Sunday, 10 December 2006

Play to win

The negative mind-set that has suffocated England's cricket in the Ashes series so far has to end now. When the team steps onto the field this week in the third Test at Perth they must do so without fear. That is not to say they need to be reckless or gung-ho, but they need to stop worrying about losing the Test and concentrate wholly on winning it.

From the moment the England team was selected for the first Test a dangerously cautious approach was revealed. Players who had been in form only weeks ago in England's 3-0 series triumph over Pakistan were discarded in favour of former regulars returning from injury. This seemingly crazy policy saw the captain (Andrew Strauss), the second best performing bowler (Monty Panesar), the wicket-keeper (Chris Read) and a promising new talent (Sajid Mahmood) replaced.

To do this for the next series, especially one of such importance as the Ashes in Australia, is ridiculous and showed the muddled thinking that had overcome the England selectors. There were certainly some sensible reasons for making some of the changes and the decisions they faced were tough ones, but to make so many alterations to a winning side was foolish.

It was not the tough calls, such as selecting Andrew Flintoff ahead of Strauss, that were so questionable, but the negative selections, most notably the replacement of Panesar with Ashley Giles. This could not help but send a wave of negativity through the England camp as the top six were seen to be in need of support from number eight. It also gave the Australians the scent of fear in their opponents and worst of all took away one of England's key bowling weapons.

Whether Panesar would have prevented England from losing the first two Tests is impossible to know. What is likely, though, judging by the ability he has shown in his first 10 Tests, is that he would have threatened the Australian batsmen, kept the run-rate down and given Flintoff the ability to bowl himself and the other quick bowlers in short, attacking bursts from the other end. This tactic would surely have yielded better results than the 602 and 513 runs Australia amassed in their first innings at Brisbane and Adelaide, respectively.

Questions are also emerging over Flintoff's faith in Panesar, a bowler who he underbowled in the series against Sri Lanka, and who he apparently preferred to see sidelined in favour of Giles. This poor judgement contrasts with Strauss' use of Panesar as an attacking bowler and to lock down one end, allowing him to rotate his quicks from the other. Though it was a close call as to who should be captain of England, perhaps some sway should have been given to Strauss for his use of the four man bowling attack against Pakistan, and his faith in Panesar, particularly.

If England are to have any chance of winning at the WACA this week Flintoff will need to take a leaf out of Strauss' book and back Panesar. Any ideas of retaining Giles must be banished, as England look to unleash a bowling attack capable of taking 20 wickets.

James Anderson's fiery spell in the recent tour match against Western Australia have rekindled his seemingly lost chances of retaining his place. However, stern questions must still be asked of his appalling showings in the first two Tests before he is too lightly retained ahead of Mahmood. Perhaps, it will be the ailing Steve Harmison who will be sacrificed for the perceived good of the team, allowing Panesar to come in ahead of Giles, Anderson to stay and Mahmood to play his first Test in the series.

I have always supported Harmison, despite his ebbs and flows of form, but I have to admit he cuts a sorry figure at the moment. There is little in his bowling efforts so far on the tour to recommend him being retained. However, he is an enigma and could still click into top gear and be a key part of England's attack. My gut feeling is that he should stay in the side and be used as a strike bowler, bowling short spells at full pace. If he is expected to bowl at reduced pace for long spells there is little point in picking him. It is when Harmison is told to go for the opposition's throats that he is at his best.

I would drop Anderson, whose good bowling in the tour game is no proof that he will be able to suddenly get Test batsmen out who have been slapping him around the park in the Ashes series so far. Mahmood is an erratic performer, capable of bowling brilliantly and badly in equal measure. However, he offers a genuine threat at his high pace and can reverse swing the ball. Like Harmison (and Flintoff himself) Mahmood should be used in short, fiery spells, encouraged to bowl as fast as he can. Matthew Hoggard can bowl a long spell with the new ball and Panesar long spells with the old.

There is no guarantee of success with these tactics, but at least England would go down fighting, rather than with a sad whimper. With Australian confidence sky high England must go for them and inject some doubts into their opponents. The psychological blows inflicted in 2005, must be rekindled while the series is still alive. It is no good covering over the cracks, as Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen's wonderful partnership did at Adelaide. This time England must go for the throat for the full five days and not make excuses that somehow they only lost because of one hour of bad play.

It was the negative mind-set that had pervaded the team that did for them at Adelaide, not a couple of rash shots and a silly run out. To keep the series alive at Perth they must adopt the positive play that served them so well in 2005.

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Anonymous said...

im glad someone else pointed it out - i had the inkling that flintoff does not have faith in panesar....

its a bit unfortunate but all in all, if the decision to not play panesar was really flintoff's, then freddie, in my opinion is not really a great captain.

i believe a lot of their thinking is coming from the fact that the aussies bat deep and that their middle order has no clicked consistenly enough...

Anonymous said...

flintoff bowled panesar quite a lot in India and in the third test it was Shaun Udal who bowled India out not Panesar. Panesar is definitely not a panacea.


Chrispy said...

I'm slightly worried that now England have handed the aussies the initiative and in all likelihood the urn, they will have no reservations in taking the game to the likes of Monty Panesar and Saj Mahmood in a way that they would not have at the start of the series. They can afford to have a bad game now and they will be able to take more risks in order to destroy two more promising english careers. Classic mistake by the England management and now the aussies will love trying to do what they do best.

Tim Wigmore said...

Excellent piece Nick.

How interesting that it is Mr Positive Andrew Flintoff who has less faith in Monty Panesar than Mr Pragmatist Duncan Fletcher.