Friday 18 January 2019

England face tall order to escape desolation row

Andrew Strauss's men must dig deep to overcome a dismal start in Brisbane, writes David Hopps

Geoff Miller, England's chairman of selectors, took the opportunity as Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin built their triple-century stand to spread a bit of propaganda on Australian radio. The preparation has been huge, no stone left unturned, that sort of thing. It is to be hoped that one of the stones that England peered under was the one called Desolation.

The desolation stone inevitably appears on every Australia tour. It is the one that feels impossible to lift, the one which insists that there is no hope, that it is time to abandon the struggle and allow Australia to do as they will. At 450-5, 23 minutes after tea on the third day, another England attack was looking right at it.

Some England fast bowlers in Australia have carried the desolation stone around with them permanently. Martin McCague, a soft-hearted fast bowler born in Northern Ireland, was mercilessly attacked on the 1994 tour as "the rat who joined the sinking ship" for betraying his Australian upbringing.

Michael Slater flayed him all around The Gabba. He was never the same again.

Even such a heroic figure as Andrew Flintoff can tell you about the desolation stone. When he captained England during a 5-0 whitewash in Australia four years ago, most of his squad retreated into a world of endless room service while Flintoff, on at least one occasion, was alone to stare into an empty glass while they were stacking the chairs around him in the early hours.

Miller told the Australian listeners that this scenario is not about to repeat itself.

"We need to show character now," he said, in the interval between England's wicketless morning and wicketless afternoon. "Over the past two years we have not dominated international cricket, but in times of adversity we have shown character to battle back. I don't think this will be any exception."

Whatever the result of Brisbane, even after the pounding on the third day, most Australians still believe that this will be a close one. Midway through the match, even as England faced a 221-run deficit on first innings, Australia's dominance was based on one hat-trick, by Peter Siddle, and one colossal partnership, between Hussey and Haddin. The rest had been nip and tuck between two disciplined but not hugely outstanding sides.

By rights, when Australia's late wickets suddenly fell, they should have fallen upon Jimmy Anderson, who can rarely have bowled better in a Test outside England, or with such ill luck. But it was perhaps timely that they fell to Steve Finn, the baby of the England attack, the bowler who might have found the experience hardest to withstand. Finn's 6-125, when compared to the figures of Anderson and Finn, was a statistical absurdity, but when he took his fifth wicket, Anderson's congratulations were among the warmest.

It is Anderson's psychological state that will be of most concern ahead of Adelaide for England. He was a forlorn soul on the last Ashes tour, taking only five wickets in three Tests and losing heart at his inability to swing the Kookaburra ball. This time he has been immensely disciplined. Hussey is a grounded individual, a man who tells it as it is, and he knew that against Anderson he had won a battle worth winning.

Anderson's first-innings return of 37-13-99-2 did him credit, but it did not do him justice. He bowled a wonderful spell with the second new ball on the third morning, when England still had visions of parity on first innings, but luck and lack of referrals were against him.

This was Anderson's likeliest ground, where he could expect to swing the ball most, and now he must face up to Adelaide's flatlands, where he could be at his most vulnerable, before taking leave of absence for a week to join his wife Daniella for the birth of their second child. The excellent man-management displayed by England in the Flower-Strauss regime will now be needed; they will be more worried about the child within the man.

Nobody will remotely worry about Stuart Broad, whose inner mongrel will see him through, but Graeme Swann has also had a bit of a comeuppance. Many finger spinners in Australia have had a torrid time. Anil Kumble's Test average is 29.65, but 37.73 in Australia; Daniel Vettori's average rises from 34 to 40; Muttiah Muralitharan, most remarkably of all, from 22 to 75.

Miller himself can assure Swann that England off-spinners can prosper in Australia, and the talent that has made him the No 2 ranked bowler in the world will not disappear overnight. He also has plenty of second-innings bowling to come. But the dressing room may be a little quieter for a while and the next episode of Swanny's Ashes video diary, a nicely irreverent taste of life on tour, may have to visit the dark side.


Sunday Independent

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