England wait for Australian cat to skin itself

There is, England players keep telling us, more than one way to skin a cat.

It's a phrase that has come up several times in the last week. Generally it has been used to explain England's tactics in the field which, in contrast to Australia's, depend upon bowling economically and luring batsmen into errors through frustration.

Ignoring the fact that it's a bewildering expression - Why would you want to skin a cat? Is there a market for cat skin or it is a bizarre hobby? Is it something they teach them at Bluffborough? Does it apply to Cat Stevens and, are we all meant to nod our heads and think 'Ahh yes, there's the tail first, nose first and feet first methods for starters'? - it also seems incorrectly applied. For if anything has become apparent over the last couple of weeks, it is that England have only one way of skinning a cat.

Maybe not even that many. The way England bowl suggests they don't expect to skin cats so much as frustrate them so much they skin themselves.

That was how it appeared on the first day in Adelaide, anyway. Having seen Joe Root win the toss and elect to bowl first - the first man to make such a decision in a day-night Test and the first to insert in an Adelaide Test in more than 30-years - you would think England's bowlers would go for the throat.

Instead they immediately reverted to the method they had used at Brisbane. James Anderson and Stuart Broad plugged away, just back of a length, hoping to coax the batsmen into a rash shot.

That was a tactic that made sense in Brisbane. On a slow surface offering them little, there was logic in trying to frustrate batsmen into false strokes.

But here? On an overcast day, with a new pink ball offering just enough assistance to encourage bowlers? After taking a risk in inserting? You would expect them to pitch the ball up and make the batsmen play.

As it was, only one delivery in the first 13 overs would have hit the stumps. And while that is a rough way of measuring the quality of the bowling - not so many more deliveries were hitting the stumps during Broad's spell of eight for 15 at Trent Bridge in 2015 - it is not entirely misleading, either. In the first 10 overs, David Warner was allowed to leave more than 40 per cent of the deliveries he received. As a result, he could settle in nicely and see off the ball at its hardest and most dangerous.

Root's decision to insert may well not be remembered too kindly by history. But we don't really know whether it was a good or bad decision as England's bowlers - at least initially - failed to take advantage of the conditions or the new ball. They didn't bowl badly in as much as they were frugal - neither Broad or Anderson conceded more than two-an-over in their opening spells - but they didn't ask as many questions as they might have done and that was a missed opportunity.

Really, the decision to bowl first was substantially more aggressive than the bowling. Bearing in mind how much assistance the bowlers had - it was not substantial but it was more than you see in a typical Adelaide Test - claiming four wickets in the slightly abbreviated day could only be interpreted as a failure to justify Root's decision.

To some extent, England got away with it. The run-out of Cameron Bancroft - an act of charity from Warner - and a much improved spell after the first interval means England retain something of a foothold in the game. Warner then succumbed to the frustration by chasing one - with both feet off the ground - angled across him. But, if you insert a side in a Test, you are surely looking for your bowlers to claim more than one wicket in the first 50 overs.

Whether this was due to poor plans or poor execution of good plans is open to debate. It was noticeable, however, that after the first rain break - about 45 minutes into play - the seamers bowled more than a foot fuller than they had previously, which suggests they simply failed to bowl as full a length as required in that crucial first new ball spell.

There is another factor here, though. Might it be that England, devoid of the bite that a truly quick bowler or top-class spinner might provide - have become so used to bowling defensively that they struggle to adjust when conditions allow? Anderson and Broad, in particular, accepting that their pace has diminished, have developed the habit of probing, nagging and pressurising opposition. And while their hatred of giving away runs is admirable - and it ensured that Australia never got away from them here - it should never come at the expense of going for the kill. Aggressive words - England produced plenty of those - are never a substitute for aggressive bowling.

The sense that England had almost forgotten how to attack was reinforced at the toss. Root, explaining his decision, suggested that a virtue of bowling first was the opportunity of two new balls on the first day. While that's true, you would think a captain may be aiming to bowl a side out within 80 overs if they are inserting.

Perhaps it was telling that Craig Overton produced England's best moment of the day. Overton, new to Test cricket and the England environment, bowled Steve Smith with what you might call a good, old fashioned delivery that was aimed at the top of off stump. While his colleagues have hardly bowled at Smith's stumps in this series - an admission of defeat in some ways - Overton kept things simple and reaped the reward.

Even in the final over of the day, with the new ball taken, Anderson bowled only one delivery that might have hit the stumps. He still seemed to be bowling in the hope the batsmen would attempt something rash rather than actually trying to dismiss them. There are times and places for such bowling, but this was neither. The cat remains secure in its own skin.