As successful as they have been in recent years, this England team have always struggled to find an effective way to play high-class slow bowling. The evidence of this disappointing Ashes series suggests they now have a problem against middle-of-the-road off-spin.
Nathan Lyon is a perfectly competent cricketer, who reached 100 Test wickets in England’s second innings here, but he is what Australians call a “tradesman”. He is highly unlikely to produce a magical spell, in the manner of Muttiah Muralitharan, Saeed Ajmal or even, on his best days, Graeme Swann. Yet at times in this series, England have tackled Lyon as though he is all three of those players rolled into one.
When they have attacked, it has usually been the lofted drive down the ground, for four or six. Thereafter, defence. Rarely have England managed to rotate the strike against Lyon (right), making it far easier for him to settle on a regular line and length.
It is, of course, harder to be assertive against a spin bowler when you are behind in the game, as England have been throughout this winter, but for their supporters it must be maddening to see experienced international batsmen retreat into their shells against the workmanlike Lyon.
“It’s nice when the opposition helps you out a lot, and boy, have England helped Australia out a lot in this series, and especially in their second innings here,” remarked former Australia captain Ian Chappell from the television commentary box. He was responding to Ben Stokes’ dismissal, a miscued shot down the ground that flew straight to long-off and gave Lyon his second wicket.
Stokes is playing only his third Test and has plenty of promise, so we should not be too critical. Next time, though, he might decide to push the ball down the ground, take the single and rotate the strike.
Against a spinner, it is always a risk if you try to go from first gear to fifth and straight back again. Block, block, block, try to hit a boundary, block block. There must be – and apologies for using a New Labour slogan – a third way. Not only does rotation of the strike make Lyon’s task a little trickier, it ensures the Australia captain, Michael Clarke, has to think more carefully about his field placings and bowling options.
Lyon’s job is also made easier by a pace attack which has given England nothing. But before he even bowled in the second innings, Lyon had already done England significant damage with the bat, making an unbeaten 18 in a last-wicket partnership of 40 with Brad Haddin, which reduced England’s first-innings lead to 51.
England were complicit in the stand, adopting completely different tactics against the final pair than those that had served them so well against Australia’s other batsmen on the second day. Even when a spinner is batting, England’s thinking still becomes muddled.Reuse content