It may not be pretty but gloves are off for the Boxing Day fight
The Australian angle: Hosts regain their confidence by daring to play trademark confrontational cricket
Monday 20 December 2010
All roads lead to Melbourne. All cricketing calendars are set for Boxing Day. Poms and Aussies will descend in force upon the MCG eager to savour the fourth instalment of a compelling and constantly changing tale. Suddenly the series is alive again.
England might be displeased with their capitulation in Perth but the rest of the game will rejoice. Test cricket needed a thrilling Ashes series played on the Bulli soil which sits beneath the famous turf here. It has been a long time. Australia's comprehensive victory has rejuvenated the campaign. Overwhelmed in Adelaide, Ricky Ponting's team regrouped and rallied and set about England with intent.
But it's not over, not by a long chalk. It is a curiosity of cricket that teams of almost equal strength can secure decisive victories. That the series is evenly contested does not mean every match will be close. England have no need to panic. Ponting has survived his torment and now it's up to Andrew Strauss to prove his worth.
Certainly, I'd be foolish to attach too much weight to the Perth Test. Apart from anything else the hosts are peculiarly suited to these conditions and England particularly unused to them. No amount of talking can persuade a batsman to ignore deliveries landing short of a length who has spent his entire career attending to them. Likewise, young pace bowlers are inevitably excited by the sight of the ball rearing past nostrils. What else is the point of bowling fast? The warrior instinct is strong in youth. Cunning comes later.
As the Australians have learnt from England in this series, though, it is time for the visitors to return the favour. On the field the locals were slapping backs and shaking hands with the enthusiasm detected in the visitors from the outset. England's bonding had impressed them. Now the visitors need to consider the way their hosts set about taking wickets. Aggression does not mean pounding the middle of the pitch. It is a manner, not a method. England can also reflect on the way the Australian turned their fortunes around.
Afterwards the man of the mach award was given to Mitchell Johnson, whose spell on the second morning turned the contest on its head. Profligate in Brisbane, omitted in Adelaide, the enigmatic beanpole tore England's batting apart. He was a bowler transformed in a team revived. One day he is Prufrock, the next Hercules. Inspired, the Australians piled into the Poms and did not let go.
Moreover, Ponting's team dared to play Australian cricket. It is a culture, not a civilisation. A team needs a theme, an identity. Over the years Australia have played confronting cricket. It has not always been pretty and periodically it has been overdone but it reflects the national psyche and has been effective.
Realising his players had lost direction, and determined to go down fighting or not at all, the Tasmanian metaphorically took off the gloves and sought a bare-knuckle brawl. Before a ball had been bowled he made his intentions clear by insisting upon an all-pace attack. Selectors think about the long term but captains tend to focus on the next match.
Not that the selectors were unsympathetic. Already they had chosen a sharper, more aggressive squad. Conservatism had been banished. It was a high-risk strategy indicating a return to basics. Steven Smith might not be a better cricketer than Marcus North but he is more typically Australian. After all he has an eye for a punt, a leg-break and a hook.
England made the mistake of trying to reply in kind. As a result the team lost its rhythm. Previously composed, the layers became ragged and flustered. At one stage England were 78 for 0. Thereafter Andrew Strauss's side lost 20 wickets for 232 runs. Too many wickets were given away and too few maidens were delivered.
England played a bad game but that does not make them a poor side. Obviously, there is room for improvement. Graeme Swann was underbowled and Ian Bell bats too low in the order. Nor are Australia suddenly unbeatable. The track at MCG is a drop-in and likely to be slow. Can the remaining batsmen find their form? Will Ponting be fully fit?
England can and perhaps should win in Melbourne. First, though, they need to copy the Australians by getting back to their basics.
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