Thursday, July 11, 2013

Agar steals the show, as engrossing Ashes test continues at Trent Bridge

The first test of the Ashes continues to enthrall. The day belonged to 19 year-old debutant Ashton Agar, but the overarching story of the match so far has been the fluctuating momentum. Here are my reflections of an enthralling second day:

James Anderson bowling in the nets at Adelaide...
James Anderson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. James Anderson please take a bow. As play settled on the second morning, it seemed that the difficulties of batting on the first day were consigned to the history books. Steven Smith reached a serene and important fifty, and Philip Hughes looked relatively untroubled. Realizing that there was no movement in the air, Anderson adjusted his wrist position to get some deviation of the pitch. Lo and behold, Smith edged to slip, and England got the breakthrough. What followed was classic swing bowling, consistent inswing followed by a surprise outswing and vice versa. Anderson’s fiver sparked a collapse to leave Australia dangling at 117 for 9.
  2. Enter Ashton Agar. The young debutant selected as Australia’s main spinner for the first test was expected to just hang around for a bit, and possibly help Hughes in getting Australia to 150. What transpired was the stuff of dreams and then some. Batting with a calmness that belied both his experience and the match situation, he displayed exceptional technique for a no.11. He drove through the covers with authority, played glances of his legs with ease, hit a sumptuous six off Graeme Swann over long off, and showed his finesse with an elegant sweep and a beautiful late cut from the top drawer. It was a real pity when Agar was dismissed for 98.
  3. As brilliant as Agar’s innings was, one can’t help but wonder if he would have survived for longer, if Anderson had continued his spell in stead of Steven Finn. I believe that Finn was rightfully selected ahead of Tim Bresnan. However, he does lose the plot especially when batsmen attack him. It’s a rather grating tendency that many tall bowlers in the current game who possess genuine wicket taking ability, resort to short balls when batsmen are on top. On a placid pitch, the short-pitched deliveries gave Hughes and Agar easy boundaries, and made the last wicket more confident as the innings went on.
  4. It started with Tino Best scoring 95 last spring. In subsequent series, Hashim Amla, MS Dhoni, Hamish Rutherford and Brendon McCullum have all taken England’s bowling to the sword. For such a much-vaunted attack, it must be a concern that they can appear clueless against rampaging batsmen. Agar’s milestones must really hurt England’s bowlers tonight. He became the first number 11 batsman in history to score a 50 on Test debut, then the second-fastest 50 on Test debut by an Australian batsman, then the highest score in history by an Aussie number 11. 
  5. It could be the innings where Phillip Hughes finally came of age. I still have doubts over his technique, and think he is a prime candidate to be caught in the slip cordon early in his innings. However, as I watched Hughes settle, I realized that the southpaw has made a tweak to his batting stance, which allows him the precious ability to play the ball late. An unbeaten 81 was overshadowed by Agar’s fireworks, but in the context of the confidence that it will give Hughes, it could yet turn out to be a defining knock for Australia in this series.
  6. Australia have put a lot of faith in a stock of young fast bowlers returning them to the top of the tree in future. The current incumbents in the test team are Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson. Like any left-arm fast bowler who can swing the ball both ways, Starc easily excites cricket watchers. Pattinson can consistently deliver the ball at above 140 kph for long spells. Nonetheless, both need to master the art of setting up batsmen in test cricket. The best batsmen generally don’t throw there wickets away in tests, and in most cases will also be able to block out the most dangerous balls. Starc and Pattinson certainly have the raw material, but a little less reliance on the magic ball, and greater emphasis on consistency would serve Australia really well.
  7. Back to that man Ashton Agar. The left-arm spinner has bowled 16 overs on his debut so far, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what his most potent weapon is. In the first innings he bowled a bit too short at times, and in the second innings so far, he has bowled too full. Despite his assurance while batting, Agar has been selected to deliver with the ball, and it could be that he is feeling more pressure at the bowling crease. We’ll be able to make a better judgement of Agar’s bowling if he finds the right length on the third day. With a pitch that is already roughing up, Agar might still to add to his story in this test.
  8. The DRS system came to the fore again. There were clearly some contentious decisions today. Agar was given not out on a stumping appeal when he had scored just six runs. He looked out by a split frame, but the benefit of doubt was given to the batsman. On the other hand when Mitchell Starc referred an lbw appeal against Jonathan Trott, England’s number 3 wasn’t given the benefit of doubt despite an unexplained deviation which did not provide a clear indication of whether there was an inside edge or not. It’s easy to blame the system and the technology, but ultimately the DRS, still relies on an umpire’s interpretation, and is thus culpable to human error sometimes.
  9. After the humdrum of Australia’s last wicket partnership and England losing two early wickets in the space of two balls, Alistair Cook and Kevin Pietersen looked comfortably and barely threatened on a good batting pitch. Cook generally always goes on to score big runs once he gets past 30, but what must be really worrying Michael Clarke tonight, was Pieterson showing concentration and determination on his way to an unbeaten 35 laced with 4 gorgeous square drives. If Cook and Pieterson survive another session, England will be firmly on the front foot.
  10. The beauty of test cricket is witnessed in sudden fluctuations, ebbs and flows and differing rhythms. No one session is ever the same. After 22 wickets fell in the first 5 sessions, no wicket fell in the last session of the second day. The pitch now seems to have evened out, and with conditions expected to be dry and sunny with no cloud cover on the third and the fourth day, the only challenge for the batsmen will come from spinners bowling into the rough. The first half an hour will be crucial tomorrow, and if Cook and Pietersen survive, England should be ideally placed to get the kind of big score that was their hallmark when they became the top test cricket nation in the world.

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