Ashes 2013-14: With Mitchell Johnson firing and England stuttering, signs are there that the urn is heading back to Australia
Sunday 24 November 2013
Normal service has been resumed. Almost.
After seven years that brought just two Ashes Test wins in three series, Australia crushed England at The Gabba last night to suggest the tide is finally turning.
England are no longer the imposing unit that won three consecutive Ashes series.
When the world’s best straight-arm spinner in Graeme Swann can be taxed at the rate of 215 runs from 53 overs, it is apparent that his opponents have found both the key to quench his danger and the confidence to take him down.
Swann completed a seven-ball pair and was thumped so hard that it suggests his hold over the Australian batsmen has diminished greatly on pitches not prepared specifically for him.
And when former Ashes laughing stock Mitchell Johnson can find a way to become the most dynamic and limb-threatening quick since Curtly Ambrose last pulverised bats and bones nearly two decades ago it is clear that Australia have found a spearhead to lead their charge this summer.
Johnson has got into Jonathan Trott’s head and under his skin while unpicking his technique in such brutal fashion that the No 3’s average of a tad under 50 appears a statistical aberration.
Trott has been dismissed by Johnson five times in the past 40 Test deliveries he has received from the left-armer.
If Johnson doesn’t intimidate batsmen with his muscles, goldfish tattoo, bandit moustache or the newfound coldest grin in the game, he does it with balls that ramp from short of a length to just short of a batsman’s nose.
“I like bowling short at The Gabba,” Johnson said in his most candid and unsurprising admission of the Test. “I like bowling that short ball and it works very well in those conditions with cracks running down it. You can get inside the batsman’s head.”
Having such an enforcer, backed up by the pace and energy of veteran Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle’s bristling reliability and Nathan Lyon, who has emerged from his own shadow finally to threaten as a spinner of considerable offensive and defensive note, has given Australia the A grade attack needed to secure the urn.
Only Australia in 1936-37 and England in 1954-55 have managed to win the Ashes after losing at The Gabba.
Given that the first series required Don Bradman to dominate with 810 runs and the second for 90mph tearaway Frank Tyson to claim 28 wickets, England’s chances are as slim as Trott’s prospects of receiving a half-volley in the next month.
England are not the team of old. Trott and Swann’s woes are a growing problem for England but they are not the only sign that the corps of brilliant and battle-hardened stars who have underwritten so much success in the past seven years are starting to reach their expiry dates.
Matt Prior is no longer the scrapping lower-order danger of three years ago. He had little impact with the bat during the 2013 Ashes summer and is following the same course in the winter.
A first-baller and an eight-ball four at The Gabba could happen to anyone but the danger is that his form line is trending downwards at an increasing rate.
Is Kevin Pietersen the same batsman who rode the crest of a wave for so long? He wants 10,000 Test runs but the feat of achieving 100 Test matches and a creaky knee may surely sap some of the drive.
Can Ian Bell produce another three-century series to wallpaper over the cracks?
Australia have introduced a third man to curtail his most fruitful scoring zone while he will not be able to rely on the comfort of easing the ball through midwicket with it being targeted at his ribcage.
And is Jimmy Anderson past his best?
Two wickets at a cost of 70 each on a helpful Gabba may not surprise, given the lack of support at the other end with Swann and Chris Tremlett struggling to build pressure, but he is not making the new ball breakthroughs that once marked his most imposing efforts.
The series is not over and Australia have not regained the Ashes but the signs are there.
John Townsend is Cricket Writer for ‘The West Australian’
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