Monday, August 26, 2013

Grading the performances in the Ashes

During a series that had its fair share of thrills and spills, England beat Australia 3-0 to win the Ashes. The history books might tell a story of a dominant home performance, but in truth this was a victory for efficiency over inconsistency rather than a display of exhilarating superiority. There were few protagonists who sustained excellence over the five tests, and that is reflected in the grades I have handed out to the players involved in these Ashes.

A

Ian Bell

If there was one positive in the farcical end to the series, it was that Ian Bell was involved in the last bit of action to end the Ashes. Rightly awarded the man of the series, the Warwickshire man's contributions were crucial, especially in England's two close wins at Trent Bridge and Chester-Le-Street. 562 runs at an average of 62.44 with three centuries and two fifties would be enough material to spin an impressive story.

However, the context adds more depth to the numbers. In the first test at Trent Bridge, Bell came to the crease in the second innings at the loss of three wickets, and England only 56 runs ahead. When he departed after scoring 109, England had set a target above 300 which ultimately proved just enough. Similarly at Durham, Bell entered the crucial third innings of the match with England effectively 17 for 3. As he watched his teammates grope and prod in an attempt to barely survive in the most overcast conditions of the series, Bell compiled a glorious 113 laced with his trademark late cuts and sumptuous cover drives. Bell's century ensured England set a defendable target, and the bowlers ensured his work wasn't in vain as England sealed the Ashes.

Ryan Harris

Harris ended the series with 24 wickets at 19.58, and would have probably ended up as the leading wicket-taker in the series if he had played all five tests. Harris bounded in with relentless energy regardless of the match situation and tested the English batsmen in every way a fast bowler aspires to. The bounce he generated off a good length was disconcerting even on the flattest of pitches, and he swung the ball both ways at considerable pace. He most likely would have led to Australia to victory in the rain-curtailed third test at Old Trafford. That Harris played four consecutive tests is a huge positive after his injury problems, and if Australia want to have a genuine shot at victory in the return series, the think tank should do everything to make sure their leading paceman is fit and ready to go at the Gabba in three month's time.

Stuart Broad

Broad wasn't at his best with the ball in the first half of the series, although his wicket tally didn't reflect some spells of testing bowling. You could sense Broad was building up to something special, and at Chester-Le-Street, he put in a bowling display for the ages. His 5 for 71 in the first innings displayed how lethal Broad can be when he pitches it on the right length. In the second innings with Australia needing only another 130 runs to win with seven wickets in hand, Broad bowled Michael Clarke with the delivery of the series. It was enough to set jitters in the visitors dressing room, and Alastair Cook described it as one of 'those' spells, where Broad combines seam, pace and bounce to become unplayable. Broad single-handedly reduced Australia from 174 for 3 to 224 all out, as England completed a special win.

Broad finished the series with excellent figures of 22 wickets of 27.45, but crucially also seemed to sort out some of his batting demons, scoring 179 runs at 25.57 while batting at number nine. Of most significance was his 65 in the first innings at Trent Bridge in support of Bell, a crucial partnership that established the foundations of a close victory. Finally, his decision to not walk after edging to slip during that innings proved to be the talking point of the series, even reducing Australian coach Darren Lehmann to childish mind games at the end of the tour.

B

Graeme Swann

26 wickets at an average of 29.03 to end up as the highest wicket-taker in the series would be sufficient in most cases to get an A grade. Swann was fantastic at Lord's, where the faster nature of the pitch was conducive to his drift as he ended with decisive match figures of 9 for 122. Take away that performance however, and Swann took 17 wickets at an average of 37.23. In a series where Swann was supposed to make hay against Australia's left-handers, England's leading spinner ultimately ended the series containing rather than attacking. On a positive note, the effective batting cameos made a return during the series as Swann hit two scores above 30, and a crucial 28 on the second morning of the Lord's test that deflated Australia going into the change of innings.

Chris Rogers

Many were sceptical of the veteran's inclusion in the squad at the outset of the series, but at the conclusion of the Ashes Australia can at least rest easy knowing they have a dependable opener for the home bout in three months time. Rogers was solid in defence and put a premium on his wicket throughout the series. When settled at the crease, Rogers also displayed some finesse with some beautiful straight drives against the fast bowlers. His maiden test century in the first innings of the fourth test was a genuine feel good story, and the century opening stand in partnership with David Warner in the second innings would have been the basis of a successful chase were it not for Broad's heroics. A weakness against Swann remains, but Rogers will be confident about countering the rest of England's attack in home conditions.

Kevin Pietersen

Pietersen never reached his exalting standards during these Ashes, but considering the fact that he was returning after a long-term injury, a series aggregate of 388 at 38.80 wasn't a total disaster. So accustomed to coming after solid starts from England's top order, Pietersen had to curb his natural instincts in order to consolidate the innings. Fighting innings of 64 and 44 in the second innings at Trent Bridge and Durham respectively proved that England's star batsmen can reign in his instincts for the benefit of the team. His 113 in the drawn third test wasn't his most memorable century, but was nonetheless vital in helping England avoid the follow on. The swashbuckling 62 in his last innings of the series was Pietersen at his best, and would have surely won England the test if bad light hadn't cruelly intervened.

Brad Haddin

The look on Haddin's face when he the last man out after a heroic innings of 71 almost took Australia to an unfathomable victory was the most gut-wrenching visual of the series. Haddin has surely settled the debate around the wicketkeeper's spot in the Australian team after these Ashes. The ultimate competitor, Haddin contributed two fifties lower down the order and most impressively ended the series with 29 dismissals, a record for a wicketkeeper in a five-test series. Haddin should now have sole possession of the gloves behind the stumps till he decides to retire from the game.

James Anderson

After the first test, it seemed to many that Anderson would single-handedly win the series for England as his wizardry of swing had the Australian batsmen on a string at Trent Bridge. That England won without Anderson ever being close to his best for the rest of series reflected well on the rest of the attack. The conditions were probably not to his liking throughout the series, but as one of the leading bowlers in international cricket, Anderson certainly won't be happy with an average of 41.08 in the last four tests. The Australian batsmen will now be confident of further negating Anderson's threat in conditions that are likely to be truer for batting while not offering much assistance for either conventional or reverse swing.

Tim Bresnan

Proved his worth in the starting eleven, and cemented his place as the third seamer ahead of Steven Finn by virtue of always being reliable. Series averages of 29.6 and 25.75 with the ball and bat respectively confirm Bresnan's underrated consistency for England. Bresnan ended up playing only three tests, but crucially made Shane Watson his bunny, dismissing the all-rounder four times in six innings. Confirmed his own all-round abilities with a crucial 45 in the second innings at Chester-Le-Street and followed it up with a brute of an out-swinger to dismiss David Warner after the opener threatened to take Australia to a famous victory.

C

Shane Watson

That statistics can be quirky at times was proven by Watson becoming Australia's leading run-scorer in the series on the dint of his 176 in the last test. Unfortunately Watson simply failed with the bat when it mattered, and it's a sign of the times in Australia that many in the punditocracy down under are proclaiming that the talented all-rounder has turned a corner by virtue of his knock at the Oval. If Watson could have contributed even a few fifties in tough situations, Australia could probably have won a test on the tour. That he isn't graded lower, is due to his economical bowling, which surely would have yielded more wickets but for England's batsmen missing far more than playing him.

Steven Smith

A coming of age tour for the batsman, who improved immeasurably from the last Ashes series in 2011. Coming in at six, Smith scored a more than respectable 345 runs at an average of 38.33, with two fifties and a century. Smith should ideally have had his maiden century at Old Trafford when he threw his wicket away on 89. The technique is still not perfect, but the temperament bodes well for a successful future in the Australian middle order.

Michael Clarke

That Clarke averaged 47.62 for the series was largely down to his impressive 187 at Old Trafford. Other than that innings Clarke didn't live up to his standards, and most disconcertingly for the skipper, it seemed England had figured a way to get him out, with Stuart Broad in particular ruffling him with short balls. That he isn't graded lower is due to his innovative and daring captaincy, with his brave declaration resulting in a great finale on the last day of the series, and he was the last person that the English crowd should have booed after the bad light fiasco.

Peter Siddle

Siddle provided honest effort and commitment throughout the series, despite almost always bowling when the English batsmen were on top. The fast bowler managed to generate swing at considerable pace during the first two tests, but tailed off rather alarmingly in the latter half of the series, as a lack of subtlety meant the English top order had figured out a way to negate his threat. Would have probably got a higher grade if his normally staunch defence with the bat hadn't been so easy to breach in this series.

Nathan Lyon

Proved the folly of selecting an uncapped teenager ahead of him in the first two tests by bowling with control and discipline on his recall to the team. England's batsmen played him with circumspection apart from a spell in the third test when Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell went after him. Ultimately though, just being an upgrade on Ashton Agar doesn't define a successful series, as 9 wickets at 33.66 can be classed as nothing more than satisfactory.

David Warner

A series average of 23 hardly screams success, but his 71 at Durham proved that when he gets it right, Warner is a match-winner blessed with supreme ability. He is in the last chance saloon due to his shenanigans off the cricket field, but there were signs during the series that Warner could possibly form a successful short-term opening partnership with Rogers.

James Faulkner

Faulkner's test debut at the Oval was probably worthy of a B, but one test was too small a sample to give him any grade higher than C. Nevertheless, Faulkner showed enough with the bat to be a bona fide number eight in test cricket, and crucially bowled with control and just the right amount of nip to get six wickets. That Mitchell Starc got more chances than him in the series is surely an anomaly that will be corrected in the return series.

D

The pitches

One of the most fascinating aspects of watching test cricket in different parts of the world, is seeing the best cricketers adapt to a variety of pitches and conditions. Apparently wary of Australia's fast bowling threat, England prepared pitches that were slow and dry, in the process negating the threat of their own fast bowling trio. That Anderson, Broad and Bresnan still finished with series averages below 30 is a testament to their skill, but England could surely have just as easily won the series in swinging and seaming conditions. I hope the ECB think tank doesn't condone these type of surfaces in future English summers, as the last thing test cricket needs is for conditions all around the world mirroring the subcontinent.

Alastair Cook

Cook's captaincy was unimaginative and dour throughout the series, but he will rightfully claim that the proof is in the pudding, and one can't find too much to quibble about in the aftermath of a 3-0 test series victory. How he fronts up to those who are critiquing his batting right now is another matter altogether? Through his phenomenal form in the past two years, Cook has earned the right to a poor series. Nonetheless, it is a matter of concern for the English think tank, that the Australian fast bowlers had made him a walking wicket to deliveries on and just outside off stump in the latter half of the series. For his part, Cook will do well to recollect the tour to Australia in 2011, when on the back of similar doubts, he hit a purple patch of form that lasted for the best part of two years.

Jonathan Trott

Long recognized as Australia's nemesis, Trott had a poor series averaging only 29.3. What was most frustrating for the number three, was the amount of times he got out to innocuous balls after looking so good at the crease. Played some serene knocks, but attempted uncharacteristically expansive shots when looking settled at the crease. Like Cook, Trott will be looking for redemption in Australia, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he bats with increased focus during the return series.

Joe Root

A 180 at the home of cricket should ideally be a launchpad to greater things, but unfortunately for Root that innings was as good as it got for him. Root would have averaged less than 20 were it not for his innings at Lord's, and probably even worse if he wasn't dropped when on nine. Root deservedly excites many in the English game, but I still advocate an adjustment in temperament rather than technique for the young Yorkshire man to succeed as an opener in test cricket.

Jonny Bairstow

The other young tyro from Yorkshire who was supposed to shine with aggressive intent in this series. As the Ashes progressed however, Bairstow just seemed to get more confounded about his role as the number six in the team, before getting deservedly dropped for the final test. Unlike Root, Bairstow does have technical issues to overcome, specifically a tendency to play across the line. He still isn't completely at ease with the short ball either, and if he does play in Australia, he might struggle at the Gabba, the WACA and the MCG.

Mitchell Starc

When Starc gets it right, he is almost unplayable. The problem during his nascent test career so far has been that he rarely gets it right. Possessing the natural swing that most left-arm fast bowlers do, Starc wasted his overs bowling too wide outside the off stump, and criminally offering freebies down the leg side. Starc is still young and can mature into a genuine match-winner, but the desire to learn and improve has to prevail, or Australia will simply have another version of Mitchell Johnson in their ranks. His bowling alone was worthy of an E, but his dangerous ability with the bat was on display during a breezy unbeaten 66 at Old Trafford, bumping him up one grade.

James Pattinson

Bowled with unrelenting pace throughout the first two tests, however like Starc wasn't able to find the right lines and lengths consistently. There were too many four balls for an opening bowler, and Pattinson paid the ultimate price for bowling at breakneck speed as he was ruled out for the rest of the series after the second test at Lord's. Like Starc, his D is down to his gumption with the bat, partnering Haddin for the last wicket in that remarkable first test, and then frustrating England at Lord's by batting stoically for 2 hours.

Matt Prior

Was it the curse of being named England's player of the year? Prior managed a paltry aggregate of 133 at a substandard average of 19. He simply wasn't at the races with the bat, and there wasn't a single innings in which Prior looked fluent. He saved his best knock for his last innings of the series with a typically aggressive 47 of 57 balls. That he doesn't have an E is because he was as solid as ever behind the stumps, hardly making an error while completing 18 dismissals.

E

Ashton Agar

Aside from the amazing story of his 98 on debut batting at number eleven, Agar's performances clearly proved that he wasn't ready for the highest level of cricket. Selected ahead of Lyon as the spinner in the side, Agar was a deer in the headlights with the ball, clueless about the right length to bowl, while the pace of his deliveries negated the impact of his revolutions, which were minimal to begin with. An average of 124 with the ball only enforces the fact that a few good seasons of first class cricket are now paramount to his development.

Ed Cowan, Phillip Hughes and Usman Khawaja

The three southpaws served as sorry excuses for Australian test batsmen. That the trio continue to get chances and get rotated, reveals a troubling state of affairs as far as Australian batting is concerned, and that there are no readymade replacements only further enhances the plight of the team. If Cricket Australia are to retain any sense of credibility, none of the three should be in the squad for the start of the return series in Brisbane.

Chris Woakes

Rather bizarrely selected ahead of Chris Tremlett in the final test, Woakes showed that there is a long way to go in translating his success from limited overs cricket to the longest form. Woakes bowled either too short or too full, allowing Shane Watson and Steven Smith to feast on a buffet of long hops and over-pitched deliveries. Does look like a solid batsmen however, although probably too high to bat at six.

Steven Finn

Hyped up as a key player before the series, Finn was reduced to an afterthought at the end of the Ashes. Pretty much everything that could go wrong for him at Trent Bridge did, including letting the tail go after him during Australia's fourth innings chase and dropping a catch that could have sealed an easier victory for England. Bresnan came in at Finn's expense and ruthlessly took his opportunity.

F

The umpiring

To be fair, Aleem Dar and Kumar Dharmasena were following the letter of the law when they called play off due to bad light on the last day of the series. What was beyond reproach however - especially is in the first three tests, was a raft of horrible decisions by both the on field umpires and the third umpire. LBW's outside leg stump, caught behinds when no edges were visible, and other unjustifiable decisions were too often in the limelight. The ICC should consider broadening the pool outside the elite panel for the return series, or else fatigue could see a repeat of the dubious decisions in Australia.

Monty Panesar

Perhaps his omission from the playing eleven at Old Trafford was harsh. Panesar apparently didn't take that too well, but that still isn't justification for urinating on a bouncer in the early hours of the morning. That alone explains the F, but that his place in the squad went to.....

Simon Kerrigan

You have been rewarded with a call-up to the England test squad out of the blue. Not many can remember the last time England played two spinners at home, but lo and behold, at the Oval that's exactly what Alastair Cook and Andy Flower decide to do. You come on for a few overs before launch, and Shane Watson takes you for 28 of your first two overs. You come back later in the day, bowl six more overs and are not given the ball again for the rest of the test match. There are examples aplenty of players overcoming nightmare debuts to have successful test careers, but the nerves displayed by Simon Kerrigan mean he is unlikely to be on the plane to Australia.
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