Andy Flower Should Learn to Mix a Little Pleasure with Business

James Rowland

After the darkest of Ashes series in Australia and the indignity of a 5-0 whitewash England’s Winter blues may yet be unrelenting unless greener pastures can Flower under their coach. Conversely the Australian test team are floating on a warm Spring breeze through pastures more lush than the SCG outfield under Darren Lehmann. Where has it gone right and wrong for the two coaches?

The cliche is that you learn more from losing than from winning. If there is anything to that then Australia have finally graduated from a year of depth plumbing. Wallowing in the dust of a 4-0 defeat in India, then 3-0 in England, Australia learned that all the training, analysis, gym time, homework and team meetings in the world are no substitute for team spirit. Positivity. A cold one after a tough day at the office. Once Mickey Arthur, the poorly received South African schoolmaster, was sacked and the cheeky-faced class clown Darren Lehmann came in he seemed to reinvigorate the entire atmosphere in the Australia camp.

Though Australia went on to lose the first leg of the back-to-back Ashes series it was plain to see that the burden of defeat was becoming smaller. Lehmann’s team were close to wins at Manchester, Durham and the Oval. England were flattered by the 3-0 result. This was a largely unsung footnote to a (mostly) deserved victory, but it was there. The insidious nature of England’s decline has now reared its ugly head and chewed its way through their robotic, militaristic underbelly like a scene from Alien. England’s dietary bible cannot be blamed here either. This is a sporting catastrophe. Former England Captain Michael Vaughan and the rock of ages in Geoffrey Boycott have said as much. Boycott though, somewhat reservedly, spared us all from his classic pretence that “his nan” could have played Mitchell Johnson better.

One man who evidently didn’t see this coming is England’s coach-a-tron 3000 Andy Flower. Flower is ruthless. He removed emotion and sentiment from his job. He rarely cracks a smile. He is disciplined, hardworking and calculating. His willingness to grind the adventurous souls out of his opponents with sharp fielding, pack-hunting pinpointed bowling and statistically risk-free batting even brought the best out of divisive and flamboyant players like Kevin Pietersen. He has been England’s most successful coach in living memory. It was all a dream come true for England fans. Their beloved brave new world of cricketers waltzed to three consecutive Ashes victories with relative ease.

The only problem is, it seems alongside a gruelling schedule, Flower’s methods have ground the spirit from his own team. The core of England, [Cook, Trott, Bell, Prior, Anderson and Swann] some of whom are now literally gone, have looked battle-scarred and pained by the sheer concept of cricket. This has been England’s biggest problem. A problem now 5-0 deep.

Boof and Clarke

 

Iceman

 

Levity and the long-faced. Lehmann and Flower’s contrasting styles

To stop the rot it seems plainly obvious Flower needs a change of tack. His strengths have now become tiresome. The military drilling has tired England’s squad. Flower has lost stalwarts in Trott and Swann but still has good options at his fingertips, courtesy of the peripheral squad kept aside for a rainy day by the not-so-barmy army of back room staff. If a fresh, enthusiastic and cheerful-come-professional approach can see Australia resurrected from the cricketing version of the great depression then it could work wonders for England. Australia have been relentless, close-nit, aggressive and exhilarating to watch. 

Australia captain Michael Clarke could scarcely have been more complimentary about Darren Lehmann’s influence on proceedings. We’ve heard of Lehmann’s policy of joke telling before they hit the field. We have also heard him amplify the importance of having fun and enjoying yourself.

In the business model of modern cricket and the media pressure-cooker of team performance and selections it must be easier than ever for the modern cricketer to forget that he (or she) should strive to enjoy the sport. Boof’s sentiment cannot be undervalued.

Clarke said of his sparky coach Darren Lehmann,

Just his personality, the person that he is, he creates a comfortable environment. He’s a wonderful guy. He’s exactly how he was, when I played in the same team with him, as a coach. When I was a young player he was always hard but fair… I think Boof deserves the credit he is receiving.” 

Mitchell Johnson and Shane Watson have also been highly complimentary. Why wouldn’t they be? These two made up the dunce hat wearing troop of the famous homework-gate scandal under Mickey Arthur.

All is not lost for Andy Flower. This team has risen and fallen with him. If he is still up for the challenge it would be brave and sensible for the ECB to keep the faith until next year at least. He has only lost one Ashes series. Flower is only a component in a machine of many parts which has rarely malfunctioned. Maybe all that’s needed is a little new software. A joke app. A lighthearted approach to help England rediscover their spirit. This may have been England’s sporting winter of discontent and it is all but over. But if they ever hope to crack the current spell of defeats maybe Andy’s ice-capped demeanour needs thawing for hope and positivity to Flower again.

George Bailey Must Begin to Make a Difference as Australia are Visited by Ghosts of Christmases Past

It’s a wonderful game, cricket. Especially in the context of great traditions such as the Boxing Day test match at the MCG. It is a fixture that has become a seasonal comfort. As reliable as It’s A Wonderful Life appearing on TV every Christmas eve. George Bailey, Australia’s number six and namesake of James Stewart’s protagonist in the festive favourite, is running on a little faith over this silly summer season Down Under.

Test matches can be shaped by the slightest actions of any one player. Australia are leading the Ashes 3-0. What has characterised this entirely unforeseen turnaround against England is that everyone has made a meaningful contribution at some point, large or small, bar George Bailey. Having waltzed into the team on the back of a blistering ODI series against India, alongside a revived and mercurial Mitchell Johnson, Bailey has been conspicuous in his absence.

It is a testament to Australia’s change in fortunes that their number six has been carried, albeit with little drag. Bailey has not had a howling time of it but has failed to deliver on the promise ascribed to him by John Inverarity, Australia’s chairman of selectors. For the first time in nine years Australia named an unchanged side for the fourth test match in a row. This is what winning does to a team. It restores faith in a group and justifies a consistent selection policy, which in turn provides the strongest conditions for a team to succeed. This is why Joe Root had few question marks next to his name after the first of the back-to-back Ashes series in England last summer. Aside from his century at Lord’s which was strewn with good luck he had a poor series. But England are stubborn and recognise that young talent is worth persisting with, especially given they’d just won the series 3-0. Success, like wealth, seems to be self-perpetuating.
George Bailey
Now Australia’s fortunes have changed. On the second day at the MCG England reminded the local batsmen of their susceptibility to skilful seam bowling where conditions are a little more favourable. Australia collapsed in their first innings for a fourth time in a row, reeling at 164-9 by the close of play on day two after Anderson and Broad each took three wickets. Brad Haddin remained at the crease unbeaten on 43 to potentially scupper England. Thanks to a partnership of 40 with Nathan Lyon for the tenth wicket on the third morning it was another great escape for Australia all over again. Haddin’s namesake would have no doubt been Steve McQueen all series. His timely contributions have made all the difference. The muggy atmosphere, shades of green on the pitch and its lack of pace all seemed to make England feel more at home in the field. Conversely, Australia’s batsmen became bogged down just as England’s had done. Unlike at the WACA or Brisbane this pitch does not lend itself to enterprising stroke play. It is more suited to the stubborn grind of Chris Rodgers’ 222 minute vigil for his 61 runs.
This is where we come to George Bailey. While most of the top order failed on this occasion, they have all made meaningful contributions in the series thus far. Bailey’s 19 ball duck, alongside a series of low scores, is bound to test Inverarity’s policy of consistency sooner rather than later. Bailey’s failures are not simply a depressive and inaccurate self-reflection like those of his namesake in It’s A Wonderful Life, the enriching tale of Christmas guardian angels and community spirit. His are real. It is difficult not feel as if Bailey’s inclusion has made little difference. It has been said that his team mates value his maturity and positivity. We have also had glimpses of his stroke making ability. But he needs to start making a real difference for Australia when it really counts. When he arrived at the crease with the score on 4-110 Australia were in trouble. That was his chance, with the series already won, to prove his worth. Unfortunately he was undone by Anderson after failing to get moving, numerically or even seemingly physically.
It is understandable, the unwillingness of Australia’s selection panel to tamper with a winning formula considering how long it has been since they had one. But Bailey will know there is only so long John Inverarity will keep playing Clarence Odbody in this Christmas themed saga (Odbody was the guardian angel who prevented George Bailey’s suicide in the Hollywood classic) and repaying failure with faith. The second innings chase of 231 to win will be the make or break moment of this game for Australia and quite possibly George Bailey, the real one that is.
James Rowland

Commercialism Strangling What We Love Most About Cricket – A Contest

India vs Australia at Mohali October 19th, 2013

IND 303/9 (50/50) beaten by AUS 304/6 (49.3/50)

Batsmen set up games and bowlers win them. At least that’s how it used to be. The Indian captain MS Dhoni has identified ‘death bowling’ as one of India’s main issues. Who could blame him? Given that an innings’ worth of strangulation imposed on Australia’s batsmen at Mohali came undone when James Faulkner blasted 30 runs off Ishant Sharma in the 48th over to effectively poach the game for the tourists. However it could be argued that it is the death of bowling that is the problem. As apposed to India’s bowling at the death.

James Faulkner explodes in delight as the winning runs are struck with a six

There can be no doubt that the ODI series between India and Australia has been exhilarating, but it has been near totally dominated by batsmen. The world’s number one and two teams have lived up to their billing and the close-knit rivalry implicated by their proximity on the rankings table. However the balance of the battle between bat and ball is decidedly off-kilter. Ian Chappell confirmed as much this week when he wrote, “Bowlers need to be offered a crumb in the shorter forms of the game otherwise they’ll revolt, as they have done in the past, using extreme methods like Bodyline and chucking.” He also put the emphasis on the bigger bats, two new balls, shorter boundaries and fielding limitations all designed to favour six hitting as the culprits. It is difficult to pick holes in Chappell’s logic.

As with so much in the modern world the ruthless pursuit of the dollar is diminishing the soul of its charges. While the vacuum of cash may be helped by the excitement of sixes soaring into the crowd, manufacturing the atmospheric conditions so it rains sixes constantly will kill the thrill in no time. Yes the shorter formats are the pop stars that generate interest and cash flow for test matches, the older heart and soul of the game, but as with all pop culture it can feel very disposable at times. This is mostly because the bowlers have become disposable. The value placed on the Hollywood superficiality of batsmen smashing runs is neglecting the role of the bowler altogether.

The game’s administrators seem to have forgotten that sport is supposed to be a contest between two teams, rather than a few players from each team. What seems to be happening, especially in cricket’s shorter formats, is a contest between the batsmen. It feels a lot like playing a penalty shootout instead of a football match, substituting goals for six hitting naturally. So far in the three ODIs between India and Australia 1864 runs have been belted at 6.35 per over, with only 39 wickets of a potential 60 going down at a cost of 47.7 runs a piece. Ishant Sharma is naturally copping all of the flak, but I have seen worse overs go for less runs. Bowling these days, particularly for fast bowlers, has (in some cases literally) become a back breaking endeavour on unmercifully flat wickets. When did batsmen become the pampered celebrities and the bowlers just cannon fodder? Bowlers cannot bowl too many bouncers in an over. They can’t bowl underarm. They can’t risk going down the leg side or overstep without giving up a punishment free hit or an extra, as if batsmen didn’t have enough of those already. The other level to the problem is that when the bowlers are toothless, almost invariably the whole fielding team become impotent as well. Athleticism in the field could end up suffering a dull and resigned fate if pitches do not offer a little more assistance.

Batsmen, working within the boundary happy commercial engineering of playing conditions, donning protective equipment, tree-sized bats and playing on flat pitches can even switch hit bowlers. Innovation is a good thing but soon we should ostensibly replace bowlers with machines and have six hitting contests. The number of places the ball can go on the pitch without punishment is dropping, while the number of places the ball seems to end up is growing. Slower bouncers, extreme pace, carrom balls and yorkers can only get you so far. Stray but a little and the 20th row in the crowd can await your ball, even if it was a mis-hit, as we have seen on many occasions. The ball used to be a weapon. It is becoming more and more of a formality in the game.

Australia’s bowlers probably felt the sting when India, after chasing 359 to win with one wicket down at Jaipur, boasted that they could chase anything the Aussies could set for them this series. It was a strange statement considering that on a more interesting pitch at Pune India fell apart chasing 304 in the first ODI only a few days earlier. That and having a flat slab of a pitch all but literally paving your way to victory tends to help when hitting seven per over for fifty overs. Maybe Faulkner’s heroic fireworks are a sign of things to come that may force the batting heavy India to eat their words. Becoming part time power hitters will be the only way bowlers can get their revenge in one day and T20 cricket. Snatching totals that seemed unreachable.

The next game will no doubt be interesting. Hopefully the pitch will be too!

James Rowland

Lehmann’s Lust for a Scrap is the Key for Australia

In his typically full frontal style of press conference Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann has made no secret of the fact that Australia’s batsmen are playing for their careers from tomorrow at the Oval. Their destinies could not be more in their own hands. The fight for runs comes first…

“They’ll never give up, it’s the nature of the beast. Get eleven blokes off Bondi Beach and they’ll give you a run for your money.” Given Australia’s disturbingly impotent performances with the bat this Ashes series Geoffrey Boycott was probably onto something. A new selection policy if things don’t shift at the Oval over the next week for Australia.

It was no secret leading into this summer that Australia’s ability to compete would largely be decided by their batsmen being able to score some runs. The touring team’s bowling unit, especially with the mercurial efforts of Ryan Harris who has 20 wickets from three matches at an average of only 19.25, has proven more than capable of tackling the English batsmen. Their disciplined efforts with the ball as well as with the bat have almost single-handedly kept Australia in the competition in three out of the four tests so far. Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon have played 11 tests this series between them and taken 53 wickets at a collective average of 23.56. They should feel a burning injustice at being on the losing side. It is rare that a team’s attack will perform this well and lose a series 3-0. A chilling comparison for Australians everywhere is that their batsmen’s collective average is not too much higher at 27.45. Aside from the third test at Manchester’s Old Trafford where Australia were stalled in their seemingly irresistible victory charge by the rain, the batsmen have all but totally failed to back up the bowlers, the notable exceptions to the rule being Michael Clarke and Chris Rogers. While statistics are often analytical banana peels when it comes to assessing the true story of a series, the fact that paceman James Pattinson is third on the Australian batting averages list with an ordinary 36.00 after four innings reveals a travesty within their top six.

Darren Lehmann has already said that careers are on the line during the fifth and final test match at the Oval in south London this week. One for the old-school scrap, the Australian coach will probably be the most disappointed at his batsmen’s lack of fight. All of the Australian top six average above 40 at first-class level so they are not as ill-equipped in technique as the Australian tabloids would have us believe. What seems the most conspicuous in its absence is the ability to really battle out an innings against a high quality attack. Usman Khawaja looks classy but seems to have the staying power of a commitment phobe, Dave Warner seems to sacrifice a little too much in favour of “playing the way he plays”, Shane Watson looks unable to build on a start and Steven Smith, though improved, can’t help but flirt with the forbidden fruit outside his off stump.

It is possible to be too harsh given that the only batting lineup in world cricket that has managed to dominate England’s attack on home soil in recent memory is South Africa’s which, being studded with experience and world class players, is hardly surprising. Though England’s top order have also struggled this series the difference is they have been prized out of their wickets through relentlessly patient bowling. Siddle and co have hunted as a pack, the legacy of their former team bowling coach Craig McDermott shining through.

Darren Lehmann: Australia's coach will be hoping his batsmen are in the mood for a scrap, though on the pitch only

Darren Lehmann: Australia’s coach will be hoping his batsmen are in the mood for a scrap, though on the pitch only no doubt

The batsmen seem incapable of approaching run scoring in the same predatory way. The former team coach Mickey Arthur, who was controversially sacked a few weeks before the series began for his perceived role in an increasingly toxic team culture, has commented on the problem this week. He related the team’s issues, which seem to be almost exclusively in the batting department, to the players earning “millions of dollars” and arriving on the scene with “big egos”. A lack of work ethic could certainly be explained by Cricket Australia paying large cheques to young players who seem incapable of cashing in with test runs. Over paying the under achieving is hardly a good building block for promoting hard work. Ricky Ponting came out in support of the besieged squad, arguing, “I think the boys have probably played a little better than the scoreline suggests as they have been in with a chance of winning three tests.” This is not a biased man’s fabrication. Trent Bridge ultimately came down the toss of a coin but an honest supporter would have to admit England played the better cricket. Lord’s was a televised English training session, Old Trafford was all Australia and but for a desperately dramatic collapse the tourists had every reason to believe they were going to win with 131 to win and eight batsmen in the hutch at Durham.

For better or worse the team that lost at Chester-le-Street is the best Australia have got, but for the ongoing debate between Khawaja and or Phillip Hughes batting at number three. They all have the ability to make runs. Lehmann has to excel himself at instilling a little brutality into the team’s mindset. The willingness to be all substance and no style, graft and no glory and a little less beach cricket and more professional at the batting crease. At least that seems to be the well-trodden path back to the top for grievously bruised, underachieving egos in Hollywood movies. For how easily their mental frailties have been exposed so far this summer it would be a much needed Australian Hollywood miracle if they come out of the Oval with a win, and something to build on for the next summer. Any debate about whether Australia should risk Ryan Harris or other members of the tired front liners in the bowling unit should be put to bed with the reality that they need their best from their best players if they are to even dream of a last gasp success. Australia also need their first choice players for the next Ashes test at the Gabba (something which seems unlikely to change too much between now and then) in Brisbane to feel as though they have a chance to win. Giving themselves the best chance of a victory at the Oval is the first step to  them winning the home series beginning in 92 days.

James Rowland

Knowing You Should Lose Before You Can Win

Having something to lose can turn sportsmen into quivering wrecks, especially in the absence of experience-fuelled icy cold self assurance. It is when there is nothing to lose that the mind lets go, the swing of the bat or the release of the ball becomes pure snarling instinct. This is often when we see the best from people. When a victory becomes such a ridiculous notion that you swing freely. Free from the expectation of the crowd who now think you’re finished. Deep into the abyss of defeat and not yet sunk. Think the 300 Spartans against a multitude of Persians, Henry V against the French at Agincourt and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeating Roger Federer from two sets down, on a real tennis court no less and not one he dreamed up at nap time. It happens when the competitors embody the dangerous cocktail of talent and diminished hope. They simply turn the corner of the OK Corral like Wyatt Earp and face their enemies all guns blazing, staring death in the face head on, one pull of the trigger at a time. Every so often fate lends a hand and the impossible succeeds. Hence the cliche of fortune favouring the brave. 

At Trent Bridge Brad Haddin’s push for a seemingly impossible victory with a strategically aggressive score of 71 was gladiatorial until his cruel undoing. When Haddin and Australia’s number 11 James Pattinson came together with 80 runs needed to beat England a rational man wouldn’t have bet a thing on Michael Clarke’s company of pushovers coming close. That being said, a sane person could never rationalise the psychological inability of Australians (particularly of Haddin’s breed) to simply accept defeat. Haddin is old school. Bricks and mortar. Hard as steel. A ruthless competitor. He was included in the Ashes squad for that exact role. An older statesman of experience encompassing a fierce and unbridled ability to insert himself up the noses of the English and stay there. Even all the nostril gold mining Graeme Swann does at first slip couldn’t remove him. Australia lost in the end, but, in keeping with their history (see Rob Smyth’s piece on close Australian defeats here: http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/652731.html) they lost a match by a very tight margin which they had no right to even come close to.

Haddin's 71 nearly got Australia over the line

Brad Haddin (left) walks off devastated with James Pattinson after his score of 71 nearly got Australia over the line at Trent Bridge

Reverse the situation at Durham however and though the outcome was the same for Australia, the margin of defeat was strikingly higher. Australia were in the ascendency. You could only dream of a situation when you need 131 runs to win with eight wickets in hand, and all the time in the world to score them. However from that very same position Australia showed plenty of quiver to totally collapse on Sunday at Durham’s Chester-le-street. They choked. Michael Vaughan’s tweet said as much. By all reason they should have finally secured their first victory over England on this tour. Credit where credit is due though to the English for holding their nerve and backing the right man. After a Broadsiding from a blonde Draco Malfoy doppelgänger called Stuart, Australia surrendered the high ground and let the potential for a 2-2 series draw sink into the mire. England won the series 3-0.

Though Cook’s fields were questionable, a fact laboured in the Telegraph by an obviously embittered Shane Warne, he showed something that his Australian counterpart Clarke lacks for all of his aggression, innovation and dynamism. Cook showed the icy calm of a man who has the freedom to back his team, because they have tasted multiple Ashes test and series victories. They have the reserve strength and self-confidence that resides in a successful history. This is why England surrendered 65 runs of their 80 run margin to take the tenth Aussie wicket at Trent Bridge and still got over the line. Most of Clarke’s team have never played in a winning team against England. So when the going got tough, Cook’s tough got going and Clarke’s men had their fragility exposed by the confidence of Stuart Broad’s dark wizardry. 

Like a lot of British sportsman the best seems to come out of them when they teeter on the edge of defeat. Andy Murray seems to enjoy torturing the home crowds at Wimbledon by going two sets down to an unworthy opponent and coming back to a heroic victory. As I write this Scotland have just gone 1-0 up against England at Wembley. I have no doubt England will harness their superiority eventually and go on to win. They could of course just play ruthlessly from ball one but where’s the fun in that? The heroism that stirs when staging a come back does make good headlines. There in lies a clue. Either there is a conspiracy between all English sportsmen and the editors of the national papers or their needs are larger than just appearing on the right side of the scorecard as the winning side. It is the hero factor of making it nearly impossible for yourself that seems to count the most.

Anderson took the final wicket of the Australian innings to secure a last gasp win at Trent Bridge

Ecstasy: James Anderson took the final wicket of the Australian innings to secure a last gasp win at Trent Bridge ad go 1-0 in the Ashes

The match at Durham probably would have been closer if Australia had lost three early wickets and were forced to rely on sheer belligerence to see them through. As it was they had their foot on England’s throat and somehow choked themselves into defeat. A deadly combination of ‘knowing they should win from here’ syndrome and also having no memory of ever defeating England ultimately decided the final score. They will have to fire on all cylinders for the five full days at the Oval in the fifth and final test to have any hope of winning. No one expects them to win a game this series. The odds say they won’t. The press don’t think they will. The scoreline says they won’t. The English no doubt believe Australia won’t win. Add all of this up and they have the ultimate springboard from which sheer autopilot should take over and they could swing free, with belligerence and candour in the face of the overwhelming odds. They must embrace the hero potential and find their inner mongrel ahead of the next series which already seems to be on the doorstep. Otherwise England will squelch the life out of them with a fourth victory. 

James Rowland 

Series Resurrected with the Help of the Ghosts of Ashes Past

When Justin Langer relived the famous 2006 Adelaide test against England he recalled Ricky Ponting’s speech in the team huddle. Australia had conceded 551-6 declared against England in the first innings. Ponting reportedly told his team, “No one in the world believes we can win this test, let’s just see about that, eh?” It brought the best out of Ponting’s men who had the genius as well as the ‘ticker’ in their ranks to help them on the way to a famous six wicket victory over the old enemy.

Nothing more than the simple notion that it should not be possible occasionally brings out the best in people. Nadal defeated Federer at Wimbledon for the first time in 2008, Liverpool won a Champions League final from 3-0 down, Batman defeated Bane, Jim Lovell returned Apollo 13 to Earth safely and hundreds of ordinary Englishmen in fishing boats saved the majority of the British army at Dunkirk.

Though hardly a life and death situation, no one thought Australia were capable of competing against England after the debacle at Lord’s. They were all wrong. Against players of superior talent, experience and rain-sodden acts of God Michael Clarke’s Australia have shown they have plenty of Ponting’s belligerence in them. Not only did they compete, they thoroughly outplayed England.

In doing so they slapped half of the pundits, fans and British media in the face who had all but written them off as farcical. Regardless of the fact that the score remains 2-0 in England’s favour, Australia dominated four-and-a-half days of the third test at Old Trafford. England did not win the half-day that remained. The weather did.

A bereft Australia contemplate drawing the match at Old Trafford

A bereft Australia contemplate drawing the match at Old Trafford

The problem Australia have (alongside an eternally unsettled batting line-up) is sustaining that stubborn and famously Australian “never say die” attitude long enough to keep the series, if not the Ashes themselves, alive. The positive sign for Clarke’s brigade of much maligned under achievers is that England seem to think this Ashes series is over. Yes they have retained the prize being 2-0 ahead with two tests still to play. The series is not over yet though.

The rhetoric following the draw in Manchester was riddled with calm satisfaction on behalf of England, indicative of the relief that the Ashes urn cannot be lost. They seem to have forgotten that you play any series to win it. Michael Vaughan was quick to hail a third Ashes triumph in as many series and Alastair Cook seemed bemused in his post-match press conference, wearing the look of quiet relief. Mere ‘retention’ in this case would have achieved nothing more than riding the wave of a past success if the series finishes level at 2-2. Winning this Ashes series is still at stake for England.

While it is somewhat pedantic to suggest the series is still alive when the Ashes cannot be won back by Australia, the next two results are still crucial. If Australia somehow secure a drawn series or even win one of the last two games they will carry a lot of belief onto the flight home and into the return series in Australia. England need to work harder than ever to stamp on the throat of Clarke and co to make good on their successes at Trent Bridge and Lord’s and their luck in Manchester.

Pair England’s apparent willingness to change down a gear with the pursuits of this wily Australian side, who seem in relatively good form, mindset and carry a strong sense of injustice after the interference of the English climate last Monday, and we still have a juicy prospect on our hands.

To revive an old cliché England have won the battle, but if they allow Australia to take anything home on the plane with them other than duty-free consolation booze and also-ran Ashes medals, they could well lose this ongoing six month war in its final stages in Australia this winter.

Ahead of day one at Durham tomorrow the two teams look fairly settled. Both England’s Graham Onions and Australia’s Jackson Bird are in contention for a match should the pitch conditions suit their metronomic bowling style. Australia will retain the same top six batsmen but may play to David Warner’s tune and promote him back to his preferred role as an opener at Shane Watson’s expense. The toss will likely prove crucial again in keeping with the results so far this series.

James Rowland

Continuity is the Key for Australia’s Batting, Like it or Not

In one of his first acts as Australia’s new cricket coach Darren Lehmann was applauded for returning Shane Watson to the top of the batting lineup. In doing so he ended months of speculation about Watson’s role in the team. He will open the batting alongside Chris Rogers and bowl a bit. Despite the fact that his front pad seemingly has a target painted on it for Jimmy Anderson and co, this was a moment of clarity from Lehman which needs to be pursued. A technical flaw should not warrant one of Australia’s most talented batsmen being dropped. It needs to be ironed out by the coaching staff.

More importantly there is also a distinct lack of a better option coming through Sheffield Shield state-level cricket in Australia. This is the fundamental problem in Australia’s test team at the moment and it is well documented. There simply is not a pool of test-quality talent, particularly in the batting department, coming through to national level. Pat Howard, Australia’s national team performance manager, has acknowledged as much today by mooting the concept of five-day first-class matches in the Sheffield Shield in a bid to replicate test conditions.

However recent failures are not reason enough to change the batting lineup with every test. The team that was put out at Lord’s was the best Australia have got. Lehmann and the selectors need to have the courage to stick with it, despite Ian Chappell’s assessment that this may well be the “worst batting side to leave Australia’s shores”. When you have a collection of young men who are evidently the best performers at first-class level but struggle at test level you are between the team rankings abyss and a hard place. There is no short-term fix. Until the Sheffield Shield is restructured and Australia’s domestic pitches provide a more balanced proving ground for young batsmen to ply their trade, the current crop are “it”. Consistency of selection will at least give these players time to adjust to and improve their performances within test level, the toughest form of the game. It will also give the coaching staff time to try and instil some patience, mongrel and concentration in the batting, all of which seem painfully absent at times for Australia. The trap of searching for instant gratification and quick results, all too symptomatic of modern life and the ever expanding commercial twenty-20 tournaments, will only prolong Australia’s current nadir.

Shane Watson, Usman Khawaja, Phil Hughes and Steven Smith all average above 40 at first class level. Of the pool of young batsmen, Khawaja looks the only player capable of settling into the much vaunted number three position. Smith is improving, has a great technique against spin and slots into the middle order nicely. Phil Hughes batted well at six and expressed his frustration with being moved up the batting order at Lord’s where he struggled. Warner may have slammed 193 in South Africa recently but his performance did not teach us anything. On benign wickets he can be dynamite and against bowlers of Anderson’s ilk in tricky conditions he looks as vulnerable as anyone. Warner also furthered his reputation for volatility by involving himself in some extracurriculars with the South Africa A wicket keeper Thami Tsolekile yesterday. The “kick up the bum” seems to be a recurring requirement for Warner despite his own admission that it was needed.

Khawaja needs to fulfil his potential at number three for Australia in Manchester next week

Smith and Hughes both scored valuable runs in Hove, though the latter’s runs were scratchy, and Khawaja’s 50 in the last test should earn him a recall. Michael Clarke is a class act, Brad Haddin averages only 34.69 in tests but brings a mature ferocity to the squad and Chris Rogers averages over 50 in first-class cricket. Rogers also looks well versed in batting in English conditions and should remain for the series even if only as a horses for courses selection. Australia should stick with their current top seven for the remainder of the series and see where the land lies before they fly home and prepare for the return series.

Like it or not, this is the best collection of batsmen Australia have and they need to be encouraged to stand tall with consistency of selection. Australia’s bowling poses far fewer questions. Despite a distinctly average performance in Hove Nathan Lyon should make his return as a more experienced spinner that the 19-year-old Ashton Agar. Jackson Bird looks the most capable of filling James Pattinson’s boots for the next test and his nagging line and length approach should ask plenty of questions of England. Siddle and Harris both bowled well at Lord’s and if they remain fit should be automatic selections for Manchester. It is difficult to see Australia winning a test right now but chopping and changing the starting lineup from one match to the next is hardly likely to help matters.

James Rowland