Friday, July 19, 2013

Lord's embraces the unpredictability of the Ashes

They are never going to get that close again, simply because England are the better team. That's what many in the cricketing punditocracy believed after the first Ashes test at Trent Bridge. If the first day of action of the second Ashes test at Lord’s is an indication of things to come, then Australia are going to fight tooth and nail in what seems poised to be another fascinating match. My reflections on the first day follow.

  1. Alastair Cook is at his most vulnerable in the first ten overs of the innings, specifically so on and around off stump. James Pattinson was constantly spraying the ball down Cook’s legs, and Michael Clarke removed him after just two overs. On came Shane Watson, and the change was vindicated immediately as Cook was pinned on the crease to an away swinger that straightened on off stump. If Australia can consistently pressurize Cook with the new ball, they will succeed in neutralizing one of England’s key batsmen.
  2. Ryan Harris’ inclusion at the expense of Mitchell Starc was a bold and pro-active move that paid immediate dividends for Australia. I wrote on a few occasions during the first test that Starc might deliver 3 wicket-taking balls in an over, and then be anonymous for a whole spell. Harris was the polar opposite at Lord’s. Generating impressive movement through the air, Harris also consistently hurried the English batsmen off a good length, who never looked truly comfortable against him. The reward was three top order wickets.
  3. Despite England being reduced to 28 for 3, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell carried England to a comfortable position with some glorious batting. Trott in particular was imperious in every shot he played, hitting eleven boundaries comprising every shot in the manual. After lunch, Australia conceded six runs an over for about eight overs, and just when it seemed like Trott and Bell were going to run away with the innings, the former gave away his wicket in a most unusual manner, pulling a long hop to deep midwicket.
  4. Jonny Bairstow joined Ian Bell at the crease much earlier than expected on what was a serene batting wicket. The man from Yorkshire is certainly getting opportunities to make a mark this series, due to the inconsistent form of the much-vaunted top order. To capitalize on these opportunities, Bairstow would do well to play straight more often. Bairstow was bowled playing across the line for the second successive test match, but thankfully for him Peter Siddle overstepped and providing him with another opportunity.
  5. So did Bairstow avail of the opportunity? In one respect he did, combining with Bell to put on a 144 run partnership for the fifth wicket. Bairstow was more judicious in his shot selection, and even manufactured some kind of pull/hook hybrid to negate his alleged weakness against the short ball. However, in another respect Bairstow didn’t truly utilize his reprieve, because he got out to a rank full toss from Steven Smith so soon after Bell’s departure.
  6. Speaking of Bell, he played an innings laced with elegance and quality. I can’t remember a batsman scoring two consecutive centuries with exactly the same score. However, this 109 was rather different from his guarded effort at Trent Bridge. Bell took a while to get going, but once he sussed out the conditions, he played at an easy pace looking rarely troubled. His trademark late cuts and glances were on display again, but what truly punctuated his innings were some sumptuous cover drives. In particular, three in one over bowled by James Pattinson will remain in the memory long past the conclusion of this Ashes summer.
  7. Every day of the series so far, has provided us with a surprise protagonist. On the first day at Lord’s, the role belonged to Steven Smith. Clarke tossed the ball to him in a desperate attempt to break Bell and Bairstow’s partnership. A few horrible long hops and full tosses later, it seemed like a bad idea, before Smith delivered a classical leg-spinner to have Bell caught at slip. A flipper that accounted for Matt Prior followed the aforementioned dismissal of Bairstow. If Smith can continue to sneak a few more wickets for Australia, it might give Clarke greater flexibility in rotating his fast bowlers and keeping them fresh.
  8. Smith’s success shines a harsh light on Ashton Agar. Agar might develop into Australia’s leading spin bowler with some experience under his belt in a few years time. Notwithstanding the feel good story of his 98, the reality is that Agar is far from a wicket-taking test spinner at the current stage of his development. Once again, the length was far from ideal, and the English batsmen hardly looked like getting out to him.
  9. James Pattinson was the other disappointing Australian bowler on the day. Pattinson had his lines awry throughout the day, and Starc’s exclusion should serve as a warning to the young tyro. With Harris grabbing his opportunity with both hands, Pattinson should be wary of James Faulkner and Jackson Bird who are equally capable of seizing a chance if it arrives.
  10. After gaining the rewards of a hard day’s toil, it would be nice if Australia’s bowlers weren’t called to deliver with the bat again. Australia can scarcely be in a better position having dismissed seven English batsmen on a batting paradise. It’s been too long since the Australian batsmen last performed, and there certainly won’t be a better opportunity than this Lord’s pitch to get rid of their batting demons.

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