Aussies regain old ferocity to quell England revolution
Based on the opening salvos, this Ashes series is guaranteed to entrall
After England won the first Test in this Ashes series so convincingly at Cardiff, it seemed all the questions were being asked of Australia.
The home side could continue to bask in the adulation of a country which wasn't quite sure how its cricket team had managed to transform so swiftly from reliable whipping boys to daring warriors, but the country also wasn't too bothered about finding out.
England's one-day series with New Zealand had been so thrilling that some people were expressing regret that it would be replaced by the snarling, sledging animosity that characterises the modern Ashes (there were strange parallels with the 2005 Ashes series, but then it was football that was portrayed as the unwelcome gatecrasher wrecking the buzz). Once the series began, those reservations have been mainly forgotten, especially with England continuing to play with verve during the first Test and Australia looking old and weary in comparison.
Shane Watson was one of those old men. Like many batsmen, Watson has a trademark shot - unfortunately, in Tests against England, this shot has become his pad taking the impact of the ball and the look of bewilderment which follows as he is given out lbw again, something which is usually then confirmed during his inevitable review. Watson was out lbw in both innings at Sophia Gardens and was sacrificed for Lord's, but he wasn't the only Australian player being questioned.
England headed to Lord's observing Australia's problems with wry amusement. Their summer had begun with a typical lack of promise after their failure in the Caribbean, but the change in their attitude had been breathtaking. England had been cautious and conservative but when their coach Peter Moores was dismissed after the two Tests against the West Indies, they were intent on change.
The Tests against New Zealand were compelling enough, but in the one-day series - with Eoin Morgan captaining - England were scintillating against an adventurous New Zealand side.
Cook had never appeared to be that kind of captain, and his loudest critics would insist that he was no captain at all, but in Cardiff England continued their bold approach. Cook was hailed for his innovative captaincy and more of the same was anticipated at Lord's.
England had an enjoyable few days after their victory but, once they lost the toss last Thursday, it was different. By Friday evening, they were the weary ones. They had spent the best part of two days in the field as Australia scored 566 in their first innings. Steve Smith, whose ranking as world's number one batsman had been questioned after a careless dismissal in the first innings of the first Test, became the first Australian to score a double century at Lord's since 1938, while Chris Rogers had departed earlier in the day having made an essential and essentially slow 173.
The general agreement was that this was down to a docile pitch but Australia, who had batted rashly in Cardiff, also embraced the concept of delayed gratification. Well, some of them did. David Warner plays as if his problem with instant gratification is that it takes too long and, with runs to be made on Thursday, he tried to make them too quickly when he hit a reckless shot as he took on Moeen Ali.
Rogers and Smith took up residency as they took the game away from England on Thursday. Their partnership of 284 was the highest score for any Australian partnership at Lord's. England had a better day the following morning but, on Friday afternoon, as Cook and Adam Lyth walked out to open, the question was if the pitch would hand the game - or at least a draw - back. Mitchell Johnson was another man questioned after Cardiff. If Australia struggled on the slow pitches they found outside Australia and South Africa, so did Johnson, it was said.
He had taken 37 wickets in the last Ashes series and bowled well in Cardiff, but took only two wickets for 180 runs in the two innings.
On Friday, after tea at Lord's, Johnson took two wickets for one run in seven balls during a devastating spell. He ran in menacingly, his eyes fixed on the batsman like a handbag snatcher scanning for an exit as he moves across a station concourse. Johnson's menace increased as he released wicked deliveries at 90 miles per hour.
Suddenly the pitch was not so docile. Those restrained voices who had said judgement should be reserved until both sides had batted had been talking sense. England creaked and Johnson looked like the bowler who had taken those 37 wickets during the last Ashes.
England suddenly looked like the old England, too. There was nothing new in the loss of early wickets - which is an ongoing problem - but when Johnson took Joe Root's wicket, things were more troubling.
England were 30/4 when Cook and Ben Stokes came together. While Stokes counter-attacked, Cook dug in. On Friday evening, Stokes ended the day on 38 not out from 50 balls having hit one six high into the upper tier of the Edrich Stand. Stokes hit the first ball he faced from Johnson yesterday morning for four and moved on to 50 off another four from the same angry bowler.
Johnson became angrier when he was denied two wickets after lunch, the first when the third umpire correctly ruled that a catch taken by debutant wicket-keeper, Peter Nevill, had touched the ground, and then when Smith couldn't hold a Cook pull shot. Stokes, Joe Root and Moeen Ali represent the new England - Cook is the old, but over the last couple of days England needed a bit of the old.
After a partnership of 145, Stokes was out just before lunch yesterday, but Cook remained and had made a 50 partnership with Moeen Ali when he dragged on to his stumps four runs short of a century, the third time he has been out in the nineties at Lord's. England were 300 runs behind and defeat seemed inevitable.
At Lord's, Australia have rediscovered some of their old ferocity. They had begun the series as odds-on favourites to retain the Ashes. At Cardiff, they looked old - but now they can feel young again. They still have problems in their batting line-up, but Smith and Rogers might compensate for them.
England won't face the same examination if defeat comes as it surely will. The fatalism that is a constant companion of English cricket doesn't need to return just yet. The new England still has something to offer in a series that will enthral.
They might need some of Alastair Cook's old England as well.
Sunday Indo Sport