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Before the start of the Ashes, Australia were peppered with terms like 'Omnishambles' and 'Oznishambles' more often than Shane Watson walks off after reviewing a leg before. The coach was sacked, punches were thrown, the skipper stepped down as selector and predictions of a 10-0 mauling flew around.
Even the term underdogs seemed mild for the Australians as they embarked for England. All these distractions engendered a certain sense of pessimism and the visitors were made to look like the ugliest team in the universe. After four Tests, England have won and retained the Ashes, but that doesn't paint a true picture of Australia's performance. They weren't as bad as they were made to look. Their openers provided excellent platforms. In three of the four Tests they took the first innings lead. Their pacers outperformed the fit and fabled English fast bowling line-up in their own den. So what was the difference between the two sides? The answer is Ian Ronald Bell.
Going into the series, the much-vaunted trio of skipper Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen was expected to be the cornerstone of the English batting. Bell's name never featured. He flew under the scanner following poor performances against New Zealand, where he averaged a measly 28.25 with just a single half-century from five matches (both home and away). After four Ashes Tests on the grandest of stages, he has answered his critics in style, with 500 runs in four matches. He has more centuries than the entire Australian team. Moreover, it's not the matter of how many, but when those runs were scored. One of the biggest qualities of a champion player is to perform and succeed under pressure. Bell personifies that quality beautifully.
Performing in difficult conditions under enormous pressure, Bell unleashed a deadly combination of resilience and aesthetic strokeplay, much to the delight of the Test connoisseurs. Two of his three hundreds were scored in the second innings when England were in dire situations. In the second innings of the first Test at Trent Bridge, he hit a steely 109 when England were 121 for 3, effectively 56 for 3 given that England were trailing by 65 runs. He added 138 crucial runs for the seventh wicket with Broad, and helped England post a target of 311. In the first innings of the second Test, England were struggling at 28 for 3 when he arrived at the crease, and propelled them to 361 with an exhibition of classy strokeplay.
In the third Test at Old Trafford, England were up against a humongous Australian total. Bell scored 60, but most importantly, added 115 runs for the fifth wicket with the centurion Pietersen in the first innings. Australia dominated the match, and deserved to win, but the rain gods had other plans. If still doubts remained about Bell's capability, they were dumped at Durham as he conjured a sublime 113 to pull England out of the debris after they were effectively 17 for 3 in the second innings of the fourth Test.
Patience personified, he has spent 1409 minutes at the crease, facing 997 balls and with textbook technique, silken drives, astute dabs and sublime flicks, still scored all those runs at a decent strike rate of 50.15 which says a lot about the pacing of his innings.
In contrast, the major death blow for Australia was provided by their middle order. They were guilty of not developing core partnerships which cost them the urn. England stitched together six century partnerships in this series, all of them in the middle order. The third to seventh wicket stands amassed 1612 runs at an average of 44.77.
In comparison, Australia could manage just 1060 runs at 26.50 with two century stands. One of them was 214 by Clarke and Smith on a flat wicket batting first. In all, the visitors managed just four century partnerships. Their openers have averaged 48.62 in the series, and provided some decent starts, but the middle order failed to capitalise.
In the first Test at Lord's, chasing 311, their openers laid a strong foundation with an 84-run stand, but the middle order stammered, and they fell tantalisingly short by 14 runs. The only match where their middle order delivered was in the third Test, which was the only time they batted first in the series, and hence without any pressure of a flat pitch. The game in Durham was theirs to lose after they were 109/0, chasing 299, but the same old story happened and they capitulated, losing nine wickets in 39.1 overs.
Staggeringly, Bell was involved in five of the six middle-order century partnerships. Perhaps the one thing that the Australian middle order should have learnt from Bell was the art of grinding it out in the middle with patience and immense concentration. In fact, they could have learnt that art from Chris Rogers himself. On numerous occasions they were guilty of throwing their wickets away.
Australia's version of Bell was supposed to be Michael Clarke, but apart from one innings at Old Trafford, he never really turned up. His tendency to become a bowler's bunny in a series has made it easy for the opposition captains to chalk out a specific plan for his dismissal. Ravindra Jadeja removed him five times in the series against Australia this year and Broad so far has ripped through him five times this series. Being the heart of this Australia side, a lot of introspection is needed on his part too.
So close, but yet so far, it wasn't the worst performance from the Australians, but there are a lot of lessons to be learnt. This is a side in transition, and Clarke has asked supporters to be patient with this outfit, "Everyone says rebuild, rebuild, rebuild, but you need guys in first-class cricket making runs to take someone's slot. We have to continue to show faith in these guys - it takes time playing against good opposition." But the point is, they have lost seven out of their last eight matches. There is a serious need for damage limitation and hence the need for two or three good reinforcements.
If proper selections, along with ego alterations, could help rope in players like Simon Katich, George Bailey and David Hussey, who have a wealth of experience in the first-class circuit, the Australians could find themselves in a much better position. Develop the youngsters into finished products, rather than fast-tracking them into the national side. They need to re-establish the winning habit and reincarnate the ruthlessness their predecessors used so successfully.
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