As feared the first test of this latest Ashes series has gone the way of the old enemy. Unfortunately this does not come as that much of a surprise to many seasoned fans. England were woefully under prepared for this series and the problem is no more evident than in the fast bowling department where a lack of match fitness, rhythm and form were fully exploited by what can only be described as a masterful Australian batting line-up, anchored by the brilliance of Ricky Ponting, aggressiveness of Justin Langer and resilience of Mike Hussey.
Australia have learnt lessons from the 2005 Ashes series and have adjusted their side accordingly, bringing in the unerring accuracy of Stuart Clark and the solid rock of the middle order that is Hussey. Two quality additions to an already quality side. Whilst there are question marks over the two openers reactions against a swinging and seaming new ball as they age, England have not asked them. This has so far proven to be disastrous with Ponting, currently the best batsman in the game, able to come to the crease facing a softer ball and a demoralised attack.
The Australian Captain can not be afforded such comfort, or he will score and score heavily. England must be on the mark from ball one in order to exploit Matthew Hayden’s tendency to waft outside off stump and prevent Langer from making such booming starts. England must attack Ponting with that new ball and make him uncomfortable, in the process exposing Damien Martyn early, who is looking over his shoulder nervously at Michael Clarke, as he nears the end of his career.
The Australian side is not without weaknesses, but England are not currently exploiting them and are allowing the Australians to make hay in the sunshine with ease. If England can get into the middle order early as they did in 2005 then we have seen that Australia can succumb to pressure. Adam Gilchrist still looks a shadow of his former self and whether it be Clarke or Shane Watson at six, neither are assured of their place and are under pressure. England must make them feel that pressure more.
From a batting point of view England have started to find some touch, albeit belatedly. One can not help but feel that Andrew Strauss would not have given his wicket away so cheaply twice had he had the responsibility of captaincy resting on his shoulders though. He averages around fifteen more runs for Middlesex when captain and visibly rises to the occasion. He would also perhaps not have missed quite so many things in the field as the weary Flintoff did.
Flintoff’s captaincy is based more on leadership than tactics. Had England played two slips and two gullies from that start at the Gabba, a traditional field there, then Australia could have quite easily found themselves three down at lunch, deprived of Hayden, Langer and Ponting, as numerous balls flew through gully in the air.
Ian Bell is yet to prove himself against Shane Warne, but there were positive signs from him when he glared back at Brett Lee. Alistair Cook meanwhile seems to be settling into the familiar role of opener and looks relaxed at the crease. One further crumb of comfort is the possible return of Michael Vaughan in the fourth test, although things must improve long before then.
The batting order remains something of a mystery. Paul Collingwood produced a wonderfully crafted innings against Australia and was fully deserving of a century, but as was shown in the first innings, he does not have the best of techniques early on in his innings against the moving ball. He is undoubtedly, like Graham Thorpe, a man for a crisis and should be providing stability at five rather than being offered up to quality seam bowling at four, to help engineer that crisis.
Kevin Pietersen is undoubtedly England’s best batsman, especially against Australia. He can comfortably bat at four and seems to have learnt how not to give his wicket away early on in his innings. Moving Pietersen back to four would also split himself and Flintoff in the line-up, which Fletcher seems keen to do. However, as I have well documented before, Flintoff has not performed with the bat in the one day side for a long time and he is not a consistent test match run scorer either and is simply not making the runs required of a number six.
It is a definite worry for England who may now have to consider playing an extra batsman. When Vaughan finally returns he is the obvious choice to slot in as opener or at number three. For the time being though Ed Joyce is an extremely capable county batsman who is eager to test himself at the highest level.
The resilient and flamboyant Middlesex batsman would relish the chance of playing for England in Australia and could perhaps provide some stability at the top of the order coming in at either three or four, to push Pietersen back down to his more preferred position of number five and more importantly extend the batting line-up with Freddie moving to seven and a seemingly rejuvenated Geraint Jones to eight.
This move would negate the need to play Ashley Giles and allow England to play the more attack minded Monty Panesar, who proved over the summer that he can bowl unchanged for lengthy periods as part of a four man attack and provide an economical and wicket taking option. England could then rotate the brilliant Flintoff, along with Matthew Hoggard and the third seamer.
My take on Stephen Harmison is that he hasn’t been himself for over a year now. He has never been the most consistent of players, but now he appears to have lost his game mentally and technically. It is hard to see how such drastic flaws can be resolved over a period of just three days. England could not afford to play an extra batsman with Harmison in the side as they just do not know what return they are going to get from the big Durham man.
Therefore it is likely that Giles and not Joyce will line up in Adelaide. However, if Harmison is not selected, which seems more than reasonable when one considers the threat of going 2-0 down if he performs as he did at the Gabba, then who could England turn to. Liam Plunkett faces the same problem as James Anderson and Harmison himself in that he just has not played much cricket over the last six months. Sajid Mahmood is pacey, but similarly prone to hitting the leg side.
Attention then shifts to the Academy squad where Stuart Broad and Chris Tremlett linger on standby. Both have the required attributes to succeed in Australia, with their height and mid-80’s pace. Broad is very much in the mould of Stuart Clark and Glenn McGrath who have experienced and will undoubtedly continue to experience, great success on the wickets of Australia.
Tremlett is more like Harmison, a hit the deck bowler, who has worked on his aggression levels this year and has proved his fitness over the back end of the season. Tremlett too can have his good and bad days though and ultimately both are untested at this level and would be risky picks, especially as part of a four man attack.
Australia have built their success on a four man attack though, with a wicket taking spinner, rather than a containing one, negating the need to play an extra quick bowler. England can now follow this model, with Pietersen and Collingwood providing back up options, but they must find the right fast bowler to back-up Flintoff and Hoggard.
With the lingering threat of losing the little old urn that was recovered just eighteen months ago, England must surely look to do something to readdress the power balance, which has visibly shifted towards Australia and that might just mean moving away from the old tried and tested and taking a gamble on the future of English cricket, sooner rather than later.