Monday, 20 July 2015

Defeated and dominated

Monday, 20 July 2015
Well, what a difference a week makes. Last week England were heading to Lord's, full of optimism after an unexpectedly convincing victory over Australia in Cardiff. This week they walk away from Lord's having come crashing down to earth, after suffering a humiliating 405-run defeat and capitulating on the final day. Turnarounds are not often faster or more crushing.

The pitch wasn't to blame for England's shocking batting performance, but it certainly had a big impact on the match. Whether it was a purposeful decision to make the pitch slow to negate Australia's bowlers or not (they may say it wasn't, but the order may well have come from higher up), it was a terrible decision. After England's talk of an attacking 'brand' of cricket, and of playing with self confidence and self belief, this was a move that betrayed that ideal. And in negating Australia's strengths with the ball, they only served to numb their own impact. Stuart Broad in particular bowled superbly in Australia's first innings, picking up four wickets, and England generally didn't bowl badly - there was just very little they could do to stop it being so easy for Australia. Only one wicket fell on the first day, Rogers and Smith racking up the runs with ease; Warner must have been left kicking himself after throwing his wicket away, seeking to dominate Moeen Ali.

Compare this Lord's pitch to the one against New Zealand earlier in the summer, one that offered enough for the bowlers but on which batsmen could still score the runs and at a pace - the two were worlds apart. Here there was no even contest between bat and ball - once Australia won the toss and batted, they found it plain sailing. The pitch for the first test in Cardiff was also poor, with barely any carry and Joe Root at slip sometimes standing so close he needed a helmet; a pitch symptomatic of a system where all five days need to sell out for grounds to survive (though the match still lasted just four). It's not a good excuse, and one that at Lord's is completely invalid. And if they did want to dull Australia's bowlers, with that final innings they obviously failed.

England should have performed better with the bat, and there can be few excuses for such a display on such a pitch. There was an inevitability that something like the first innings would happen - the pressure of such a large score can do funny things, even on a surface like this; and Cook (96) and Stokes (87) at least led a recovery of sorts. But 312 on a pitch like that is still not good enough. The top order let England down again. It's the recurring nightmare of this year, a list that is far too long: 34/3, 52/3, 38/3, 123 all out, 30/4, 74/3, 62/4, 43/4, 73/3, 30/4, 103 all out. The odd failure can be forgiven, but a set of scores like these points to a significant issue to be addressed. Cook, Root, and Stokes won't save England every time. Though I've backed Lyth repeatedly, he'll have to buck up soon or England will be looking for another new opener. Ballance too, despite scoring a crucial 61 in the last test, keeps getting out in the same old ways, and his position is looking increasingly perilous at number three. And for all his experience, Ian Bell has simply not been making the runs, a fifty in the last match barely masking a set of scores that looks like some sort of binary code.

Between now and the next test, there will be a lot of speculation, a lot of knee-jerk responses and calls for change to the England side. They do at least now have some time to regroup, recharge, and recover - time to clear their heads and for the bowlers to rest up. The same eleven that all contributed in some way to such a vibrant victory in Cardiff was the same eleven that were so comprehensively beaten by Australia at Lord's. At Cardiff the cracks were covered up, and a catch that could have made all the difference being dropped and allowing England to take charge. At Lord's the cracks were exposed: the weight of overs over back to back test matches catching up with the bowlers, the fragility of the top order looking even more problematic.

Will there be changes? A bit of a rest may do the bowlers good, though rotation may become a factor later in the series with Finn and Footitt being in the selectors' thoughts. For the very top of the order though, it's hard to find someone really pressing a strong claim. Lyth is likely to be given another chance, only having had four matches so far - but he will need to show better judgement, less flashing at balls he doesn't need to hit. Ballance and Bell are more precariously placed, the possibility also there for a reshuffle of the batting lineup with the weight of Root's runs at number five. Jonny Bairstow is piling on the runs for Yorkshire, and James Taylor has just made a timely century for Nottinghamshire - and a double at that. Neither are proven options at test level, but nobody out there is (Pietersen can be ignored, because it's not going to happen). The selectors won't want to panic, and it would have to be a punt - but it wouldn't really be a surprise if a change was made.

And so, the series is level at 1-1. The defeat may have been crushing - so, so crushing - but everything is still all to play for. There is still a way back from this, and England have fought back from humiliating defeats to win the Ashes before: Lord's, 2005; Headingley, 2009. This match was a disaster, and it can't be glossed over - they are better than this and they let themselves down. This time off could be a blessing, time to recharge and recover and then come back out fighting, and maybe stunting the momentum Australia have gained. But they will simply have to be much better.

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