Peter Roebuck: Openers with bat and ball set England's tone
The Australian angle
Thursday 06 January 2011
Alastair Cook has spent more time at the crease in a series than any batsman has ever done. During the course of his latest epic he broke a record previously held by Shiv Chanderpaul, an elfish lefty who once defied the might of India for about three years. Jimmy Anderson has taken more wickets in Ashes series played on antipodean soil than any Pom since Frank Tyson – and he bore the nickname "Typhoon".
In a nutshell, that is the story of this campaign. The new-ball battles are more important on Australian tracks than elsewhere. Five times out of six the side that wins the bulk of them takes the spoils. Repeatedly England's unruffled opener and scything swinger have grabbed the initiative and their comrades have not let the advantage slip away.
As Cook batted it was possible to read several newspapers, take coffee, lunch and tea and then look out the window and find him batting in exactly the same manner. He has a rare sense of ease at the crease, does not so much concentrate as absorb himself in his activity. His batting lacks strain and complication, is all straight lines and sweet swings. He strokes the ball, keeps it on the ground and finds the gaps. Somehow, the fieldsmen are always in the wrong place.
To make matters worse, Australia's conqueror has a pleasant air about him, firm and yet polite. Flingers eager to fight a lion find themselves subdued by a pussy cat. Without upsetting anyone he stands his ground in the face of wrathful bowlers and even fielders convinced they have held him. Cook defied the home captain in Brisbane and survived again as Phillip Hughes first claimed and then questioned a low catch. That a former England champion saw fit to accuse the short leg of cheating says nothing about the fielder and everything about him.
Simplicity counts among Cook's assets. Every ball is given its due, no more or less. It's not as easy as it sounds. Every hour a hundred things go through a batsman's head. Cook sifts his thoughts and selects the wiser ones. His brain faltered only once, persuading him that the time had come to swipe Michael Beer over long-on. It was like watching Val Doonican try rap. An ugly shot produced an easy catch. And even then the otherwise composed lefty survived. For him it's been that sort of series.
Decades ago, it was said of the Duke of Wellington that he was remarkable not for the extent of his abilities but the use he made of those he possessed. Cook is the same. He does not step down the pitch or sweep and seldom troubles the covers. Rather he cuts, clips, tucks, glides and bats a long, long time. He brought an air of permanence to a notoriously temporary activity.
Anderson has been no less important. He has played one bad match and England lost it. Overall he has bowled well with the new ball and better with the old. He has obtained normal and reverse swing, plotted the downfall of numerous opponents, and has repeatedly broken through a brittle batting order.
Most of all, Anderson has given the attack the leadership it craves. Others have played their parts but he has given the bowling its edge. Where Mitchell Johnson has unleashed one sizzling spell, Anderson has produced several of the highest quality.
Besides making the ball dance, Anderson has also displayed a mastery of control. His line has been immaculate and he has avoided the trap often observed among callow swingers of over pitching.
His bursts in Adelaide and Melbourne sealed the fate of a forlorn opponent. His ability to swing the ball both ways and late has set him apart. It has also provided attractive cricket for huge and well humoured crowds. By pitching the ball up, swingers invite the drive and punish errant versions.
Before the series began, otherwise pessimistic locals thought that Cook and Anderson might prove to be liabilities. Cook hung his bat out to dry and played across his front pad. Anderson could not bend Kookaburras. Instead, they have played vital roles in the deserved and decisive victory secured by an impressive England outfit.
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