Awful truth begins to dawn for hosts left stumped by recovery
The Australian angle: Ben Hilfenhaus was Australia's best bowler in India on their recent tour but has not subsequently been among the wickets for his country
Monday 29 November 2010
Australia's worst fears and England's highest hopes have been confirmed – Ricky Ponting's team do not look strong enough to reclaim the Ashes. It is not the captain's fault, he juggled his resources and placed his fieldsmen to the best of his ability. It is just that the bowling lacks penetration and the fielding is merely serviceable.
Barring calamity amounting almost to catastrophe, England will leave Brisbane not only intact but with bright prospects. Admittedly, it might look different on faster pitches but Antipodean surfaces have lost their virility, and in some opinions their lack of lustre reflects the wider cricket community. Moreover, England's bowlers are taller and bounce the ball more than their opponents – the touring party was chosen with that in mind.
England's rally was as significant as Australia's inability to press home their advantage, and it began at the lowest point on the third afternoon. Andrew Strauss's team might easily have fallen apart as the Australians piled on the runs but far from wilting under the onslaught, the tourists retained energy, enthusiasm and focus. England showed the resilience required to succeed Down Under.
When a wicket did finally fall on a frustrating third day the entire side dashed across to congratulate bowler and catcher. There was no capitulation. At stumps that evening Alastair Cook ran to shake hands with the home century-makers. It was an act of the undefeated.
A day later his comrades rose in unison to celebrate his own hundred. None of it was for show – sincerity counts among this side's strong points and the fightback continued on the fourth day. Throughout England displayed an intensity missing in the fielding team. Whereas the occupiers of the crease remained in a coil of concentration, the locals suffered lapses that led to missed opportunities. England won the crucial moments and, but for some bad luck on the third morning, they might have won the match.
The England squad appears somewhat stronger as well as better balanced. The top-order batting is more or less equal. Notions that Cook and Ian Bell might be vulnerable have been confounded as both have emerged as cricketers of calibre. Among the hosts Mike Hussey proved there is life in the old dog, only Marcus North is fretting.
But England's order is longer and takes a lot of subduing. On this occasion it took just three balls to remove Nos 7, 8 and 9 but that's not going to happen again. By contrast, Australia's order deteriorates quickly. Part of Mitchell Johnson's attraction has been that he can wield the willow – without him the tail looks long – but a player cannot be chosen for his extras, it is the same with the bowling. Admittedly, Andrew Strauss has only four proper operators under his command. As a rule, though, teams are dismissed cheaply by four flingers, not five. The spare bowler is relevant in high-scoring contests.
That these Tests are tightly packed is a more serious problem because the workload on the quartet will be considerable. If they falter the delicate balance between these teams will change. By the look of things, though, they will go to Adelaide fresher than their counterparts and that is a start.
England have an edge in spin and pace. Although mauled in the first innings, Graeme Swann cannot be discounted, as competitors of his ilk tend to bounce back. In any case, he surpasses his steady counterpart – Australia's yearning for a wrist-spinner is no mere sentiment.
Strauss's speedsters also seem more penetrating so Australia need to sharpen their attack: Johnson has bowled a lot worse than he has at The Gabba but he has also bowled a lot better. Ben Hilfenhaus was the team's best bowler in India but has not subsequently been among the wickets. For England James Anderson has been luckless, Stuart Broad obtains steep bounce and Steven Finn is going to enjoy Antipodean tracks.
That is not to say the visitors are irresistible, although they are competent and well led. Moreover, Australia have a great batsman and ambitious leader and two fine all-rounders in Shane Watson and Brad Haddin. Everyone knows, too, that things can change quickly in sport.
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