A week ago, just about every cricket writer under the sun was predicting an Australian Ashes victory. Our young erratic team couldn’t even beat a poor West Indies outfit, so how were we supposed to defeat a side that whitewashed us eighteen months ago?
After watching the Aussies pummel the same Windies team with a combination of aggressive batting and truly fearsome fast bowling, I feared for our batsmen’s lives let alone their Ashes hopes.
Once again, however, cricket has made a mockery of predictions. There’s still a long way to go in the Ashes, of course, but our victory at Cardiff was so ruthless, and so decisive, that most objective observers now fancy England to win back the famous urn. It’s quite the turnaround.
Having said that, there was a small collection of bullish England fans and ex-pros that actually saw England’s win coming. I have to admit I wasn’t one of them – having been an England cricket fan for thirty years I’m programmed to fear the worst – but these dissenting voices got it spot on.
Those of you who accused us of being ultra pessimistic please feel free to rub it in. We’ve never been so glad to have been so wrong!
Perhaps the most prominent proponent of Australia’s impending doom was Jason Gillespie, who labelled his countrymen ‘Dad’s Army’. Dizzy belied his nickname and gave an astute, clear-headed projection. England certainly looked the more athletic and energetic team in Cardiff.
Although Australia will probably fight back ferociously in the second test at Lord’s, quite a few Aussies showed their age at Cardiff. In retrospect, it’s amazing more wasn’t made of their creaking bones. Predictions of another whitewash now look a tad silly. Who did Glenn McGrath, who always predicts a 5-0 win for Australia, think he was kidding?
Brad Haddin, who has been a thorn in England’s side so often, had an extremely poor first test. He dropped Joe Root early on the first day and made two poor scores with the bat. Haddin’s batting average since the last Ashes series is just 15, and at thirty-seven years of age his career could be in terminal decline. Would you persevere with him if you were Darren Lehmann?
Shane Watson, who has just turned thirty-four, is another veteran fearing for his future. He made no impact with the ball and was out lbw in predictable and somewhat comic circumstances twice. It’s never a good sign when opposition supporters are laughing at you.
Perhaps most significantly of all Mitchell Johnson, who terrorised us in the previous Ashes series, also lacked his usual menace. Johnson bowled quickly in the recent IPL, and looked sharp in the West Indies, but one has to wonder whether a paceman who will turn thirty-four in November can sustain speeds of 90pmh for five days. Personally I didn’t think his action looked right – at least, it wasn’t as fluent as it was in 2013.
I’m sure Johnson will have his moments in this series, but fast bowlers sometimes decline very quickly. Remember the aforementioned Gillespie? He started the 2005 Ashes as a key member of Australia’s attack, but his international career was basically over a few weeks later. Losing half a yard of pace can mean everything at the very top level. Tresco and Co took Dizzy to the cleaners and he was never the same again.
Age can be particularly hard on bowlers. Indeed, the only member of Australia’s old guard to perform well at Cardiff was a batsman – the evergreen Chris Rogers. The likable Rogers, who is red green colour blind (not exactly helpful when you’re a cricketer) made a patient 95 in the first innings.
Generally speaking, Rogers’s game looked in fine fettle. However, a recent interview actually revealed a different story: Rogers has decided to retire from international cricket at the end of the season because he can’t see the ball as well as he used to. A combination of age and his colour-blindness makes it extremely difficult for him to pick up the ICC’s new pink balls.
One wonders, therefore, why the Australian selectors are so loyal to these veterans. Is it because of their affection for the great side that beat England 5-0 in 2006/07? If so, they’re making a big mistake in my opinion.
The Australian team that pulverised England eight years ago was brimming with legendary players who had dominated world cricket donkey’s years. The likes of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden were all time greats. They might not have been at their peak in 2006/07, but they were still world-class players even when they’d declined somewhat.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Australia’s current vintage. Brad Haddin is good but he’s no Gilchrist. Mitchell Johnson’s a threat but he’s no McGrath. All good players have a shelf life, but only the true greats tend to endure into their late-thirties.
Perhaps the Australian selectors have forgotten this. Or perhaps the Australians simply don’t have enough good young players waiting patiently in the wings? Either way, the Aussie veterans will need to roll back the years if they’re to retain the Ashes against England’s new, vibrant and vivacious outfit.
Can you see them making a comeback? Age could not wither Antony’s Cleopatra, but it seems to have Matilda’s number.
Before I sign off, I’d like to point you in the direction of this article by Sean Ingle in the Guardian. Apparently less than half a million people were able to watch England’s brilliant day four performance in Cardiff. That’s about the same number that watched an old episode of Columbo on ITV3.
How on earth can this be good for English cricket? Think about the millions that watched Djokovic and Federer play at Wimbledon yesterday. And they’re not even English. Sigh.
England have a pretty shocking record in second Tests of series recently – four of the last five have been lost and the performances involved some pretty dire cricket. The one exception – in the West Indies – was followed by a three day defeat in the Third Test. Australia were dreadful in Cardiff and they have more to worry about than England – but I wouldn’t be writing them off just yet.
I watched 38 year old Younis Khan and 41 year old Misbah-ul-Haq pull off the sixth highest run chase in Test history less than two weeks ago. I wouldn’t be putting too much down to age (except possibly Haddin’s batting decline). If anything, I thought Australia suffered from the relative inexperience of Starc and Hazlewood on day one when they didn’t quite adapt to unusual conditions
I think the old guard are definitely worth persevering with for another test, especially considering England’s poor record after winning (as you mentioned). Long term however, I think they’d benefit from an injection of fresh blood, whether than means Marsh for Watson or someone else coming into the team. I agree it would be dangerous to write off Haddin now, and I think some England fans will be delighted if he’s dropped. The question is whether the Aussie fans and selectors will be patient.
The worrying thing for Australia, in my opinion, was that Wood bowled just as fast as Johnson (and maybe the injured Starc too). I was really surprised by this.
Watson must surely go immediately. If they don’t my wife will get to see me recreate the Downfall Parody in our living room on Thursday evening.
Haddin I think will get one more test. Should he be completely our of sorts with the bat (particularly if Aus lose) then it will be his last test also.
You’ve set out your stall deriding the Australians for being too old but you’re now hedging on Haddin?
So the extent of the criticism is that Watson is a bit shit?
That’s been obvious for quite some time – he’s averaged 30 since the start of 2011. It’s not about age – it’s about him not being very good. I’m not sure that insight is worth its own post.
How about a shout out for the Australians who told you that you were pooing your pants prematurely?
When I mentioned the people who called us pessimistic, I had you (amongst others) in mind Tom. I would give Haddin another go, but that doesn’t mean age isn’t slowly catching up with him. Then there’s Johnson, and possibly Clarke too. All of them are still good, and they’re capable of bouncing back, but are they as good as they once were? That’s the question. We don’t know the answer yet, but Cardiff suggested they aren’t. What will Lord’s show?
” I would give Haddin another go, but that doesn’t mean age isn’t slowly catching up with him.”
Of course it is, mate. He’s nearly 38. But so is Rogers. Like I said, performance is the bigger issue than age.
“Then there’s Johnson, and possibly Clarke too. All of them are still good, and they’re capable of bouncing back, but are they as good as they once were?”
Well, that’s a loaded question, isn’t it? At their best, Clarke was the world’s best batsman and Johnson was the world’s best bowler. So no, they’re probably not ‘as good as they once were’. But I wouldn’t say either one is ‘too old’, regardless of what happens this series.
As for Watson, this piece is epic: http://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2015/jul/14/australia-cricket-dont-cry-for-shane-watson
The second-last paragraph is exceptional.
I don’t think it’s a case of Haddin getting old. I think it’s a case of him being a pretty mediocre Test cricketer. Throughout his career he’s had a pretty poor batting average and has always suffered from hard hands.
He’s had a couple of good series against England so we overrate him.
I clocked Sean Ingle’s article this morning and thought that it might be mentioned on TFT! Now, I am no lover of Sky as an organisation, but I do pay for it and very much enjoy their cricket coverage (not just England), but do you think, James, that we are deluding ourselves if we think that cricket is ever going to be back on free-to-air TV? It is now over 10 years since the Beeb lost out, and I really cannot imagine how they would ever fit eight hours of daytime coverage on any of their terrestrial channels – perhaps others with far greater knowledge of these things might have the answer? – and now, with the BBC under attack from this government and strapped for cash, it really does seem to be a total pipedream!
There are other channels other than the Beeb, but I do know what you mean. My main argument is that SOME live cricket should be on FTA. A good start might be the domestic T20 competition. The big bash does really well on Australia. Perhaps that’s the way to grab people’s attention, and if it takes off and loads of people watch it, then maybe the appetite for test cricket on FTA (among broadcasters) might increase? Cheers for bringing Sean Ingle’s article to our attention :-)
While I can’t disagree vehemently with your analysis, I think there is a chance you’re reading too much into the result of a single test.
Had the Root chance been taken – or equally, if Australia had the benefit of batting first on what turned out to be a result pitch – it’s quite conceivable we could have been discussing an Australia win.
As it is, should Starc stay fit for the series, I wouldn’t write Australia off.
Exactly, I think that there is too much being read into outcome rather than what is possibly a fair reflection of the relative strengths. One held catch and the victory margin drops to 30ish runs, and its very likely that at 4/43 the free flowing stroke play of the England middle/lower order in the first innings may not have been repeated either. The drop was probably worth the difference in the two team’s scores.
That said England did play generally better in other aspects of the game also, which is what gives me hope (as an Aus supporter). Aus played well below what they can and will play like generally (except Shane Watson who played exactly as expected) and in the end the main difference was a crucial dropped catch.
I also agree Starc’s fitness could be key, although the stability Siddle would bring to the attack is not without its merits it would require Johnson to lift his game from the first test.
I basically agree but I suppose the counter-argument is that it was a brave call to choose to bat in those conditions (especially considering Cook’s form against Australia recently) and, had Australia batted first, England would have used the new ball a lot more effectively (as they ultimately did) and quite possibly dismissed Australia very cheaply.
Whilst it’s a long series and Australia will play probably ten times better at times, winning the first Test is an enormous advantage. No one comes back from 2-0. If England wins at Lord’s it’s all over. That’s what England (and Australia) really needs to focus on. Just like 2013, doesn’t matter how well you’re playing in the 4th and 5th Test if the series is already gone.
Oh yes its a huge advantage to have won no doubt. Its hard to know how Australia would have gone had they batted first yes I think its entirely possible that as you say they would have crumbled, but who knows maybe Englands bowlers wouldn’t have been as settled and bowled as accurately if they didn’t have the knowledge of 430 run first innings behind them. Perhaps.
Australia’s 2nd innings bowling was much more controlled so they demonstrated they can bowl accurately. While Starc and Johnson aren’t going to have the control of Anderson, they doesn’t need to spray as much wide shite as they did early on in England’s first innings! Certainly I think nerves and a mistaken idea (given the pitch) that they could blast England out with aggressive bowling played into that.
Anyway its the scoreboard that matters and I know what that says but I still look forward to the next test with optimism!
I actually think there’s an over-simplification on the question of age.
Look at the older players in this Australian side. They had to pick Rogers. They had to pick Clarke. They had to pick Johnson. They had to try to nurse Harris through for one more series but the back-up should have been better planned. And I think they were right to pick Voges after his dominant FC season.
The only selections you could really have questioned in the lead-up were Haddin and Watson. But I think merely pivoting back to the canard about age obscures some of the detail. For these guys, the real issue wasn’t age – it was form.
Watson – despite your earlier insistence that he is ‘clearly one of Australia’s best cricketers in all formats’ – has been out of form for four-and-a-half years and Haddin hasn’t fired a shot since the 2013-14 Ashes.
You mention Chris Rogers – he turns 38 next month but scored his 7th straight half-century in Cardiff. My point is that a player can be in his twilight and still contribute. It’s lazy to simply say ‘too old’. The issue with Watson and Haddin has been performance rather than passing years.
Completely agree. Obviously long term they need to think about replacing the others also but there is no evidence that Clarke, Rogers or Johnson need replacement. The point is with the older players you can’t expect to keep them in the side hoping they are going turn around.
Voges is the only possible point of contention but I don’t think 30 year Shaun Marsh serial failure was the answer – although I like the idea of picking S Marsh for a test, letting him score a century and then dropping him immediately before he makes a pair.
I make the point that age affects the bowlers more than the batsmen. It’s quite possible for a batter to play into his mid to late 30s, but very rare for fast bowlers to do so. I still think Watson is a good cricketer, and he averages 40 against England I recall, but his bowling pace has dropped considerably and he’s now operating more as a holding bowler. Is this what Australia wants? I would give him Lord’s for sure, and I’m not writing him off, but older players tend to get a shorter rope. My article was in many ways a response to reaction in the Sydney Morning Herald and Aussie Daily Telegraph. Are age and form completely unrelated? It’s an interesting talking point.
I suppose at a certain age a dip in form becomes a terminal decline…
Watson is a good player, yet he’s never quite been the player he promised to be, committing the cardinal sporting sin of raising expectation and hope and not delivering on it, otherwise known as Henmania.
“I still think Watson is a good cricketer, and he averages 40 against England I recall.”
Why is his average against England the be-all and end-all? I know you guys are obsessed with Australia, but performances against England are not the sole measure of ability for Australian players.
Besides, that number is padded by two largely inconsequential centuries at The Oval and the WACA in 2013.
Surely it’s more salient to point out that he averages 30 overs the past four and a half years. Surely that tells us more than his average against England, which, if you scratch the surface, is fattened by some pretty soft runs.
His other problem is that they seem to have tried him in every position possible. Yo-yo-ing up and down the order probably hasn’t helped him but he never really looked like a top 3 batsman, and now his weakness has been so ruthlessly exposed umpires are almost waiting for the ball to hit his pad.
Thought Nasser hit the nail on the head last Ashes series when he described Watson as a ‘bowling machine’ batsman
Some people will argue that he should never have been moved away from opening, where he averaged a semi-respectable 41.
Amongst all the interviews on TV I seem to recall an interview with Rogers where he was asked about his impending retirement, and he said that he really does know when he has had a day in the field…he is an outfielder, has a lot of running to do and perhaps this is where age does come into it?
I think the key is form rather than age or ‘brand’ of cricket.
Smith, Warner and to a lesser extent Rogers have had extraordinary runs of form in the last 12-18 months, Haddin saved the Aussies from some difficult positions in the last Ashes series but has since been shocking, Clarke and Watson have been iffy and Voges is untried at test level. If Smith and Warner’s purple patches are coming to an end, others need to step up, and on the evidence of last week, it’s not obvious where those runs might come from. The problem that Smith and especially Warner have, is that they like to throw their hands at the ball, which is dangerous on slightly slower pitches with sideways movement. The series outcome might be decided by how well these two adapt.
As for the bowlers, let’s not forget that Johnson has spent much of his career as a loose cannon as likely to miss the cut strip as to bowl a magic spell and is a real rhythm and confidence bowler. Starc has played a lot of cricket, and even if they patch him up for Lords, it’s difficult to see that ankle not remaining a problem for the rest of the series – he’s played a lot of cricket in recent months. I’m most worried about Hazlewood, who looks a cracking bowler.
As for England, I find all this talk about ‘brand’ of cricket an utter pile of tripe. They have their best players on the field and, unlike much of 2013 and 2014, they’re in form. A year ago, Stokes couldn’t buy a run, Cook was scratching around, Bell was iffy – they were reliant on Ballance and Root. While Bell needs to back up his 2nd innings 60 to fully answer questions and Lyth needs to turn pleasing 20s and 30s into more substantial innings, the batters all look in relatively good knick.
As for the bowling, for me it was Floweresque in its approach (chest guard on, wait for abuse!) They starved the aggressive Aussies of boundaries, built pressure and waited for them to make a mistake. And like the batting, there were no weak links in a 5 man attack. Broad looks good, and Wood is immeasurably better than Woakes and Jordan as third seamer.
My main area of concern for England is watching Cook skip(?) down the wicket to Lyon – it’s like watching Watson play a forward defensive with his bat, just plain wrong. For England to be successful, Cook has to bat like Cook, demoralise the bowlers by leaving, leaving again until they feed him something on his pads – let the others play the shots.
Again, all the above is academic – all it will take is a blazing/streaky Warner hundred, a magic Johnson spell, or a typical England momentum-sapping second test performance, and it’s all back in the balance.
I think Wood’s role has been cruelly underplayed. He’s much more threatening than recent ‘3rd seamers’ and can, if required, bowl a tight spell something Jordan has been unable to do thus far.
As for England, I find all this talk about ‘brand’ of cricket an utter pile of tripe. They have their best players on the field and, unlike much of 2013 and 2014, they’re in form…
While I agree that the talk of Cook’s “inspirational” leadership in the last test (and that seems to be the latest official line) is indeed tripe, it would be fair to say that the batsmen are no longer having to play while simultaneously looking over their shoulder for the stab in the back.
That does make a difference – as does having a fairly balanced bowling unit, so the two best seamers (and Wood is now challenging for one of those slots) don’t have to be flogged into the ground.
“As for the bowlers, let’s not forget that Johnson has spent much of his career as a loose cannon as likely to miss the cut strip as to bowl a magic spell and is a real rhythm and confidence bowler. ”
Much of his career? That really is a myth. Johnson’s had three notably poor and wayward series (in a career of 70 Tests), and two of them happen to have been Ashes, somewhat colouring the view of the English. Many would not have been aware of his position as the number 1 bowler in the world going in the the 2009 Ashes, and he clearly didn’t live up to that billing among serious personal problems, but the vast bulk of his career is genuinely impressive by any standards. Even at his lowest point, the 2009 Ashes, he finished the series with 20 wickets at 32 with a strike rate of 48.
For a bowler who can hardly hit the strip, he retains a career strike rate of 51 – Dennis Lillee’s was 52, Anderson and Broad 58 – and has taken just shy of 300 wickets.
‘Many would not have been aware of his position as the number 1 bowler in the world going in the the 2009 Ashes’
I certainly was, I remember him decimating the South African top order on more than one occasion. He looked absolutely lethal. I told anyone who would listen to watch out for him because he was going to be the difference between the two teams. Four years later he was!
The main difference from previous Ashes series is that Eng haven’t been tied down particularly by Watson, playing positively over just trying ‘occupy’ seems to have put Aus on the back foot. Coupled with the bowlers operating to the plan and fielders remembering how to catch they look a good unit.
Big question will be when (and it will be when) Aus put Eng under real pressure, how will they respond? I also expect Aus to ‘up the chat’ at Lords, I imagine the relative silence on the field irked them somewhat.
The toss at Lords is key. If Eng bat long first up it’s going to put Aus bowlers under huge pressure.