English ascendency not going to plan
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.
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.