Friday, January 7, 2011

Random thoughts on the Ashes: Sydney

This 2010/11 Ashes has shown that, in a perfect world, Test cricket would always be played in five-match series. If this series had finished one-all at Perth after three games the sages would have declared the two sides to be evenly matched, but Australia with a few more problems to solve. It took the last two games to reveal the extent of the difference in quality between the two teams.

Of course, when one side is far superior to the other, as was the case in too many series between England and Australia in the nineties and noughties, and against the West Indies in the eighties, a long series is superfluous, but this has not happened that often in cricket history. We have a two-match series against Pakistan beginning here in New Zealand today, which is no use to anybody (I shall report from the second Test at the Basin nevertheless).

For England, weaknesses identified at the start of the tour turned into strengths, particularly Alistair Cook, whose place was in doubt halfway through the last English season. He accumulated his runs so smoothly that news that he had batted longer than any Englishman in any Ashes series came as a surprise. Boycott and Barrington just seemed to bat longer, I suppose. Why the Australians did not pitch the ball up to him more? That is one of many questions they will ask themselves in the weeks and months to come.

The big bonus for England was the depth of the fast bowling. At the beginning of the series Stuart Broad was said by many to be crucial to the team's chances, but was not missed after he was injured in the second Test. How many teams have been able to drop their leading wicket-taker half way through the series, yet improve the team by doing so? This is what England achieved by replacing Finn with Bresnan. Anderson was world class, his control of reverse swing magnificent.

Despite the overwhelming scale of the victory England are not as good as some say, nor Australia as bad. This Australian side saw off New Zealand, West Indies and Pakistan easily enough last year, and remain a first division side, albeit one flirting with relegation. Optimism levels here in New Zealand remain low looking ahead to the two-Test series in Australia next November.

England have to lose the habit of throwing away a game a series (Perth, and at the Oval against Pakistan). A crushing defeat in South Africa this time last year was avoided only thanks to two last-wicket survival acts. Both sides are at home to India later this year, an effective test of quality and progress in both cases.

The composition of a team selected from both sides has been discussed in various media outlets. Some think that only Hussey would make it from the Australian team, but this going too far. I would pick Haddin ahead of Prior, as his runs came at more difficult times and because his glovework was tidier. It has been suggested that Prior was better because he took more catches, but wicketkeepers are judged by what they miss, not what they catch.

I am tempted to argue that, the Adelaide double century excepted (and others were scoring runs there) Pietersen threw it away too often and contributed less than the other batsmen, Collingwood apart, so Watson should take his place. Talk of Watson moving down the order is mysterious, as he has done a good job as an opener, apart from the comedy running between the wickets. Also, it seems to take the pressure off his bowling.

I watched more of this than any other Ashes series, with the possible exception of 2002/03, when I was working from home and could pass off time spent in front of the television as research for my role as a CricInfo writer. It has been an interesting and entertaining series, but not a classic, as none of the four tests that finished were close. The most tension was felt at Brisbane, before it became obvious that England's rescue act was being mounted in a shallow park pond, not a stormy ocean. It was a historic series though, as it leaves Andrew Strauss alongside only Len Hutton and Mike Brearley (who, as Tony Greig is never slow to point out, did it against the Australian 2nd/3rd XI) as the only England captains to beat Australia home and away.

Roll on Ashes 2013.

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