For Part 1, click here
One lesson we learned in the lead up to our series in Australia last year, and became even more pertinent as the series went on was that you cannot succeed in Australia without your batsmen going big. You need big first innings scores, and your batsmen to go big too. We succeeded in doing that, especially with Azhar and Younis, but we failed at other aspects of our plans. Australia have lost only ten home Tests in the past ten years, and in eight of those the opposition had a 400+ score. Also, eight of those ten losses have been against England and South Africa, the two countries which have had the batsmen to succeed in Australia, bat big and then the bowlers to capitalize on those innings. Perhaps the best example England can follow is the last time when t hey won a series in Australia – it was on the backs of Cook and Trott consistently scoring big hundreds.
Because the thing is that the Australian batsmen are so at home in their conditions that they’ll score decently regardless of what bowling attack they face. And in Steven Smith and David Warner they have two truly world class batsmen. All they need is one other guy to step up and they have enough batting to not be batted out of the game. Right now, that role is being done by Shaun Marsh, and until he keeps doing that England have an uphill task.
The fourth innings in Australia, mostly, is a difficult proposition. The hard surface plus the heat means that by day 5 there are cracks in the pitch and variable bounce meaning that more often than not a big chase isn’t a great possibility. So, for England to succeed, even when they bat 2nd, they need to get a first innings lead no matter what. It doesn’t matter if they do it going hard or taking their time, their aim must be to get a big first innings leads and put the pressure on Australia.
But can they do that with their current batting lineup?
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
For all the talk of what England can or could do, we also must remember what they should have done.
If I was in the England camp I would have done anything and everything, to get Stokes on the plane for the Ashes. England right now aren’t missing Stokes the vice-captain, nor Stokes the bowler – both those deficiencies they can cover up somewhat. But Stokes the batsman? England do not have an alternative for him.
In Australia you need someone to counter attack in the middle order. You look back to what Asad Shafiq and Quinton de Kock did last season in Australia, or Ajinkaya Rahane a couple of years before that, and you realize how important that player is in Australia. And there might be no one better in the world at that role than Ben Stokes. Also, there are few English players who are that suited to Australian conditions. This is someone who has a hundred in Australia, a big double in South Africa, and someone who always enjoys pitches with pace and bounce. I feel like if he had been available he would have been England’s second most important batsman in the series after Joe Root.
And it’s not just what he can do, but how he does it. He is someone who fights the Australian style with Australian style, he matches them at their own game. As we say in Urdu he is the mongoose to Australia’s snake. Right now, who is doing that job for England? Malan is too green, and the other potential batsman don’t fit that role.
Perhaps what England could have done (or can do) is to play Bairstow at five and Malan at six and try to maximize their talent there. Bairstow is the only player in this squad who can come close to doing the Stokes role. Sure, it would mean Bairstow can’t do his own role at number 7, but that’s a trade worth making. In the second Test Moeen batted over Bairstow in both innings. Playing Moeen over Bairstow means that you are reducing Bairstow’s role, giving Moeen less license to play his natural game (which he does so well when he is batting with the tail) AND you have no one to play the Stokes role. Consequently, England’s greatest strength, something that gave us nightmares, their lower middle order, isn’t half as effective as it has been over the past couple of years.
THE SPIN TWINS
The problem for the England lower order has also been Moeen’s form. He has had three starts in four innings, but in all four innings he has been removed by Nathan Lyon. Moeen has been outstanding over the past two years, scoring big against us, scoring two hundreds in India, then following it up with being the Man of the Series against South Africa earlier this year. And the safe thing with him has been that even if he wasn’t converting his starts he was contributing enough with the bat , while doing enough with the ball to justify being one of the pillars of the team.
His journey has been exceptional – from someone who was quite clearly just a part timer to the best spinner in England, what he has achieved has been thanks to hard work. But right now, he’s being outshone by Nathan Lyon.
For those who understand cricket that’s not much of a surprise. Because while both may be conventional off spinners, they are two completely different bowlers. Lyon is built to bowl in Australia. He relies on over-spin, something that is most effective on the bouncy pitches in his home country. With that over-spin and extra flight he uses a lot of revs on the ball giving him turn, bounce and drift, making him such a difficult opponent to face in those conditions. Those aren’t things that will always succeed in Asia, for instance. If you try to over-spin the ball too much here, the ball just sits up to be smacked. In Asia, or on low wickets in general, you need to under-cut the ball, bowl flatter, and rely on slight deviations rather than extravagant turn and bounce.
And that is what Moeen does. In England on days 4 and 5, in Asia and elsewhere, he under-cuts the ball and has had a lot of success that way. He is a radically different bowler to Lyon when bowling his natural style. There’s a reason why Lyon has had to adjust to bowling flatter and under-cutting the ball to succeed in Asia. The opposite journey is what Moeen must achieve to be successful in Australia. And two Tests in it feels like this tour has come a year too early for Moeen. The way he has progressed, and improved as a bowler over the past three or four years I have no doubt that he will eventually be able to bowl successfully in Australia too. But right now, perhaps, he hasn’t achieved the requisite experience and homework to be able to do that.
So England will have to rely on their pacers, and wait for Moeen to step up in Sydney or the final two days of a Test match, because expecting him to do what Lyon has done for Australia so far in this series shows a lack of understanding of how different the two are as bowlers.
In an ideal world Moeen would be the second spinner, to go alongside somebody as good as Swann was for England. But right now, as was the case with Stokes’ alternatives, England don’t have the talent they had with them five or so years ago.
It’s a situation for Root to solve. And he needs to solve it quickly, before he runs out of time.