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Lulled into a high-risk counterattacking approach, England squandered an opportunity to finally take control of a Test match in this series
George Dobell at the MCG
December 28, 2013
Players most in need of a hug
With the logic of a man driving faster in fog to end their journey more quickly, England's batsmen suffered another day of missed opportunities and self-inflicted wounds.
This Test will, barring a most unexpected quirk of fate, end with more than a day to spare. Yet England, sucked into a high-risk counterattacking approach by months of muddled thinking and Australian propaganda, squandered several of their wickets in a misguided attempt to hit their way to an impregnable position. It was reckless, naïve and foolish cricket.
It was not that they did not graft for a time. Michael Carberry, for example, resisted admirably for more than two hours in making 12. But far too many of their batsmen fell to unnecessarily aggressive strokes when they would have been far better served occupying the crease and allowing themselves time to accumulate.
It was a wasted opportunity. Batting for a second time with a first innings lead of 51, England had the chance to punish an Australian bowling attack that was starting, for the first time in the series, to look jaded. Certainly Ryan Harris, given little time for recuperation between innings due to the failure of his batting colleagues, looked stiff and less dangerous than usual, while Shane Watson looked so immobile that, were you to see him on a bus, you might offer him your seat.
Not only that, but the pitch was still playing pretty well. It is slow, certainly, and offering just a little turn. But had England batted for another day, it would have deteriorated and worn further. Not one of their wickets was due to an unplayable delivery.
But instead of forcing the bowlers into spell after spell on a hot afternoon, England looked for quick-fix solutions. Ben Stokes was caught at long-off, attempting to drive over the top when he could easily have pushed a single, Ian Bell spooned his first ball to mid-off, Joe Root was punished for attempting a reckless single and Jonny Bairstow was drawn into a footless waft at one he could have left. Every one of them will reflect on the large part they played in their own dismissal.
Only Kevin Pietersen, again stuck with tailenders for company, could be excused his stroke: caught at long-off as he attempted to thrash some quick runs. Indeed, while Pietersen will again attract criticism despite being England's highest run-scorer of the match, you could argue that a less committed team man might have pushed a single, completed his half-century and allowed James Anderson to face the next delivery.
Pietersen's lack of faith in the tail is hardly unreasonable; in the first innings, England's final five wickets added only 39 runs. In the second they contributed just six. Confronted by the pace of Mitchell Johnson, England appear to have the tail of a diplodocus.
It may well be that the tail's weakness is contributing to the reckless approach of the upper-order. The final five batsmen added only 17 in the second innings at Brisbane and the final six batsmen contributed just 10 runs between them in the first innings in Adelaide. With the final four making just 1 between them here, it is hardly surprising that a "score as quickly as you can while you have the chance" culture has developed.
There is no hurry in Test cricket. England have only contested two draws where rain or bad light did not play a part since the end of 2009: at Auckland in March and in Nagpur in December 2012. Yet somewhere along the line they have lost the ability to bat as they did against Australia in 2010-11 or India in 2011. They have stopped investing in long periods of defence and instead opted for the "get rich quick" approach, trying to hit their way out of trouble.
The greatest myth of our time is that teams need to steal the initiative by batting aggressively. Initiative can be earned in many ways. In a previous age, it was earned by batsmen refusing to offer the opposition any opportunity, by declining risks and by gradually building strong positions.
Such skills have largely been lost. Teams no longer dare to be dull. They are not prepared to be patient. They are not brave enough to block. Perhaps as a result of limited-overs cricket, perhaps as a result of poorer techniques, perhaps as a result of fashion, the game has changed. It is, in some ways, more entertaining, but it would be hard to argue that some of the valuable qualities that made the likes of Ken Barrington or Geoff Boycott such valuable players have been lost.
The counter argument is that slow scoring builds pressure which results in wickets. There is truth in it, too. But if a side is mentally strong and prepared to graft, a dry period need not lead to wickets. If a batsman has confidence in his defensive technique and has the ability to concentrate, he should have no need to take chances. And if he does not, he may need to rethink his occupation.
England's enduring weakness with the bat must also raise questions about the coaching set-up. Andy Flower, Graham Gooch and others may be offering the best technical and tactical advice available, but unless they are able to find a way to make the players utilise it, there can be little value in their contributions. The time for change is upon us.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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