Sunday 22 April 2018

Ashes up for grabs as Aussies fight back

Tourists failed to adapt in Perth, writes Mike Selvey

Lest we forget, the 2010-11 Ashes series, as it stood going into the fourth day in Perth, was barely beyond the halfway stage, with England holding a one-match advantage. By the time you read this Australia will surely have levelled at 1-1, in which case the outcome of the series will not be decided until the fifth Test.

By the end of the Perth Test eight years ago, it had already been decided after a mere 11 days of cricket. Four years on from that, a further four days could be added, but the outcome was just the same. The tens of thousands who then flocked to the MCG on St Stephen's Day did so not to see a contest but as an audience to England's humiliation. It was the sort of cricket that might make the Jeremy Kyle Show.

This series is different. Australia had been repelled in the first Test and humbled in the second. The Australian public, so used to winning, were losing faith at a time when Cricket Australia were fighting a battle against the behemoth known as the Australian Football League. AFL is stealing the youngsters, booming in popularity.

Barely a month ago, on November 15, in pouring rain and tucked away in a corner of Sydney's circular quay, the chairman of Australia's selectors, Andrew Hilditch, soberly announced a squad of 17 players who might make the team for the first Test. It was nonsensical, a week early with a round of Shield matches and an Australia A game yet to come. But it was done at the insistence of a spooked CA marketing department who did not wish the publicity given to the impending AFL draft -- held three days later -- to overshadow the Ashes.

In light of all this the prospect of this series being effectively over in Perth once more was too depressing. So for every delivery that Mitchell Johnson thudded into English pads, and every cover drive and pull executed by Mike "Mr Cricket" Hussey, there was someone in marketing -- gelled hair, skinny jeans and pointy shoes -- high-fiving accountants around the CA offices in Melbourne, as prospects for ticket sales in Melbourne and Sydney soared. The great cavernous yuletide MCG will rock now. Johnson and Hussey between them have resurrected a contest that appeared to be dead in the water.

As Australia began the process of knocking away the England top order for a second time, it was worth remembering that this was a match in which England were always most likely to struggle.

The groundsman has produced a fantastic surface, making for high-octane cricket. But it is a pitch that is as alien to England batsmen and bowlers as the swinging, seaming lower-bounce English surfaces can be to batsmen from the Indian subcontinent. Few come to the Waca and prosper when the bounce is strong and the pace fiery, not even the Australians themselves when they come from the eastern states.

It is significant that it was a born-and-bred Western Australian, Hussey, who brilliantly showed how to bat with a limited but purposeful game plan (drive through extra cover if full, pull if short, leave otherwise) and a fast-bowling Queenslander transplanted to the state who transformed fortunes.

England should have known better. They prepared here as the tour began, and although the pitch then was more sluggish, they would have had the general idea that wickets come from edges, with good carry, which in turn come from pursuing a full length in search of swing and judicious use of the short ball in order to drive the batsman back.

Johnson's spell was of the highest class -- although there remains a suspicion that he is oblivious to how or why he swung it so prodigiously, and that it had more to do with the preparation of the ball and the easterly wind than any technical changes made over the past two weeks -- and the most obviously destructive.

But the other Australia seamers understood their lengths: on a bouncy pitch no England batsman, with the exception of Matt Prior, who was unfortunate, was dismissed directly by a short ball rather than as part of a process. And they bowled as a unit.

It was a lesson that was absorbed by Chris Tremlett, who more than justified the faith placed in him by Andy Flower, and claimed eight wickets in the match, with five on the third day.

England's bowling strategy is built on control, however. Decisively, by getting too caught up in the sledging battle the England bowlers broke ranks.

Steven Finn is young and has taken 14 wickets, more than anyone on either side, but if England are to go on from here and win the series, as they most certainly can on friendlier pitches, then they will not be able to afford a bowler who has conceded more than four runs per over through three Tests.

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