Fearless, aggressive, controlled. But can they do it in Tests?
England have changed. They are different. They bristle with intent. Now take the game to Australia and retain the Ashes
Sunday 27 June 2010
Nothing that is happening between England and Australia in June will have any bearing on the Ashes in November. Nothing and everything, that is.
They are different forms of the game in different countries with, in large part, different players. They demand different skills and have wildly different significance. The comparison, therefore, is odious.
Except there are exceptions. Do not suppose for a moment that every Australian who might be a fringe candidate, say Doug Bollinger, is not fearing with every half-volley he bowls that the selectors might have seen enough. Or that those who have done everything in the game and have straddled it with genius as well as grit, say Ricky Ponting, do not fleetingly suspect with every false, minutely flawed stroke that their time might be up.
Or, in England's case, that a young thruster, Craig Kieswetter say, is not calculating that a compelling performance here and there will mean he receives the Test nod (and that the incumbent Matt Prior is not pondering along similar lines). Or that a batsman who is out of the one-day side, say Jonathan Trott, is not watching, say, Eoin Morgan, and thinking something along the lines of: "Cor lumme."
So there are repercussions, and they may be deep in individual cases. But generally when the players and coaches denounce the influence of this strangely fascinating one-day series on the Ashes they are talking psychologically. That if England repel Australia by 5-0, or if Australia mount a comeback to win 3-2, starting at Old Trafford in the third match today, it will not matter a jot come the first ball at the Gabba on 25 November.
By and large this may be so. Ponting, as he did four years ago, is plotting his revenge. The Ashes is his goal, his mission, and while he would like to win this NatWest Series, the truth is that everything else can go hang. Andrew Strauss, the captain of England, will sing the same song, that it is one thing winning now but by Brisbane it will have been forgotten.
However, the manner in which England are playing is discernibly, deliberately different. It is this that may profoundly affect how they pitch up in Australia and what happens thereafter. England these days are bristling with intent. There is a robust, athletic, aggressive element to their cricket which sets them apart. They have a presence about them.
Not so long ago England's fielders would show they meant business by throwing the ball in hard, extremely hard, from wherever on the field they happened to be. So that if the ball trickled out to mid-off, for instance, and there was no danger of a run or any intention to take one, the fielder would propel the ball back to the wicketkeeper, occasionally within inches of the batsman's head, to show that this was a serious business. Unfortunately, it was usually unaccompanied by all the other elements that go to make a proficient side: accuracy, pace, resolve, hitting the stumps when it mattered.
Under Strauss and Andy Flower, the coach, England have changed. Their fielding now fairly bristles with genuine purpose. And the same applies to their batting and to their bowling. It is not about being gung-ho, going in with bats blazing and letting slip the forces of bowling hell, but there is a purposeful, hard-eyed method based on controlled attack, bellig-erent strokeplay and rapid, roughing-up bouncers, rather than attrition.
England must decide whether this is the way to retain the Ashes, whether in Australia over the course of 25 days of the most intense cricket this winter they can see off Australia by taking the game to them. Or if the best way is to wait patiently, to sit in as it were, hope to see cracks in the opposition armoury and then pounce (this is how England won two memorable series in the sub-continent a few years ago, in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, under the great captain Nasser Hussain).
On the ill-fated tour to Australia four years ago, the whitewash, if not the outcome itself, depended on a session of batting at Adelaide after England had made 551 for 6 declared in their first innings. On the fifth day, with a draw all but theirs for the taking, England froze, became strokeless and inert and bewildered. True, Shane Warne was staring into their eyes at the time while bowling 32 overs for 49 runs but England were, as Mrs Margaret Thatcher used to have it, frit.
Strauss and Flower have spent their tenure refining their calculatedly bold approach in one-day cricket. It came to a head during a meeting in Johannesburg as they arrived for the Champions Trophy last September.
They had travelled on the back of a 6-1 defeat by Australia. As Australia (perversely) are now finding, if you start losing at one-day cricket you can keep losing, but there was clearly something else about England, a diffidence in the face of the opposition's assertiveness, which multiplied their difficulties. That has vanished.
Their senior professional, Paul Collingwood, now England's leading one-day run-scorer, recognises the difference. "We've been very controlled," he said. "When I talk about aggression I didn't mean verbals or anything like that. It means standing up to the Aussies. And not just them either. It means standing up to all the best teams. You have to go hard at opponents and we are doing that now.
"We have always talked about playing fearless cricket ever since I came into the team in 2001 but you have to have the game to be able to do that. If you go too far and are reckless you can end up getting 300 one game and then being bowled out for 60 the next. So you have to be a little careful and remain in control."
What England can and must do is bring this to their Test cricket. It will mean having the confidence, when necessary, to go into a match with five batsmen because they feel they require five bowlers, of whatever hue, to garner 20 opposition wickets. It will mean, probably, finding a place in their side for the staggering Morgan, untested and unfulfilled so far in his two Test matches.
It will mean having the wicket- keeper, Prior, batting at No 6, never forgetting that is how the Ashes were annexed last summer. It will mean entrusting Tim Bresnan to bat at No 7 and bowl as the third seamer, while remembering how disastrous playing an unproven batsman at seven (Stuart Broad) proved to be in the Fourth Test in Leeds last year.
It will mean playing Steve Finn as a fast bowler who has that something extra, the X-factor. It will mean making audacious and harsh selection decis-ions. But it may also mean the Ashes.
Be bold or boring in Brisbane?
All that England do in any form of the game from here to November is with the Ashes in mind.
Every team who are fielded have the Ashes at their heart. There was no more apposite example of that than when Eoin Morgan composed his stunning century in the opening match of the NatWest Series at Southampton. It was just another one-day match at a provincial, if charming, ground on a high summer midweek evening. They come and they go. But it was as if Morgan was persuading the selectors finally that there could be only one way to go from now on.
And when Steve Finn carried on some drinks while performing 12th-man duties in Cardiff, that concentrated the mind. Finn is currently undergoing body-strengthening drills, as Stuart Broad did during his recent rest.
They may need a squad rather than a team in Australia, and be prepared to change their method. They may be tempted to play safe in the First Test in Brisbane. But the counter to that is to pick a team who will make Australia afraid of losing (and remembering that England have come from behind to win in Australia before).
Here is the team England might pick if they are being audacious: Strauss, Cook, Pietersen, Bell, Morgan, Prior, Bresnan, Swann, Broad, Anderson, Finn. That would entail omitting Collingwood, which is probably wrong – could Bell open instead of Cook? Problems, you see.
And here is a team that will be more cautious: Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Collingwood, Bell, Prior, Swann, Broad, Anderson, Sidebottom. Safe and maybe sorry.
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