Andrew Strauss faces two challenges as he tries to put his team back together after the mauling it has endured at the hands of a committed Australian outfit. First he needs to stop all the distracting blather about 2005. Have no other series been played between these sides in the last 20 years? Next he must make better use of his bowlers and fielders. According to the papers the Australians are enduring all sorts of crises. Phil Hughes is scared, Mike Hussey has lost it and Nathan Hauritz cannot bowl a hoop down a hill. By the time they declared Australia led by 239 on first innings. England have a few headaches of their own.
All the hype about 2005 has led England astray. Take their hairy chested batting on the opening day. Here was an attempt to recapture the epic spirit. To that end the batsmen played a wider range of shots than the pitch permitted. Sophia Gardens provided an all too familiar pitch, slow and low and hardly changing as the days went by. It was a time for application, even attrition. Yet the locals batted in a gung ho style, with vivid drives, edges on to the stumps and so forth. The focus on Kevin Pietersen's dismissal was overdone. Was his ill-advised sweep the only poor shot of the innings?
Pietersen was, though, partly to blame for the headstrong approach his team brought into the match. Interviewed beforehand, he sounded like bugles were blowing. Again it seemed like an attempt to recapture the past, which slips away like sand through fingers. Andrew Flintoff fell into the same trap. When he took Hughes' wicket on the opening day he stood for an eternity with arms upraised. The snappers were alert and next morning the picture appeared in most papers. It was the only wicket to fall all day. Australia went to bed at 249-1. They slept happily. In a sense, too, England were not merely playing the wrong series but the wrong Australian team. Ricky Ponting's side is neither abrasive nor driven along by great players. Most of them have retired. The rest are injured and arguably ought not to be in the touring party. There is no confrontational Matthew Hayden, teasing Shane Warne, probing Glenn McGrath, swashbuckling Adam Gilchrist. Ponting is the last man standing from the imposing sides that have dominated the game these last 15 years. And he is a quieter, more thoughtful man than before. His team work hard and have an abundance of spirit. Australia have moved on. Before the series Ponting asked his players to make legends of their own. These blokes will not give their wickets away.
Changing all the talk may be beyond the England captain but he can make the Australians work a lot harder for their runs. The trouble with playing teams as idle, incompetent and arrogant as the West Indians is that it breeds laziness. Australia are a different proposition. As far as the bowlers are concerned he needs to tell them to tighten up. Accuracy is the least he is entitled to expect from the cream of the crop. Otherwise plans cannot be executed and the captain feels a need for reinforcements. Stuart Broad was the worst offender but they all lacked intensity and consistency. Strauss needs to use his bowlers more aggressively. He did try to change them around but missed a few tricks, such as letting Hughes reach 28 before giving Flintoff a chance to harass him. And not until the fourth day did Graham Swann start to flight the ball.
Most of all England's new captain needs to put pressure on the visiting batsmen and that means setting tighter fields. Take two instances. Marcus North broke his duck with a simple push to cover. Strauss had left his fielder out and the newcomer was able to amble a single. For goodness sake – it was his first run in Ashes cricket. Much later Paul Collingwood came on to bowl his cutters. Never mind that he was underused and forced to bowl a negative line. Far from backing him by giving him a slip, England put five men on the boundary and two at short extra-cover, an over-rated position at the best of times, a waste for a fast spinner. North edged several turning deliveries into the gap.
England also gave away too many soft runs. There were more singles available than at Desperate and Dateless Balls (Australians are not a romantic lot and mostly find their life partners at such events). Repeatedly batsmen were able to tap the ball to leg and potter 22 yards. For that matter England bowled too straight. When in doubt aim at the off bail and set the field accordingly. To be fair the pitch was devoid of bounce and as unchanging as Corn Flakes. Moreover, as Collingwood could confirm, Billy Doctrove has spent the match sadly shaking his head. Still, it was not good enough. Nor can England depend on the sort of revival seen after the first Test had been lost in, well, 2005. Strauss and his think-tank need to make things happen. Lord's will offer more pace and bounce but it's no use relying on the pitch. The real issue is the quality of England's cricket.