The Ashes: Second test preview at Lord’s

By Alex Stamp

Amid the furore of the controversial ending at Cardiff, where a twelfth man, a number ten and eleven and old father time conspired to defy Australia what appeared certain victory it seems that the events of the previous four-and-a-half days have been forgotten.

The ending was as ugly as it was compelling, and few people come out of those events with any credit, Australia for slinging mud and hoping that it will stick, England for time wasting and openly flouting the much vaunted “spirit of cricket.”

Yet while all this has created many headlines and debates, what appears to have been forgotten is that for the previous three and a half days at Cardiff England appeared set for defeat.

A first innings score of 435, which appeared to all comers a suitable score, was defended with all the gusto of a cabinet member defending the Prime Minister. Australia marched towards their target untroubled, and once they had ground England down with good sensible test match batting, they put themselves out of sight and applied the pressure on England; a ploy which they know from experience is liable to yield results.

And ultimately England just escaped something which while keeping the series at a stalemate, and thus ensuring it remains competitive, is a worrying sign for England fans for the rest of the summer.

The prospect of defeating Australia at Lords is not one which will sit easily with England fans, and in truth the flaws from that performance at Cardiff must be quickly ironed out if England are to stand toe to toe with their Australian adversaries.

Batting-wise, final-day nerves aside, questions could be asked about the batsmen’s tendencies to get in and fail to push on. Four Australian batsmen scored big hundreds, yet no-one in that England team appeared set to push on like Simon Katich, Ricky Ponting, Marcus North and Brad Haddin who all reached their centuries with serene and supreme ease.

Fingers have been pointed aplenty at Kevin Pietersen, and though his dismissal first innings was a disappointment, you would prefer to see him attacking the bowlers in that fashion, it is part of his supremacy as a batsmen. Yet no-one has sought to criticize, say Alistair Cook, who chased at a wide one first innings, and played the wrong line in the second, in such a manner, or even the captain for that matter.

Pietersen is naturally a target, because his fortunes are so crucial to England’s. Yet to solely focus on him, neglects the wider issue of England’s top order all, bar the admirable Paul Collingwood, failing to fire.

Past experience suggests that these batsmen are good enough to prove themselves quickly, and they would have got no greater lesson in applied batsmanship than by watching the Australian captain at work. But England must hope that they take these lessons on board quickly, for England’s chances depend on their top six grabbing centuries.

Then there is their bowling, while the pitch at Cardiff appeared a bowler’s graveyard, that should not hide the deficiencies in England’s bowling. Little in the way of control, and in the spinner’s case, little variation. The two spinners were supposed to be England’s trump card, but they themselves were trumped by the much-criticized Nathan Hauritz who adapted to the conditions more adeptly. Graeme Swann-the sole spin survivor from Cardiff, will be aware that the onus is on him to prove his worth.

Yet it was not solely the spinners to blame, as in truth England’s fast bowling was labored, while Hilfenhaus, Johnson and Siddle offered hostility, pace and aggression, Flintoff, Anderson and Broad were milked for easy runs.

There was little control, as they allowed the Australian batsmen width upon which they thrive, and they were unable to match Hilfenhaus and Siddle in making the ball swing. Alarmingly for England, their only option after such an episode is to returning to the tried and tested in the hope of salvation. Hunting for Harmison deserves to be remembered as one of England’s great summer sporting past-times, along with trekking for Tim (Henman) and searching for Sven (Goran-Eriksson).

Harmison appears a world beater in all aspects, except when it comes to actually beating the world. But he is in good form for Durham, and along with Graham Onions, who was hastily, and ruthlessly discarded at Cardiff could bolster the pace attack with greater pace, bounce and hostility. Flintoff’s injury may force the selectors hand, but it would be wrong to neglect the prospect of including these two along with retaining Broad and Anderson in favour of an out-of-form Ian Bell who would conceivably bat at six.

These four as a quartet could offer a challenge to the Australians, and help England tip the one stat from Cardiff which hurt them most, that they only took six wickets to Australia’s nineteen. But their must be some improvement on Cardiff. Tighter lines, more control, and a bit of quick-thinking under pressure would be a start.

Cardiff was England’s great escape; it has given them a second chance. They survived, despite their flaws, and the overwhelming superiority of their opposition, they must not waste this opportunity. That the team must improve is a given, how they do it is up to them. But if England is to win the Ashes then they must begin by defeating their own deficiencies, because only then can they hope to start defeating the Australians.

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