Monday, August 12, 2013

Rogers and Bell centuries punctuate tough Ashes weekend

In a manner reminiscent of the first test match at Trent Bridge, the fortunes of England and Australia are fluctuating by the session in the fourth Ashes test at the Emirates Durham International Cricket Ground. My conclusions after a gripping weekend of test cricket include:

  1. There are few more endearing sights in cricket, than when a veteran of the first-class game gets an international opportunity near the end of his career and subsequently takes advantage of it. Chris Rogers had already done well enough to vindicate his selection in the Australian squad with two fifties in the first three Ashes tests. However, nothing comes close to consolidating an opener's place in the team like a test century, and Rogers duly reached the landmark in the fourth test. It was an innings that relied on substance and mental fortitude rather than flair, and as Rogers toughed out a session where almost every ball was a bonafide jaffa, he rescued Australia from a perilous position and guided them to parity in the match.
  2. Who says dot balls are boring? In the right context, dot balls can build up excitement and tension and play in integral role in the theatre of test cricket. Rogers reached 96 of 207 balls, and if the veteran southpaw thought he would reach his century comfortably in the matter of a few more deliveries he was mistaken. Graeme Swann bowled beautifully to Rogers and Alastair Cook brought all his fielders in. Swann spun at least three looping deliveries past Rogers' outside edge, as well as drawing two leading edges that dropped just short of fielders. It was genuine heart-in-mouth stuff, and tension was etched in everyone's faces, before relief finally arrived when Rogers swept Swann for four of his 227th ball to end a particularly nerve-wracking passage of play.
  3. I mentioned during the third test, that despite not getting many wickets there were signs that Stuart Broad's bowling rhythm was coming along really well and it seemed only a matter of time before the lanky seamer had an impressive haul of wickets. That haul came at Durham, courtesy of some truly unplayable bowling. When Broad pitches the ball in the right areas, there is very a little a batsman can do other than defend. Relying on seam rather than swing to generate movement, the Australian batsmen couldn't contend with his late swing, and England's Twenty20 captain deservedly ended up with a five-wicket haul.
  4. James Anderson didn't have the expected impact in conditions that ideally should have favoured him. Nonetheless, it's only natural to have a blip once in while in test cricket. However, what was infuriating for the neutral cricket fan was Tim Bresnan's insipid bowling. Bresnan is a player who guarantees 100% effort with ball and bat, however in some conditions his lack of bowling variety neutralizes his ability to hit the deck. I lamented England's lack of imagination when it comes to selection during the last test, but surely selecting Graham Onions to play at his favourite venue ahead of Bresnan simply required logical understanding. If England fail to defend a target in the fourth innings, they will surely rue not playing Onions on a wicket suited to his strengths of pitching it up and keeping it straight.
  5. There are serious issues with England's top order and the failure of the top three is probably the single biggest reason as to why this series hasn't turned out to be the expected romp for the hosts. Alastair Cook is not playing with confidence, Joe Root is caught in two minds and Jonathan Trott is consistently finding new ways to get out in this series. It certainly can't inspire confidence in the team when the middle order is constantly called upon to perform the rescue act, and sooner rather than later, England seem bound for a low innings total that will cost them a test match.
  6. In Root's defence, Ryan Harris' ball to get him bowled was simply unplayable. While Peter Siddle is admired for his stamina and perseverance, Harris has easily been Australia's most consistently threatening bowler this series. Harris has displayed fantastic variety during the Ashes. His natural tendency is to hit the deck hard, but he has also shown a great adaptability to different conditions, altering his line and length in order to be more lethal with his swing. If Australia can keep Harris fit for the return series down under, they might have more than an even chance of winning back the Ashes in home conditions.
  7. Ian Bell, take a bow! Most batsmen would be happy with one century in a five-test series, let alone three. Like Rogers, the significance of Bell's century was enhanced because of the context in which it was scored. Bell arrived at the crease with England dangling at 49 for three, with a lead of only 17 runs. By the close of play, Bell helped extend the lead to 202. On a pitch that has made every batsman including Kevin Pietersen resort to just surviving, Bell played with ease, his simple nudges and glances allied with beautiful cover drives off the front and back foot as well as elegant late cuts. If England do win, then Bell's aesthetically pleasing century will be worthy of being the match's decisive knock.
  8. It was only in May that almost every cricket pundit and fan heralded the Yorkshire duo of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow as the future of England's batting order. Fast forward three months, and the young men have had chastising experiences on the biggest stage of all as far as English test cricket is concerned. I hate to sound repetitive, but while the talent is clearly evident in both batsmen, the mental approach will have to be worked on, especially if the pair are expected to succeed on the return tour to Australia.
  9. Australia had a genuine window of opportunity after dismissing England's top order cheaply again, but after Ryan Harris' brilliant opening spell, Jackson Bird and Peter Siddle didn't follow up with good spells. Not that either of the fast bowlers were necessarily wayward, but while they were disciplined, they didn't do enough to draw either Bell or Pietersen forward, and under substantial cloud cover the chance to put a stranglehold on England passed Australia by.
  10. Maybe Shane Watson could have provided Australia with the crucial breakthrough were it not for an injury in the middle of his spell. It has been easy for many including yours truly to be critical of Watson in the light of his selfish reviews to begin the series. So it is only fair that the Australian all-rounder is acknowledged for his whole-hearted attempts in what was shaping up to be his best test performance of the series, that included a crucial 68 in the first innings while supporting Rogers' recovery effort for Australia. His role with the ball is done for this test and possibly the series, but Watson could yet play a crucial role with the bat as Australia are set for a tricky fourth innings chase.
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