Tuesday, November 30, 2010

As sure as the Earth orbits the sun at 29.8km per/sec, the first Ashes test has been the height of tension and excitement.

Never a dull moment from ball one. It took England captain Andrew Strauss all of three balls of the first over to have a rush of blood to the head and play a cut shot that went straight to gully, where it was duly caught. This could have been seen as a bad omen for the English. One could have been forgiven for thinking it was going to be a long hard slog over the next few months for them. Especially when they were then bundled all out for a first innings total of 260.

That they came into the opening match of the series pronouncing themselves confident of winning their first Ashes series on Australian soil for twenty-five years seemed a touch on the premature side. If there is one rule that should never be broken in the pre-match psychological warfare of the lead-up to a sporting event, it is this: Always, always claim underdog status. It matters not whether it is true, just claim it anyway. Being forced to have an enema would be a more desirable notion than claiming favouritism.

And it looked early on that they were headed for a bloody nose. As it was, the English took some heavy hits and looked to be on the ropes. It could have been easy for them to throw in the towel, hand the test to the Australians and head for Adelaide and the second test with renewed hope of levelling the series.

This mob, however, are made of far sterner stuff. Not for them to drop their bundle and have a sulk. Instead, they rolled their sleeves up and toiled away. James Anderson delivered a stupendous spell, beating the bat on countless occasions. Softened the batsmen up for his bowling partners, he did. And they cashed in. To the tune of 137 for five. England was back in the match.

Until, that is, entering the cricketing arena came none other than Mr Cricket himself, Mike Hussey. With a century to Hussey, the match rotated in their favour. Australia was on the front foot once again. They could be the only team to realistically contemplate winning, from here, surely. Would England hold up under the pressure to bat time? Could they do the unthinkable and actually win against the odds?

This is what test cricket is all about. Being on the brink of defeat, yet, finding the inner fortitude to fights one’s way out of a dire situation.
As it turned out, they couldn’t win. But, what they did do was seriously dent the Australians confidence with a second innings batting display that bordered on the sublime. To start two hundred and twenty-one runs behind and rack up a score of over five hundred for the loss of only one wicket on final days of a test match borders on the bizarre.

Very rarely do all three top batsmen each score a century. So, bountiful amounts of confidence flowing through their veins, then.

Sure, the pitch behaved itself for the most part, but it did contain a couple of cracks that were wider than Sarah Palin’s knowledge of who America’s neighbours are. These rifts saw the ball turn at prodigious angles on occasions. Yet, the English batsmen handled the situation with aplomb.

So, despite being on top for long periods of the match, the Australians were the team that at times lost their poise. When the pressure went on, it was their normally high fielding standards that dissipated. Catches that would usually be taken went down. Both Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnston were guilty of grassing catches that at this level should be taken every day of the week.

Gone are days for Australia of having a team stacked with stars. There is no Glen McGrath to knock over the opposition’s top order. No Shane Warne to rip through the middle and lower order batsmen. While they still have one of the best batsmen going around in skipper Ricky Ponting, it is no longer a line-up that sends fear through opposing bowlers.

England, on the other hand, has a side that appears to be very well balanced. There is an opening pair in Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook that, while they aren’t flashy, gets the job done. You know the sort: have dinner at six pm, watch Coronation Street and talk about how good the meat was tonight. But, hey, that’s okay. You know what you will get with them, and they rarely let you down. Usually get a hundred run partnerships. Yep, every team likes them.

To counter these stoic sorts at the top of the order, they have the swashbuckling Kevin “the ego” Pietersen to smack the ball to all parts once the shine has been taken off the new ball by the openers.Numbers three and five respectively, Jonathan Trott and Paul Collingwood, can play a more conservative style when needed, or on the flipside, go on the attack chasing runs quickly. Add to this Ian Bell at number six who has a plentiful array of shot making options at his disposal and what you get is one of the stronger batting line-ups in world cricket. Shots galore, at their disposal, this lot.

Of course, it’s no good having a great batting side if you don’t have the bowlers to back you up. Fortunately for England, they do. In Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn, they have three talented fast bowlers. Which are backed up by a world class spinner in Graeme Swann.

What all this means for Australia, is trouble. While they appear to be able to compete in the batting department, their bowlers were exposed in England’s second innings as inadequate. Flat pitch or not, no side should be able to score 517 for one on the third and fourth days of a test.

So, England, struggling over the first two days, now looks to be in the stronger position mentally.

And you can never under-estimate the importance of confidence to a team.

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