Wednesday 20 November 2019

No Australian straws can remain unclutched

Tourists desperately seeking magic formula to revive Ashes hopes, writes Vic Marks

Joe Root has arrived and the others are due to make their mark
Joe Root has arrived and the others are due to make their mark

Vic Marks

It could be over all too quickly. In 2002, at the Waca in Perth, Australia retained the Ashes before anyone had the chance to open a single door of their Advent calendar. In 2013, England may well have secured the urn long before the commencement of the grouse-shooting season. Cricket-loving lairds need not feel compromised. The Ashes contest over, the grouse will have to look out.

If Australia do not win at Old Trafford, it will be an August of Mourinho and Moyes rather than Michael Clarke; there will be much more Rooney than Root. It's enough to prompt sacrilegious yearnings – even among ardent English cricket fans – of an astonishing Australian renaissance.

Not that the England camp think like this. Jimmy Anderson, who does not have too much in common with Glenn McGrath (except that he is the outstanding pace bowler in an Ashes contest), has mentioned "five-nil", albeit as a goal rather than a prediction. After the Lord's Test no one is chastising him for tempting fate, such was England's dominance and Australia's ineptitude.

Despite the nasty habit of being 30-3 in both their innings at Lord's, England are functioning smoothly. Anderson has been routinely superb.

Graeme Swann, it has been suggested, is not quite at his best, yet he took 9-122 in the Lord's Test and is so obviously superior to any Australian spinner. He is not bowling too badly. Ian Bell has batted with understated majesty; Joe Root has arrived and the others are due to make their mark before long.

What of the Australians? Do not anticipate an unchanged side at Old Trafford. In fact, we know that James Pattinson, a spirited, talented cricketer, will be absent, waylaid by a stress fracture to his back, the obstacle for so many promising young fast bowlers. They will miss his aggression in the field and if he remains at the top of the Australian batting averages by the end of the series, which is where he currently resides with the help of a couple of not-outs, then Australia's tour will have continued on its downward spiral.

After the Trent Bridge Test, where the tourists competed valiantly to the end, they made two changes. How many will they make after the debacle at Lord's? At the moment they are flailing around in Hove in pursuit of the magic formula. The problem is simple to identify – nowhere near enough runs – but tough to resolve. It is possible to make a case for dropping every batsman in the side except Clarke, whose pedigree and position deny such a thought.

Shane Watson must be the most exasperating. For half an hour he looks as commanding as any batsman on the planet as he strides on to the front foot and cracks the new ball to the ropes. So far 80 of his 109 runs in this series have come in boundaries.

Yet he is also the only Australian batsman not to reach 50 in this series. Watson is a great shot-maker, but not a great run-scorer. And three times out of four he has been lbw in identical fashion. He plonks his left leg down the pitch to the seamers and then gets into a tangle as he tries to play around it. Sometimes he looks aggrieved at the umpire; instead he needs to look more closely at his own game.

His partner, Chris Rogers, has looked composed, suggesting know-how born of long experience against English pacemen, and then what happens at Lord's? He misses a high full toss from Swann and then declines to play a shot against the off-spinner in his second innings. And he is the man with intimate knowledge of the Lord's slope.

The list goes on: Usman Khawaja flickered – and frustrated – at Lord's, where he became Root's first victim; Phil Hughes hit an unbeaten 81 in his first innings of the series and has added just two more runs in three knocks; Steve Smith failed twice in the second Test but he did conjure four wickets, three of which in England's first innings might have been crucial if only the Australians could bat.

On the sidelines there remains Ed Cowan and, more distantly, David Warner, who has just hit 193 for Australia 'A' in Pretoria. By a nasty process of elimination that might be enough to propel him back into the Test team for Old Trafford. No Australian straws can remain unclutched.

This is not the ideal way to go about selecting a Test team; Darren Lehmann will be relying as much on intuition as any long-term strategy, which brings selection consistency. At Old Trafford it is 'do or die', which may be good news for Warner.

The batting remains the major headache. But there are complications with the bowling attack and, in particular, the spin department. Ashton's Agar wonderful debut at Trent Bridge has muddied the waters. Clearly Agar is a gifted young cricketer. But is he currently a better spinner than Nathan Lyon? Almost certainly not. In a match that Australia have to win they will have to go with their four best available bowlers. So Lyon may eventually make his Ashes debut. If that is the case no Australian cricketer will have waited so long – in terms of Test appearances – to play against England.

At least the Australians have genuine options among the pace bowlers, even in Pattinson's absence. The stalwarts, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris, may be joined by Mitchell Starc, who did not disgrace himself at Trent Bridge, or Jackson Bird or, just possibly, James Faulkner.

Whoever they select, the chances of Australia emulating the side of 1936/'37 are slight. Seventy-seven years ago, Australia came back after Gubby Allen's tourists had prevailed in the first two Tests in Brisbane and Sydney. But that Australian side included Stan McCabe, Bill Brown, Jack Fingleton, Bill O'Reilly and a certain Don Bradman, who took a couple of matches to come to terms with the captaincy.

Now it's just possible that the current wearers of the Baggy Green will one day be just as revered, but at the moment this requires unusual powers of imagination.


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