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Leading into this Ashes series only India had played more Tests over the past three years against Australia than Pakistan. Also, only South Africa had played more Tests than Pakistan have faced against England since the last Ashes. Having planned and played against these two teams so often in the last three years watching this Ashes has felt like watching two old friends of yours taking on each other. Despite the familiarity the script hasn’t been what I expected. So far, the series has been a lot more one sided than I expected it to be.
Since the 2015 World Cup it had felt like the identities for England and Australia had been reversed. England were the ones dominating teams, playing quicker than any other team, and playing their own brand of cricket, regardless of format, and trying to impose that on the match. England had competed against us in Asia, in the World T20 also in Asia and won a series in South Africa. Meanwhile Australia’s results in Asia this decade, and their overall ODI results away from home over the last 18 months, had shown a team that was comfortable in their own conditions, but not elsewhere. It felt like England was the new Australia and Australia were the old England.
But in the Ashes the roles have reverted to their original forms. Australia are the dominant team, imposing their style; while England have seemed slow and confused, particularly with the bat. When Joe Root is batting at a strike rate under 50 you know that this isn’t the England that you have known recently. Here is someone who never lets the bowler settle, whose strength lies in being busy at the wicket, he is someone who goes at a SR over 50 against spin in Asia, but he can’t do that against spin in Australia?
It’s felt like England are not playing with the clarity in their minds, something that has defined them over the past two years. The closest they have come to that is the last two days of the Adelaide Test, but even that might be too little, too late. To have a chance in this series England must get back to what they are good at.
Before I discuss what, England can or should do going forward, it is pertinent to mention the blunder they made in the 2nd Test. England are a team that has always been at the forefront when it comes to planning and analysis, so I am sure they had their logic behind the decision to bowl first. But I think that in a day-night game the most obvious, easy and correct thing to do is to bat first. You bat first, you bat big and you have nearly half the game. If you are batting first you have two sessions under the sun, neither of which is a morning session when the ball jags a round. By the time the night comes you have an old ball – usually the ball reverses between overs 40 to 65 – so there’s not a lot of reverse. So, you could bat for five sessions (150 overs!) where the only challenging spell you face is the final 10 overs, with the 2nd new ball, on the first evening. You bat for the majority of those five sessions and you have four night sessions, a huge lead and a deteriorating pitch to get the opposition out twice on. Sure, there was cloud cover when the toss happened, but it felt like England took that decision to gain the advantage on day 1, and not to gain the advantage over 5 days. Maybe the fact that they haven’t played a day-night Test hampered them, but I feel that if Root had decided to bat first and the openers had survived the first hour we would be talking about a 1-1 series right now.
FIND THE WEAK LINK
A bowling unit is a bit like a chair. If it has five legs it can survive one of them being cut off, but if it has only four legs then all you need to bring the whole thing crashing down is cutting one leg off. Australia have won two Tests with four-men bowling attacks. For a team as good as England that is just criminal.
The problem is simple: Nathan Lyon has 11 wickets at an average of 23 and an economy rate under 2.30! The fact that England have allowed that to happen is the reason they are two-nil down.
Now I am not going to be someone who disrespects Nathan Lyon, he got me out twice in our last two Tests in Australia after all. He is an outstanding spinner, one of the two best off spinners in the world, and he is in the form of his life. He’s got rhythm, a crowd and a team fully supportive of him and is now experienced enough to know his art. But he is not Shane Warne. To be fair, no one is. And unless your name is Shane Warne, you can be attacked.
So, England’s plan should have been to target him. Sure, you can target one of the three pacers, but targeting Lyon would give you the most reward. Imagine England survive the first 12 overs versus Starc and Hazlewood. Cummins and Lyon come on and you go after Lyon and get, say, 25 to 30 runs in his first four overs. What does Steven Smith do then? Does he bring back Hazlewood or Starc and run the risk of burning them out. Does he overwork Pat Cummins and run the risks associated there? Even if he doesn’t change his plans he still has to over-work his pacers, which is always a good strategy in a long five match series. Immediately it becomes a problem for Smith. He HAS to keep bowling Lyon, but because you have gone after him at the start he is forced to use defensive fields with him, and thus England have at least one bowler they can milk. They have one end they can give the new batsman too, and a low-on-confidence Lyon means batting in the second innings might be easier too. Right now, Lyon is bowling to them with three, sometimes even four, catchers around the bat and England are content with letting him bowl!
This is a quandary that we know of. After Yasir destroyed England at Lords that’s how they reacted against him at Old Trafford. That’s also how Australia batted against us last season too. Sure, our pacers may not have been as fit as the Aussie trio, but if you force those three to bowl 70 overs a day even they will lose some of their efficacy. Not even Mitchell Starc can bowl consistently at 145-150kph when he is bowling his 25th over of the day. Until England attack Nathan Lyon they will get nowhere in this series, and the best men to do that are Joe Root (whose strike rate versus Lyon here has been 44.8) and Bairstow, who has been completely wasted so far. England must force Smith to change from his Plan A with his bowling unit, they must force him to move away from his Plan A with Nathan Lyon (which is leg slip, slip and a silly); once they do that they will succeed, if they don’t do that they won’t.
But I hear that Mithcell Marsh will play the third Test, which would mean that England’s most obvious way of getting back into this series will be gone with his inclusion.
Stay Tuned for Part 2