Four reasons England have overtaken Australia
Last year's humiliation by the old enemy sparked a revolution in their approach to the one-day game
Wednesday 30 June 2010
1. Bold selection
Selectors, not least this bunch of selectors, get things wrong. Darren Pattinson, anybody? Thought not. But sometimes, and this is one of those times, they get things spectacularly right. Mike Yardy, now there is selectorial audacity and perspicacity combined.
Whether this wisdom is achieved by hours of watching and channelled thinking (which obviously they would like us to believe) or bringing in a chart containing the name of every English-qualified player, donning blindfolds and then sticking pins into the names and picking the players on which they land (which obviously they would not like us to believe) hardly matters. They are on a roll.
Yardy is probably their greatest single triumph. He is a man who opens the batting for Sussex, where he is captain, and in 11 years of county cricket has taken 15 first-class wickets, never more than four in a season. Yet he has become, almost overnight, an instrumental member of England's one-day team and of their plans to win the 2011 World Cup because of his improbable variety left-arm spin bowling.
It is barely orthodox in the romantic, old-fashioned sense of the art – think Wilfred Rhodes, Hedley Verity, Monty Panesar – but it is impressively effective, based on firing it in, being alert to the batsmen's wiles and accuracy. It is smart.
But Yardy is not alone. The selectors – influenced by the coach, Andy Flower – made a tough choice in ditching Matt Prior, a wicketkeeper in whom they had invested much time and emotion, and calling up Craig Kieswetter, as soon as he was available. Kieswetter has not repaid that faith yet but it demonstrated decisiveness allied to a strategy.
Similarly, although Jonathan Trott had apparently done little wrong, he clearly had not enough right to fit in with the new, robust strategy. And Ian Bell, back in the squad, had to show he was willing and able to change his approach.
2. Sound strategy
In a meeting that may yet go down in history as a seminal gathering – think Potsdam and Lisbon – England agreed last September that they had to change. This assembly in Johannesburg was conducted on the back of a 6-1 hammering at home to a rampant, cockahoop Australia.
The first and most crucial element of the meeting, echoed in Hamish McRae's excellent essay in The Independent's Viewspaper yesterday, was that England admitted they had been useless and things could get better only if they changed. They conceded failure. Nobody has quite revealed that Andrew Strauss, the captain, got up at the meeting and said: "My name's Andrew and I have been an abject one-day cricketer in a state of self-delusion", but it feels as though it came close to that.
England then realised they had to be more robust in their whole approach. This, and it cannot be emphasised too much, does not mean coming out slugging for the sake of it, or bowling bouncer after bouncer because of the machismo. But it does entail strength, power and athleticism from the start and not permitting games to drift, as can happen during 50-over innings.
The opening batsmen, in this case Strauss and Kieswetter, perhaps embody the strategy best of all. They attack, but not blindly. They know the importance of the power plays at the start of the innings but understand that it is not the be-all and end-all. England seem better equipped to judge what score might be deemed par on a particular pitch. They clearly think better on their feet.
To show that they are not merely planning for the present, the presence of both Yardy and the inestimable Graeme Swann in the starting XI indicates that they are thinking of the World Cup in the sub-continent next year.
This is also a combination of players who know how to respond in straitened circumstances, which can arise in any match. Witness Tim Bresnan's calmly astute innings last Sunday with nine wickets down.
3. Fielding demons
In a way, this goes hand-in-hand with everything else. It would have been foolish to try to change one thing without the other.
But Flower and Strauss, unlike previous regimes, saw that a proper fielding side can save perhaps 20 runs in an innings and subsequently apply a different kind of pressure. They picked the personnel accordingly – hence, Samit Patel, who would provide something as a batsman and bowler, may be as far away as ever.
The players drill much more efficiently with an objective in mind. They know where they should field and when and how they should field at different stages of the game. Their pace round the perimeter is quicker than it has ever been but, closer to the stumps too, they are in touch in a way that never seemed likely before.
Strauss is becoming enviably versatile and while some judges, not least one of his more recent predecessors, Michael Vaughan, are ready to criticise his slowness to react, he continues to surprise. When he moved in a short-leg at Cardiff last week while the Australian vice-captain Michael Clarke was batting, it could not have been predicted but it paid immediate dividends. Clarke was caught there two balls later.
Strauss is not perfect but who is? He has, however, quickly grown into limited-overs captaincy which demands a different kind of attention to detail than Test cricket. England know their enemy.
Not everybody is uniformly excellent in the field but it is noticeable that the specialist fielding coach Richard Halsall – who should be perpetually offered as an example of what backroom staff can provide – has worked out what everybody can do and where. They train accordingly. One caveat: they still do not make enough direct hits on the stumps.
4. Australian fallibility
Nothing should be taken away from England. They have started to do more things right as a one-day side because they have at last began to take it seriously after a decade of lip service.
But it is clear that Australia are not what they were. Their batting line-up is that which has dominated in recent times – they were supreme in the Champions Trophy in South Africa last autumn – but it is not only undercooked in this NatWest Series, it is also showing signs of decline.
Could it be that Ricky Ponting, one of the great players of this or any generation, is beginning to show signs of decline? Suffice to say that it looks increasingly probable that he will not recapture all his old glory (but Ponting being Ponting, he also knows that recapturing the bulk of it in the World Cup next year is more important than doing so now).
Similarly, it is possible to wonder if Mike Hussey, "Mr Cricket" himself, is quite the player he was, or if Michael Clarke's overall form has been affected by the personal issues which afflicted him last winter. Maybe all this is nonsense but something has not been right.
And then there is the bowling. It has been severely depleted – players of the magnitude of Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson are recovering from injury – which shows that Australian stocks are not bottomless. The return of some heroes will make a difference but then it will be important for England to bear in mind that, even then, this Australia is not the Australia that laid waste to the rest of the world for years and retains their number one ranking.
Genius, or its lack, can be compensated for, not replaced. There is no Shane Warne, no Glenn McGrath. England can attest to that. It seems that they have found a genius with Eoin Morgan, a batsman with unique skills. There really is no substitute for it.
Fourth ODI: Probable teams
England A J Strauss (capt), C Kieswetter (wkt), K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, E J G Morgan, L J Wright, M H Yardy, T T Bresnan, G P Swann, S C J Broad, J M Anderson.
Australia R T Ponting (capt), S P Watson, T D Paine (wkt), M J Clarke, C L White, M E K Hussey, S P D Smith, J R Hopes, R J Harris, D E Bollinger, S W Tait.
Pitch report Some carry and turn, but the recent hot weather should provide a batsman's dream surface and two totals of around 300 should ensure entertaining duels unless one side gains early ascendancy.
Weather & TV Fine and dry with sunny intervals. Sky Sports 1, 12.30-9pm.
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