This series continues to defy analysis. A see-saw narrative of fluctuating fortunes is one thing, but the margins of victory are hard to comprehend. You’d associate a 2-1 scoreline, in which each side takes turns to win, with nail-biting finishes. Instead, England and Australia have taken turns to pulverise each other: 169 runs, 405 runs, eight wickets.
What’s going on? Is it a case of high-quality but isolated individual performances setting the agenda in each game? Or is the truth that both sides are poor, and the series has been reduced this to a chaotic duel of fragility and inconsistency?
In some ways these Ashes feel like a spiritual cousin of 2009, only more random, more spectacular, and even less predictable.
In 2009, and Cardiff-heroics aside, England won because our batting only collapsed once into total rubble, in the fourth test at Headingley, while Australia’s did twice – in the first innings at both Lord’s and the Oval (as well as the drawn third test at Edgbaston).
This time, I suspect the destination of the urn will be inextricably linked to Australia’s batting in their first innings at Trent Bridge. Another collapse and the Ashes will be England’s. But if Australia can take early control, the momentum will shift again.
Which is a roundabout way of stating the bleeding obvious. The problem is, this contest is proving so volatile that any critique is reduced to a flurry of ifs, buts, maybes and caveats.
It would be stretching a point to say England are batting well. They’ve only made one century so far – Joe Root’s. Neither Lyth nor Buttler have yet made any impact. Jonny Bairstow didn’t remain at the crease long enough to change the equation. Alastair Cook has looked in good touch, but if he’s serious about reclaiming the urn, Trent Bridge would be an apt occasion for him to end a run of thirteen Ashes tests without a century.
On the other hand, England bat deeper than Australia, who themselves must address the growing crisis in their middle order. They have a gaping chasm between Steve Smith at three and Mitchell Marsh at six. Michael Clarke has four test innings remaining before he retires. Do his eyes and his basic ball-sense still have enough in the tank for him to muster a series-salvaging innings? Higher up the order, David Warner owes his team a big score.
On the bright side for Australia, and crucially, James Anderson will not be at Trent Bridge. I wrote on Thursday night that “if the ‘tightness’ in his side is revealed to be a significant injury, Australia will win the series”. I stand by it. Trevor Bayliss has hinted that Anderson will be replaced by Mark Wood, not Liam Plunkett or Mark Footitt. If so, can he, Stuart Broad, Steve Finn, and Moeen Ali, take twenty wickets between them? Finn may have been man-of-the-match at Edgbaston, and his performance should not be under-estimated, but it was Anderson’s first innings 6-47 which broke Australia’s back and set the tone of the whole match. In the other test England won, at Cardiff, Anderson had a quieter game but still led the first-innings wicket-taking.
Finn and Wood are both best deployed as short-sharp-shock bowlers. But if they both play at Trent Bridge, at least one of them will have their role diluted. Wood might not even be completely roadworthy – he’s recovering from injury and has just had an injection in his left ankle in a bid to be fit for Nottingham. As Nick Hoult points out in the Telegraph, Wood “has never managed to play three consecutive first-class games in his career”.
In the Australian camp, Ryan Harris is being sorely missed. His persistent threat, especially against Cook and Root, would have changed the whole mood. Starc is too erratic to close down an end and maintain pressure, leaving Josh Hazlewood with too much to do.
Finally, in our attempts to make sense of this crazy series, perhaps we’ve missed the most obvious but mundane factor of all. If England proceed to victory, it will mean that since 2002-03 seven of the last eight Ashes will have been won by the home side – England’s 2010-11 triumph being the sole exception. Home advantage has always helped in the Ashes. But has it evolved from mere advantage into – not just a force-field, but an insuperable weapon?
Brilliant from you as usual Maxie. Nothing more to add.
“Alastair Cook has looked in good touch, but if he’s serious about reclaiming the urn, Trent Bridge would be an apt occasion for him to end a run of thirteen Ashes tests without a century”.
Cook averages 20 at TB with a highest score of 50:
Think any of the MSM will mention it?
No, it’ll be “His highest score on this ground came on Australia’s last visit”, with no mention of dire average (both at TB, and against Australia at home in general).
I was at Guildford today watching Mark Footitt for the first time. When he dug it in he looked a serious bowler, but every time he pitched the ball up he got clattered. It was a small ground, flat track, and Sangakkara and Davies are certainly no mugs.
However, getting quite seriously out-bowled by Jade Dernbach was a bit of a worry for me. Although, to be fair, and unlikely as it sounds, Dernbach bowled fast and with purpose, with hardly a comedy slower-ball in sight.
I’ve often wondered whether Dernbach was miscast by England. We have a history of picking attacking quick bowlers in ODIs when they might be better suited to test cricket, where they might concede runs but crucially pick up valuable wickets with their extra pace. The second coming of Saj Mahmood is the prime example. He was fast in his prime, but control was always a bit of an issue. Therefore it never made sense why England almost exclusively picked him as a one day specialist. I’m not sure whether Dernbach can be placed in the same bracket, as his first class record isn’t exactly brilliant, but it’s an interesting talking point. I quite liked him when I first saw him bowl, but obviously he tested my patience with all those needless variations in the end.
I think Dernbach suffered from never really concentrating enough on his stock ball. His talent was definitely there but he just didn’t work hard enough on that either in first class or one day cricket.
Dernbach just seemed to lose it at international level – he always looked like his eyes were going to pop out of his head when batsmen started to go after him, which is when he started bowling his bag of tricks.
Stokes went unmentioned. Surely this is a good moment to show his worth.
Seems to me that Stokes hasn’t worked out his role and bowling style yet – is he a 90mph wicket taking bowler, or a swing / seam bowler that can tie an end down and nip a few out? His agressive style would suggest the former, but I though he did fantastically well at Cardiff where he bowled with real discipline and tied the Aussies down.
I have given up making predictions on this series. I really do worry about Anderson missing though. Think I would go for Plunkett based on the three bowlers in the squad. Not on any stats but just a hunch that I feel he is the best option out of the three.
Certainly an interesting series, and I wouldn’t like to call it. It would be nice if the games were closer rather than just the series.
Much I think will depend on whether Starc (if he plays) and Hazlewood can adjust their bowling when the ball is moving around a lot. It seems to me that they both suffered from trying to do to much when the seaming ball would have done much of the work for them and they needed to concentrate more on placement. Hazlewood has 14 wickets at 22 this series just picking up 2-3 wickets an innings and you get the sense he has a big game coming if he can work out the right lines in the conditions.
Anderson is a blow, more so as he can be the guy who ties down one end for long spells. I think Anderson as a wicket taker is replaceable (since this guy only turns up on occasion), but the potential wicket taker who can also reliably bowl a great many tight overs isn’t replaceable. Broad can possibly do this but one senses that he relies more on effort so this will blunt his wicket taking considerably. Australia can use Lyon in this role, but I honestly don’t see Moeen Ali doing this. I think Australia are now very much of the opinion they can just milk him at 3-4 an over off Moeen for little risk and, other than some tail-enders who know no other way, I don’t think he will get the gifts as people try to lift him out of the ground early in their innings any longer (although I can’t vouch for Warner not having a brain explosion).
Of course tying down an end might not be an issue given that Australia’s 4-6 is looking soft particularly if a newish ball is bowled to them.
It does speak to batting weaknesses on both sides that England’s 3rd best batsman is a number 8 and Australia’s 4th best run maker is a number 8, while their 5th best is a number 7 who’s who’s only batted in 3 innings.
I think the outcome of the next game is completely 50:50. Australia might have a slightly better team, but that advantage is certainly gone in England.