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Australia Rampant, England Frail: Perth Gives a Flashback to Ashes Days of Old…

December 23, 2010

Despite the surreal reversal of traditional positions in Adelaide last week, England squandered their hard-earned and well-deserved advantage with two abject batting displays in Perth, leaving the Ashes series all square with two to play.

After a promising – nay, near series-clinching – start to the first day, where the Baggy Greens were reduced to 69-5, the tourists allowed a Mitchell Johnson-led fight back to take the hosts up to a respectable 268 all out, with Mike Hussey featuring prominently with the bat once again.

Indeed, several England fans and pundits had professed sympathy (both in jest and in seriousness) towards their more southerly cricketing adversaries. It is common knowledge that when the roles have been reversed in the past, the Australians have rammed home such an advantage, often with devastating ruthlessness. My, how foolish such sympathy now looks. Instead of crushing their despairing opponents, England took their feet off the Australian throats and allowed a recovery to 268 when many felt the hosts should have been dismissed for 150.

Much was made pre-test of Australia’s decision to select a five-man bowling attack that included four fast bowlers, and following the first day’s play in Perth, some have highlighted the fact that England’s three-pronged pace attack of Jimmy Anderson, Chris Tremlett and Steven Finn were unable to finish the job despite being barely two sessions into the test match. Given Australia’s recovery and Finn’s expensive economy rate with the ball, maybe such criticisms are justified. But without the benefit of foresight, England’s first innings bowling performance – an opening day dismissal of their opponents batting line-up – at the time looked like a damned fine return.

However, the wheels fell off in the most English of ways. Despite a solid start from openers Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, who put on 78 for the first wicket, the tourists’ quickly subsided to 187 all out, capitulating in the face of some classic Australian aggression combined with devastating use of a swinging ball and a bouncy Perth track.

Cook (32) and Strauss (52) cannot be blamed for England’s first innings demise, but they could and should have converted starts into bigger scores. Ian Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood (England’s 3, 4 and 5) contributed a meagre nine runs between them, as the tourists collapsed from 78-0 to 98-5, lending support to pre-tour claims that England’s upper-middle order was weaker than perceived and certainly inconsistent.

It was a combination of poor shots and inspired spell of fast swing bowling from the hugely-talented Mitchell Johnson, and the rest, as they say, is history. Another fine innings from Ian Bell should be given its deserved acclaim – 53 classy and unflustered runs whilst his team-mates shied from the challenge proving that this Englishman now feels firmly at ease on the world stage. Quite how England’s current most effective (and aesthetically pleasing) batsman finds himself wasted with the tail each time must be most frustrating to both the Warwickshire batsman and supporters of English cricket alike. Ex-England skipper Michael Vaughan has spoken out on the matter, stating: ‘It’s a travesty – you can’t have a guy playing that well being left with the tail […] The change has to be that Bell goes up the order.’

In fairness, it is an abundance of important knocks from Mike Hussey (supported mainly by Brad Haddin or Shane Watson) with just two – and thus-far, one-off – inspired spells with the ball from Peter Siddle and Johnson, that have kept Australia in this famous five-test series. There should not be a grave cause for concern on behalf of the touring party.

Into the second innings and once again Hussey stood tall and contributed a century. Watson supported with a commendable 95, although he once again highlighted his inability to convert 50s into centuries. Finn was frustratingly expensive with the ball, almost five runs leaked per over bowled, whilst an unusually green wicket appeared to nullify Graeme Swann’s usual gargantuan threat with a spinning ball. Phil Hughes, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke all failed once again (and questions are starting to be asked about this trio), but Australia still made it past 300, which was to prove plenty in the end.

England’s reply was the ‘England in Australia’ of old: real rabbit in headlights / lambs to slaughter territory. This must have been thoroughly disappointing for English cricketing fans given the optimism the previous supposedly new-leaf turning performances had delivered.

Wickets fell consistently and at an almost embarrassing rate; even the previously reliable Bell failed with just 16. Collingwood, their usual last-man-standing, rear-guard stalwart, bottled it just when he was needed most. He has carved out a reputation as England’s go-to guy when his team has been staring down the barrel. But not this time. With a worryingly low series average of just 15.5, should the balance of the side be altered or the line-up changed for the fourth test at the MCG, then Collingwood certainly appears most vulnerable. His saving grace of course is England’s consistent selection policy and consequent success over the last 18 months, and the fact his potential replacement – Eoin Morgan – has had little time in the middle this tour.

Several pundits have suggested that England missed out on Tim Bresnan and his runs with the bat as opposed to Chris Tremlett, who they opted for in preference. However, that was not Tremlett’s role in the side. England’s primary deficiency lay not in the lack of runs from the tail, but from the lack of runs from the batting department. As it stands, Tremlett’s contribution with the ball was near exemplary for his return to the international scene after a significant absence.

There are also questions surrounding Finn’s place in the side, largely generated on account of two expensive displays with the ball and the suggestion that the youngster looks tired. However, this ignores the fact that he is England’s leading wicket-taker this series, and amongst the top four in world cricket for 2010. Entering the MCG without two-thirds of your first choice fast bowling line-up (Finn and the injured Stuart Broad) might well be considered a risk Andy Flower and the selectors are unwilling to take.

England lost in Perth on account of two poor batting displays. It would be wrong to single out an individual and solely blame them, but potential changes – such as Morgan for Collingwood, or moving the on-form Bell up the order – might provide solidity, fluidity and craft instead of the inconsistency and collapses that currently frequent the batting department. After all, the Australians do not fear Bell’s fifties at six, but they would fear big centuries from him at three, four, or even five in the tourists’ line-up.

The thrashing England received might well prove a blessing in disguise for the tourists, for it should provide ample motivation to regain their lead in the series at Melbourne, thereby securing the Ashes in the process. However, what is for certain is that it is the Australians who have the momentum right now. Whether they can carry this momentum into the Boxing Day test match and marry it with the consistency that their performances (Mike Hussey aside) have been lacking this series remains to be seen. It certainly leaves the series fantastically poised as we head to the MCG…

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