The Poms Down Under: The Warm-Up Games Review…
Since arriving in Oz a couple of weeks back, England have been afforded three first class warm-up games against a good standard of opposition as the players seek to find form and get used to Australian conditions. With the first test of the eagerly-awaited Ashes series beginning in a couple of days time, SportingBlogs has compiled a snapshot review of how the tourists fared in their three warm-up matches…
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England were the eventual victors in their opening tour game against a strong Western Australia side at the WACA in Perth. Fielding their likely first choice test XI, England’s Stuart Broad (3-47) claimed three early wickets on the first day as their hosts were at one stage reduced to 42-3. A mid-innings fightback was ended by Paul Collingwood, before England’s bowling unit professionally reduced WA to an enforced declaration at 242-8, with a wicket each for James Anderson (1-48), Steven Finn (1-65) and Graeme Swann (1-60). England lost Alastair Cook just before the close, and this dismissal proved a sign of how the second day’s play would go, with England being reduced to 117-7 at one stage. Kevin Pietersen’s 58 lit up a disappointing scorecard for the tourists, and but for tail-wagging knocks by Broad (53*) and Swann (37*), England’s modest 223-8dec. would have been a whole lot worse.
England improved dramatically on the final day however. With Western Australia having reached 109-1 at close on the previous evening, the hosts encountered ‘an outstanding spell right from the start’ from Finn (2-50) as they were eventually skittled for just 223. Swann’s 4-101 were just reward, but it was Finn – who was ‘consistent length-wise and caused all the batsmen some trouble’ – who set-up the ultimately achievable run chase. Captain Strauss led from the front, scoring 120* from 141 balls, receiving support from Ian Trott (23), Pietersen (35 off 22), Collingwood (26), and Ian Bell (22*) as England won by six wickets in a clinical and convincing manner.
As Struass said afterwards, it was ‘a good effort from the batters to chase down that score,’ but the real benefit came in reinforcing the winning mindset that England have sought to achieve over the last couple of years. ‘What we did was come in and hit the ground running,’ continued Strauss – undoubtedly a great way to kick off the tour for the tourists.
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England’s second warm-up match against South Australia began in an unconvincing fashion, with an opening day batting wobble leaving the tourists struggling at 95-4. Collingwood and Bell found form and rescued the innings with 94 and 61 respectively, their 131-run partnership and a few contributions from the tail allowing England to declare on 288-8. The second day proved profitable with both bat and ball for England, with Swann taking 4-68 and Anderson 3-62 as South Australia were dismissed for 221 before Strauss and Cook saw England to 94-0 at the close.
With a lead of 161, England began the final day in a strong position, but were to be frustrated by the weather which took 25 overs out of the day’s play. When play began, Strauss (102) and Cook (111*) were able to complete convicing centuries in their opening partnership of 181. Given a few lurking doubts over Cook’s position in the side and the form of England’s top order, such a solid start will have undoubtedly satisfied the selectors.
Cook was naturally delighted that having ‘put the hard yards in’ he had been able ‘to get that rhythm and tempo back in [his] batting’ and score a much-needed century that evidently pleased his skipper; Strauss commenting: ‘He batted exceptionally well […] His foot movement was very good and his timing was crisp.’ England declared on 240-1, and still found enough time to reduce SA to 48-2 before a draw was agreed upon, with both wickets falling to Anderson.
After the match, Strauss was quick to point to the positives, citing how there have been ‘some runs for most of the batsmen,’ and how ‘the bowlers have done a good job consistently.’ But he also tempered this, measuredly stating that although England’s preparations had been satisfactory thus far, ‘the last thing we can do is get complacent and pat ourselves on the back.’ This desire to ‘continue the progression upwards’ rather than resting on their laurels indicates a touring party that is fully focused on achieving their aims, which certainly bodes well for the rest of their tour.
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England travelled to Hobart to take on Australia A in their final warm-up match having opted to send their first-choice bowling quartet straight to Brisbane a week early as, according to coach Andy Flower, ‘the conditions in Hobart are very different [to] Brisbane and the ones we will be facing in the first Test.’
In Hobart, the tourists had a great first day, reducing the hosts to 66-5 before eventually dismissing them for 230 after some resistance for the sixth, seventh and ninth wickets by Australia A. Promisingly for England’s Ashes prospects, their second string bowling attack acquitted themselves rather well, with Chris Tremlett taking 4-54, Ajmal Shahzad 3-57 and Tim Bresnan 2-65. Admittedly the conditions were somewhat favourable for the English bowlers (‘a green pitch and overhead cloud cover provided considerable assistance’), but confidence is a wonderful thing, as Tremlett noted that evening: ‘getting some wickets builds your confidence – and if my opportunity does come along, my confidence will be high.’ Furthermore, the importance of dismissing five Australian test hopefuls cheaply cannot be underestimated.
The tourists then proceded to dominate the second and third days in Hobart, racking up 523 after a majestic 192 from Bell, which was built around contributions throughout the batting order, most notably from Cook (60), Trott (41), and Collingwood (89). Bell’s innings was described as ‘scintillating’ by the ECB’s Justin Goulding, who also noted that ‘almost all the 15 fours and one six [Bell] hit came via the middle of his bat, and any one of a handful of wonderful lofted straight drives will not be bettered by any player all winter in terms of aesthetic beauty.’ Bell’s form and confidence with the bat – in particular in partnership with Collingwood in the middle order – will please the selectors immensely, and given his perceived struggles against the Aussies in the past, his post-innings comments should fill England’s fans with confidence as to his ability to take on and out-perform his opponents this time around: ‘There’s no doubt I feel a better player than I was the last time I was on an Ashes tour […] and my game is starting to really take shape.’
Following Bell’s heroics, there was still time at the end of the third day for Tim Bresnan to stake his claim to a place in the opening test XI as he reduced the hosts to 128-3 at the close, with test hopefuls Usman Khawaja and Callum Ferguson once again failing to muster a significant contribution. Phil Hughes, unbeaten that evening on 58, spoke highly of both Bresnan and Tremlett afterwards, complimenting how consistent they were with their lines, but highlighted Bresnan’s three wicket burst as the ‘stand-out’ performance. It is undoubtedly promising and perhaps telling that even though he had faced England’s second string bowlers, Hughes still felt sufficiently impressed to state that ‘it’s going to be a great contest for the Australian batsmen.’
England wrapped up a comfortable 10-wicket victory on the final day, with Tremlett taking three early wickets (3-67) and Monty Panesar (3-63) removing centurion Cameron White (111), before Bresnan (4-86) ended the innings on 301, allowing Strauss (9*) and Cook (2*) to successfully chase down the nominal target without loss. Collingwood hailed his team-mates’ efforts as ‘an exceptional performance’ afterwards, with runs scored by several batsmen and the wickets being shared between the bowlers further boosting confidence levels in what already appears to be a decidedly content England camp.
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Overall, England’s warm-up games have gone remarkably well. There have been positive contributions on the batting front from virtually all members, in particular with centuries for Strauss, Cook and Bell, and big contributions from Collingwood. Indeed, it is only Trott who has failed to pass fifty so far on the tour, despite having looked in decent nick whilst in the middle. Having stressed how important it was that the ‘batsmen get used to the conditions,’ Strauss will undoubtedly be delighted with his side’s progress on that front. Furthermore, given Australia’s plan to ‘target the [England] captain,’ he will be pleased on a personal level that with two centuries already to his name he can definitely be seen to be leading from the front, thereby responding to Australia’s first plan of attack in the best possible way.
On the bowling front, things went equally swimmingly. All of the first and second string bowlers picked up wickets and seemed to be adjusting to the Australian conditions in a pleasing manner, even managing to extract impressive amounts of swing from the notoriously tricky Kookaburra ball they use Down Under. They have also managed to avoid picking up injuries – a problem for England Down Under in the past – which is a further blessing, although given the strength and depth of their bowling unit, should an injury arise, England appear well placed to cope with it.
Perhaps the most significant positive to have emerged from the warm-up games was England’s ability to force a positive result. Strauss stressed early on that it was ‘important we play well and win as many of these games as possible,’ and with two wins and a rain-affected draw against three strong opponents, England can certainly be seen to have achieved that. Further, it is of course hugely beneficial that, as noted by Collingwood, ‘there have been some huge individual performances in the three games as well,’ meaning that England enter the cauldron of an opening Ashes test as a team with a winning mentality and with a group of players in fine form. As Collingwood aptly suggests, the tourists have ‘prepared [themselves] in the best possible way to go into Thursday’s Test match.’ And that is certainly no bad thing…
This is partly why it should be of little surprise that, despite the traditional ‘5-0 whitewash’ baitings, we hear their Australian opponents – in this case Phil Hughes – praising the quality of England’s cricket and the high confidence levels in the tourist’s camp: ‘The way England are playing, there is no doubt they are going to be confident.’ Whilst the hosts have key injury worries and have drawn criticism for dithering over selections, England appear to be an on-form and confident side that has prepared in the best possible manner.
As Collingwood stated after the victory over Australia A in England’s final warm-up game, ‘We’re raring to go.’ And so are we…