England flew to Tasmania yesterday in supreme fettle. Tours to Australia are not supposed to be like this: one win, one winning draw, no defeats, the only injuries likely to have occurred from pinching themselves.
Of course, the serious business has yet to begin, patently demonstrated by the bowling that the tourists have received so far, which has been at the other end of the serious scale, nudging into the joke category. But despite all the painstaking preparation and the attention to detail they could not have expected events to have transpired quite so smoothly.
The temptation is to wonder when it might all go wrong, but the hex that Australia have had on England – yes, even in the two Ashes victories of recent vintage – is no longer so powerful. When Jonathan Trott fell on his shoulder in Adelaide on Saturday, attempting a running boundary catch, it looked as though he might have inflicted severe damage.
Such was the misfortune bedevilling recent England sides that his whole tour might have been done there and then. But Trott received treatment and was back on the field in five minutes. Australia A, who shared the second leg of yesterday's journey from Sydney to Hobart, look young, lean and hungry. It is their task at Bellerive Oval starting on Wednesday to apply pressure on the Poms, to make them understand they are here for a contest. Some of them may be enthused by being named in the enlarged Australia squad for the first Test in Brisbane, which was due to be announced overnight, some may be encouraged by being overlooked.
Meanwhile, England seem certain to send their Test pace attack of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn to Brisbane for acclimatisation. They have all bowled adequately enough to suggest they are in good order – though not all yet at the same time – and hanging round wet, cold and windy Hobart may not be conducive to bowling in 80C degree humidity as they must next week.
The batsmen, however, are extremely loath to give up their places in the final warm-up match to any of the reserves. Alastair Cook was the latest to rediscover his form with an assertive century against South Australia in England's second innings on Saturday. He and Andrew Strauss, who scored his second first-class century of the tour, put on 181 for the first wicket and established a platform for potential victory, foiled when rain intervened.
If Strauss was magisterial, punishing some wayward bowling with authority, Cook was as fluent as he has been for months. His timing was restored because he began moving his feet again. Cook has worked fervently on his method in the past year or so and now seems to have settled on something in between the old style and the revolutionary stance with the high, early backlift which replaced it. "It's a bit of both now, bit of mix and match," he said. "It's always going to be a bit of a battle with my technique. It has flaws in it but I try to manage them. I think footwork is the key for me."
What does for Cook too often in Test matches is his lack of movement at the crease. It was the same in the first innings in Adelaide when a studious start was undermined when he hung his bat outside off stump, his feet apparently encased in concrete.
"It's the million-dollar question," said Cook. "It's a bit like a goal kicker in rugby. Sometimes he kicks nine out of nine and sometimes he doesn't. The key is trying to find that consistency. You have to train your habits to get them moving as often as possible and hopefully take them into the middle with you."
He does not seem of a mind to give up his place this week, which might be hard on the rest of the squad since only 11 of the 17 have played so far. "It is tough on the other players but ultimately we're playing one side and there's no other way round it at the moment," he said.
"We don't know what's going to happen round the corner and someone could drop in but the management have to give the players they do think will play as many chances as possible to find form."
England have correctly insisted on proper 11-a-side matches instead of 13- and 14-man games with which recent Australian tours have begun – and look what happened. These tourists are clear-eyed and ruthless and they will continue to need both qualities.
nMorne Morkel bagged four wickets on the third afternoon to end with a five-for as Pakistan were bundled out for 248 in the first innings of the first Test against South Africa in Dubai. South Africa reached 139 for two at the end of play, a lead of 271.
India managed an 86-run lead over New Zealand's first innings total of 350 at stumps on day three of the second Test at Hyderabad. VVS Laxman (74) hit his 48th Test half-century, combining well with Rahul Dravid (45) and then Suresh Raina (20) – with partnerships of 75 and 52 respectively. New Zealand skipper Daniel Vettori led the fightback, adding the wickets of Raina and his counterpart Mahendra Singh Dhoni to the early morning scalp of Sachin Tendulkar (13), while Tim Southee and Chris Martin got rid of Dravid and Laxman respectively.
Countdown to the Ashes
10 The number of wickets taken in a single innings by English spinner Jim Laker against Australia at Old Trafford, 1956. He remains the only player in Test history to have taken all 10 wickets in an innings, with figures of 10 for 53. England won the match by an innings and 170 runs.Reuse content