Monday, 13 July 2015

First blood: England

Monday, 13 July 2015
It was the most complete performance I've seen England give in a long time. Every man contributed in some way, the bowling in particular being as consistent and disciplined as it's ever been. England outclassed Australia in every respect, playing the attacking 'brand of cricket' that there has been so much talk about, and started consigning the whitewash of 2013/14 firmly into history.

Australia were on top when Joe Root was on nought on the first morning, but after being dropped by Haddin there were few moments where they were again in control. At the end of day one, honours were fairly even - England perhaps marginally ahead - but Moeen Ali helped to take England past 400 the following morning with a fine innings of 77. A major feature of 2013/14 was the contrast between the tails of the two nations - England's being blown away by Mitchell Johnson just as often as Haddin would carry Australia firmly off into the distance. This time England are lucky enough to have a genuine batsman playing at number eight, being swamped with all rounders as they are. Sure, Ali should ultimately be batting higher up the order, but there can't be any real complaints about being able to have a batsmen of that quality in that position. England reached 430 at a run rate of 4.20 an over, led by innings from Root and Ali. For Australia, Mitchell Starc was the most threatening of the bowlers with 5/114; whilst England's tormentor of the past, Mitchell Johnson, went wicketless.

But it was England's display with the ball that most impressed me. Though the Australian batsmen often settled, it was a testament to England's consistency that none went on to make a major score. Rogers led the way with 95 - his seventh consecutive innings over 50, yet not crossing the century mark - and Smith, Clarke, Voges, and Watson were all dismissed in their thirties. Australia still scored at a good rate - 3.63 runs per over, but they never dominated England in the way that New Zealand had at times. Attempts were made with Moeen Ali, and he was indeed the most expensive of England's bowling attack - but he too got his prize with the key wickets of Smith and Clarke. And where Haddin and the tail had caused so many problems in Australia, this time England finished off the job swiftly, Anderson and Broad picking up three wickets with the new ball. Australia were all out for 308 on the morning of day three, England 122 runs ahead.

With the best part of three days left to go in the match and England starting to set a total for Australia, it was a situation where in the past you might have expected a more cautious approach. But England's attacking spirit was maintained. Lyth (37) and Bell (60), a pair dismissed for single figures in the first innings, helped to put England in a more comfortable position after being exposed at 22/2. It wasn't a back-off-and-rebuild job - it was a stand of 51 coming in only 9.4 overs, returning the pressure back to Australia. Joe Root, as ever, chipped in again with 60, with 42 also coming from Ben Stokes. Yet it was a bowler, Mark Wood, whose innings was perhaps the most entertaining of them all - an innings that only lasted 18 balls, but had 32 runs come from it. I've been really impressed recently by Mark Wood - not just as he offers an extra facet to England's attack, but in his attitude and personality. He's just lively, playing the game with a smile on his face and being a bit of a joker, the sort that can keep a team's spirits up as well as at times being able to make something out of nothing with the ball. It's early days but if he can stay fit, he might be able to fill that missing link in England's bowling attack. As it was, he showed he could offer something with the bat as well, helping England to set a target above 400.

And so, on to the final innings. And England again delivered a fantastic display of bowling. Broad was sensational with the new ball in the morning, unlucky just to pick up the one wicket of Chris Rogers in his early spell. Australia looked to be heading safely into lunch at 97/1 - still a tall order to win the match, though not impossible. Cook brought on Moeen Ali - a name cropping up again and again in this match. Ali's previous two overs had been poor, hit for 22 mainly from the bat of David Warner, but he got his man this time. It was right on the stroke of lunch, and Warner was out. The effect on Australia's innings was devastating. After lunch, Broad was back - and soon gone were Smith and Clarke. Wood picked up Voges and Watson - the latter humiliated with another LBW, questions now arising over his test future. Ali was again in the mix, taking Haddin. The lower order - namely Mitchell Johnson - did put up resistance, but it was all too late. Man of the match Joe Root also picked up a couple, and took the final catch off Ali. England had been rampant; Australia dismissed for 242. England were victorious by a margin of 169 runs, and only four days had been used.

Even the optimistic predictions about England's performance in this series failed to predict such a strong win like this. England outperformed their counterparts in all departments: their bowling superior in the conditions - though the pitch was poor, England seemed to adapt better; making the important runs with the bat - Root's first innings century fantastic given the team's position; and Cook really captaining his side well. Importantly, luck was on their side - that drop of Root on the first day changing the match; parried catches caught on the rebound; streaky shots reaching the boundary rather than chopping onto the stumps.

Four matches are still to play. For all the deserved celebrations at the moment, much work is still left to be done. Australia will come back fighting, though changes may be in store - Watson in particular a man whose days look numbered, and Haddin another who may not last the series. Starc may also be a doubt for the next match, having had problems with his ankle (though even the deliveries he sent down on one leg could still be sensational). England can't let up and ease off the pressure, because then the momentum will shift - they have to be in it for the long haul. Five-match series are a marathon - twisting tails of intrigue and suspense, each day a mini-installment of another match. England have drawn the first blood, won the first act - but the finish line is still far off in the distance.

Though if they play anything like this, then maybe it's time to start dreaming.

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