Eng have played better in the most important moments of each Test.

    As an Aus fan who started watching Aus cricket first succumb to the mighty Windies & the one-card tricks that Hadlee, Dev & Khan represented to slowly rise into the dominant power in world cricket during the 90's & 00's, it's been hard & slow-going to recognise that Eng have actually built up a very good team as we had heard the 'cries of wolf' for so long when Hick, Hussain, Stewart, Gough & Co were heralded as keys to reclaiming the Ashes. Put simply, Eng now have a very good team, and whilst they haven't been in top gear they have found an extra gear Aus hasn't got (yet?) when needed - under pressure, Eng have fought themselves out where as Aus have crumbled. Those crumbles aside, Aus have probably layed closer to their max potential than Eng have played to theirs.

  • Cameron on August 12, 2013, 13:47 GMT

    Fair article. I think the teams are pretty evenly matched, despite the scoreline. Neither team is setting the world on fire with Swann, Bell, Clarke's captaincy and Harris the notable exceptions. Other players have been good in both sides but not consistent. This has been a pretty good test match though and it's nice to see some good cricket. Broad's bowling the other day was exceptional.

  • stuart on August 12, 2013, 13:12 GMT

    root should take Bairstows place and bring in Compton. Left right combo will be better and lets face it Compton is not getting out to a flash shot.

  • I on August 12, 2013, 9:49 GMT

    Might be worth pointing out that England's 2 most recent series losses are both against the last teams to have won test matches in England. England are good at moving the goalposts of greatness without a great deal of solemnity. After all the bluster of being #1, the media started praying that the side could make 100 against Pakistan, then praying for rain in New Zealand to stop South Africa claiming the top spot after just a few months. Then Dobell and co promptly gave up any discussion of wining the 2012 South Africa series and instead dissected what England needed to do to technically retain the top spot, not winning tests. Now it's about trying to maintain an edge over a lower-ranked side as a measure of greatness. Ask anyone who picked Cook, Trott or Prior for their fantasy league how that's working out for them.

  • ameet on August 12, 2013, 9:35 GMT

    @Liquefierrrr you and many others are missing the point. this series is not about proving england's claims to being a great or even a good team. this series is about beating australia and winning the ashes and that's all really. and we're two nil up so well on course...

  • Ian on August 12, 2013, 9:24 GMT

    Except for Bell & Anderson, this English side is looking more & more like a decent side, not an outstanding one. While they're clearly better than us, the difference isn't anything like everyone expected. Given we're still trying to figure out the first 6, lost 3/4 tosses, copped by far the worst conditions on the morning of day 2 here, were unlucky with the weather last game & Broad's non-dismissal in the first Test proved to be a match-winner, a bit more luck would have seen this at 1-2 or even 1-3 after 4 Tests, rather than the 3-0 it's likely to be. While 1-3 wouldn't be right, the fact that it could have been must worry England. Hopefully the trends continue for the next series. On the top order, I can't understand why we keep sacrificing promising youngsters at 3, while hiding Clarke at 5. Because someone does ok in the Shield is no reason to make them debut in Tests there. We should be bringing people like Khawaja into the team at 5 and promoting them later.

  • Dummy4 on August 12, 2013, 9:14 GMT

    Don't worry Jarrod you blinkered marvel, our number 5 bats better than basically your entire top order bar Clarke anyway. I'd still take Cook, Root, Trott and Pietersen into battle than Warner, Rogers, Khawaja and Smith anyway. Enjoy watching the Ashes in English hands again.

  • Indian on August 12, 2013, 9:05 GMT

    erm.. reality check... it's currently #3 ranked Test team. It was #1 for a few minutes (ok days)... sounds more like a descent rather than ascent!.. but you are the media.. what do we know!

  • Dummy4 on August 12, 2013, 7:23 GMT

    Dear Mr Kimber. What you fail to understand is that England have FIVE world class batsmen in Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell and Prior who between them have scored 29,345 runs with 84 centuries and 143 fifties. No matter what slant or spin you try to put on it, as long as one of them fires, they will be more than a match for Australia's single class player, Michael Clarke. What you should point out is the fantastic, collective effort by the Australian bowlers that hasn't allowed England to run away with this series. Harris, Lyon, Watson, Siddle these are the heroes you should laud instead of the churlish, snide remarks you have penned.

  • Graham on August 12, 2013, 7:00 GMT

    Steve Back; That is nowhere near the comment Jarrod was making. England are only at "60%" of there potential because they are playing against a good attack. They are performing as good as the opposition will let them. I can turn it around and say that the great England side are only marginally better than the worse Australian side for 20 years. England are playing as well as they can in the circumstances as are Australia. Except for the one very poor performance from Australia it has been pretty much even.

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