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If England and Australia have been compiling intelligence files ahead of the return series, what have each of the teams learned?
August 23, 2013
Report : England forced to grind as Australia chip away
News : Arthur reveals two-series strategy
Players/Officials: Graeme Swann | Michael Clarke | Alastair Cook | Jonathan Trott | Joe Root | Ian Bell | Matt Prior | Tim Bresnan | Chris Rogers | Shane Watson | Ryan Harris
Matches: England v Australia at The Oval
Series/Tournaments: Australia tour of England and Scotland
If the words of Australia's former coach Mickey Arthur are to be believed, this has not been an Ashes series so much as a fact-finding mission: five Tests in England little more than a curtain-raiser for the main event down under during the southern summer, after which the winner will hold the urn for 18 months rather than a mere five. For all their desire to retain supremacy, England will feel the effort on home soil wasted if it is not followed up abroad. For all their apparent desperation to win away, Australia may have been primarily concerned with setting themselves up for a more definitive performance on more familiar turf.
So what exactly has been learned from these matches that can be used when the teams square up to each other again at the Gabba in November? There is plenty about the series that has matched its advance billing. England's experience and habit of winning has been critical against opponents nowhere near as well-versed. Australia's batting frailty particularly when batting second has been badly exposed at times. And Graeme Swann's high-quality spin and considerable guile will be a major point of difference whenever the two nations meet on surfaces of England's choosing.
But other trends have also emerged, intelligence of the kind that Arthur revealed he and the captain, Michael Clarke, had spoken of collecting across their journey around England. Australia have gained quite a lot from this series, their individual performances and match-ups with certain members of the England XI instilling confidence even if the series scoreline does not. At the same time, England have enhanced their knowledge of Australia, and areas of weakness they can exploit again, even when presented with pitches not made to Andy Flower's orders.
What Australia have learned
Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Joe Root are vulnerable to diligent planning. Cook and Trott were virtually impassable during the last series in Australia, but it now seems this was largely a result of poor and patchy bowling rather than any particularly outstanding qualities of the batsmen themselves. Australia have been far more patient with both this time around and it has paid off. If Cook is given nothing on his pads and nothing short in his cutting zone, he can be starved into snicking the ball going across him, or pinned lbw by a surprise break-back. Without a steady diet of deliveries at his hip, Trott can get edgy and jumpy, falling across his crease as an lbw or leg-side catch candidate. Similarly, Root has the makings of a fine top-order technique but his back-foot strength has yet to be allied to an adequate game when the ball is further up to the bat.
Ian Bell needs a third man at all times. England's most prolific scorer and repeated saviour in this series, Bell does not possess any obvious technical flaws to exploit, but there is one scoring region that can be cut off in Australia. So often, he has neutralised suffocating Australian spells by artfully gliding or late cutting decent deliveries to the third man boundary, invariably left vacant. While the position is more commonly the preserve of the limited-overs field, it would be worth using against Bell as a means of restricting him, and perhaps forcing shots with which he is less comfortable.
|England's pragmatism is palpable, fighting hard for the victories they require in a series and then scrapping equally hard to avoid defeat, even if it means giving up all pretensions of trying to win|
Matt Prior can be messed with, starting with his batting. For so long a pillar of England's success, Prior has been a much reduced figure this time around. It started with Clarke's setting of some intelligent fields against him at Trent Bridge, playing on his desire to leather the ball through the off side. This resulted in a pattern of muted batting displays, serviceable but not outstanding glovework and increasingly faulty judgment on the DRS. On surfaces offering greater bounce, Prior will again be tempted to pierce Clarke's fields in Australia, and whether he does may determine his confidence level and the substance of his subsequent contribution.
Tim Bresnan is among the most pivotal Englishmen. Bresnan did not even play in the first Test of the series, and England nearly lost as a result. Not one for eye-catching displays, he is more vital for linking up the spells of Anderson, Broad and Swann with sturdy displays that maintain pressure and squeeze out the odd vital wicket with the help of reverse swing. See his second innings removal of David Warner at Durham, presaging Broad's rampage, or his lbw defeat of Shane Watson to prelude Australia's capitulation at Lord's. Add to that his lower-order batting and little wonder Bresnan is regarded highly by many more within the two dressing rooms than without. His battle to regain fitness will be key to the outcome of the return series, and Australia must plan to treat his bowling with greater deference.
When Australia play well, England will play for draws. At both Old Trafford and The Oval, Australia won the toss, batted soundly to begin with and walked out on the second day to find opponents quickly preoccupied with stalling for time. England's pragmatism is palpable, fighting hard for the victories they require in a series and then scrapping equally hard to avoid defeat, even if it means giving up all pretensions of trying to win. They push the boundaries as far as they can, whether it be Broad finding the most opportune moment to take off his boots, or taking advantage of the umpires' curious reluctance to insist on a more sprightly over rate. Australia can take heart from this but will also note that such stubbornness is a quality they too have to gain on the way towards their desired place in the world rankings.
What England have learned
Chris Rogers has a serious problem with Graeme Swann. Before the series it was Phillip Hughes thought most vulnerable to English spin, but with each match it has grown apparent that the otherwise highly accomplished and gritty Rogers has found no adequate means by which to either score off Swann or keep him out. Six dismissals, several of them at crucial moments, have marked Swann as the man to bring on as early as possible to face Rogers, with the added benefit that before being dismissed the left-hander will lose much of his earlier momentum. As a very good technician, Rogers will work on this shortcoming himself, and may find another option. The get-out-of-jail sweep he used to reach 100 at Chester-le-Street may be one such path.
Michael Clarke struggles to survive against Stuart Broad. Whether it has been partly due to his increasingly fragile back or not, Clarke has been reduced to a batsman of far less presence than he managed during the past two years when facing Broad's pace, bounce and hostility. His wariness of the short ball has made him increasingly vulnerable to something pitched up, though the deliveries from Anderson and Broad that flicked the outside of Clarke's off stump in Nottingham and Durham were each of the highest class. Bounce was a problem for Clarke against England in 2010-11 also, and it will not be a surprise to see Chris Tremlett drilled by the bowling coach David Saker for a Broad-like attack on Australia's captain should circumstances dictate his inclusion.
Shane Watson has a prominent front pad but is learning to defend it. England's plan to target Watson for lbw has been simple and repeatable, and for most of the series wildly successful. The lack of runs made by a batsman of Watson's ability in the first three Tests can be viewed as perhaps the most glaring failure for Australia in the series, but in the final two matches there have been signs he is improving. Following the Lord's Test, Watson spent time in London working with Rogers and the batting coach Michael Di Venuto, and the fruit of their labours was increasingly clear at The Oval. England will know they need to keep a step ahead of Watson, for innings of the kind he played on day one in Kennington need only be played once or twice in Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth for the urn to change hands.
A fit Ryan Harris is as vital for Australia as a fit James Anderson for England. It may be argued that Anderson produced the most influential display of the series with his 10 wickets in Nottingham to turn a tight match England's way, and his consistent harrying of Australia's batsmen is something Cook can rely on at any time. But he has been matched spell-for-spell by Harris, who has defied a career beset by injuries to emerge as an opponent both skilful and durable. At The Oval, England's stodgy batting may have been as much about keeping Harris in the field for an extended period as much as anything else, seeking to sap him of energy and increase the chances of an injury that might affect his efforts back home. England clearly respect Harris' bowling, but they must now find a way to see him off more consistently.
Australia's players - and selectors - lack resilience if tested for extended periods. Perhaps the most significant way in which England are undeniably better than Australia is in the holding of their nerve. When they have possessed strong positions they have not relinquished them, and when Australia have been similarly placed the hosts have not panicked. This is true as much at the selection table as on the field. How the tourists could have resorted to Ashton Agar at the start of the series instead of Nathan Lyon remains a mystery, while the constant shuffling of the Australia batting order is also instructive. England now know that a good start at the Gabba will create all kinds of doubt among their opposition, yet there will not be quite so nearly as much within Cook's men if the reverse occurs.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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