Dissecting Defeat in Cardiff

July 12, 2009

The first test match of the 2009 Ashes series has almost expired. England, reverting to type, have almost certainly lost humiliatingly, confounding the legions of commentators who thought that – with Australia lacking several great players – the two nations might contest on a level plane. There might, not a few people have hoped, be a chance of further drama, something to rival the 2005 series, but there doesn’t seem to be a sign of that as the first test concludes.

It’s been thoroughly dispiriting. After posting a creditable 435 in their first innings, England bowled woefully, allowing Australia to accumulate over 650 in reply for the loss of only 6 wickets. None of the bowlers looked like taking wickets, aside from James Anderson whose quick, full, new ball swing held real menace and, for a few balls, Flintoff, who summoned up an echo of his 2005 presence to dismiss Phil Hughes. But the spinners looked dire – both Panesar and Swann failing to locate a decent length and extracting neither turn nor bounce from what looked like an increasingly helpful surface. Stuart Broad, hitherto an improving prospect, looked hopelessly out of his depth and lost both line and length for 32 embarassing overs.

Australia’s batsmen looked strong and organized – all of them. Several have real class, as we know, and all are focused on aggressively scoring off all varieties of bowling. They take few risks and prey on the many bad balls that they know English arms will deliver. Their mammoth reply was a testament to extreme discipline, great technique, a placid pitch and a terrible bowling performance.

It’s all extremely depressing. But who is to blame, and what can be done if this Ashes series is to avoid descending into a dull, Aussie dominated procession as so many have in the past? Well, it’s tempting to urge a wholesale replacement of the English team, and changes will be made, if only to adapt to conditions at Lords. One spinner will be dropped, and it will certainly be Panesar. Onions should come in for him, as reward for good performances against the West Indies and a stellar county championship thus far.

It’s a truism – and one easily overlooked by the English selectors – that you take two things into account when picking an international cricket team. Firstly, you pick those players who have class and pedigree. If they are enduring a trough in form, then they should be backed, and will certainly recover. Secondly, when class is thinly distributed, you need to look at the form of potential team members. Good players at county level should be rewarded for consistent performances, the idea being that, if dropped from the national team, hard work at a lower level can earn a swift promotion, and vice versa.

Yet several examples from the English team violate these simple rules. Broad, for example, has no test or county pedigree to speak of. He averages 37 at test level after over 15 tests, a poor performance. His county average is nearly 30, far too high for a quick bowler, and he leaks runs too. He is certainly a technically fine player, and a useful number 8, but his accuracy and ability to move the ball is too poor for test level, far too poor. He can neither bowl regular wicket taking deliveries or exert disciplined control, making him a godsend for test quality batsmen. As such, conventional wisdom would demand his immediate removal.

Onions, a less fashionable bowler, but more or less similar in approach, has done nothing wrong at international or county level. Onions has taken 10 wickets in two test matches, with one five wicket haul. Broad has played 17 tests and also taken a single five wicket haul. No-one has taken more wickets in first class cricket this year than Onions, who has claimed 54 victims in just 9 matches. The nearest bowler to him, tellingly, is his Durham team mate Steve Harmison, with 42, who himself has taken 5 wickets against Yorkshire over the weekend.

The form of both is as good as it can be, yet they seem to be lagging well behind Broad who, while talented, benefits more from a prejudice in his favour amongst the selectors than from actual class and achievements. The recent record of Ryan Sidebottom, along with his experience, should also put him ahead of Broad and competing with Harmison and Onions for a seam role at Lords.

As for Panesar, he simply isn’t good enough. His test average is far too high and he is too easy to play, offering far too many short deliveries and failing to hit the right areas with turn and bounce. He’s talented, of that there is no doubt, but he doesn’t take enough wickets to merit a place in the Ashes side, and he offers absolutely nothing in the field or with the bat. In fact, his fielding is so poor that he costs England 20 runs an innings as batsmen pick him out, confident that his ineptitude shields them from any run out risk.

The alternative, assuming that two spinners are played (and its not a bad tactic if they offer different angles of attack) is Adil Rashid. Rashid bowls right arm wrist spin, which would bring a totally different challenge on decent pitches, while he is an excellent lower order batsmen and a competent fielder. Yet his economy rate is high in first class cricket, and he remains prone to offer loose deliveries, and at 21, the balance of opinion is that he requires more time to develop before having the pressure of a test place thrust upon him. Then again, Australia would not be so coy in introducing a star spinner, if they had one, and neither would India or Sri Lanka, while Rashid’s ability to bowl wicket taking deliveries could outweigh any expense incurred in purchasing them. Swann could tie up one end while he attacks, with license to draw big shots and take a pounding, if that’s what is needed.

After all, England need to take 20 wickets in five days. This time around, they took 6, and were lucky to do so. Wickets need to be the focus, and Rashid looks likely to get them, at least more so than the out of form Panesar, who needs to return to county cricket and earn a test place.

On the batting front, the aforementioned guidelines have again been ignored, but for more understandable reasons. Strauss and Cook look entrenched as openers, and are a solid enough pair (although they have totally failed in Cardiff). But it would be better by far to pick the best batsmen in England. Unfortunately for England, the best batsman in statistical terms is a man who has retired from international cricket, Marcus Trescothick, who has made a brilliant start to the season with Somerset, scoring 837 runs in 8 matches with 5 fifties and 3 hundreds at an average of 64. If he could be coaxed into returning to the team for the rest of the series, then England could play their two best openers – Trescothick and Strauss.

Ian Bell has made a fine case for reinstatement, averaging 76, but with only one hundred in 6 matches he needs to make more big hundreds to come back into contention His Warwickshire team mate, Jonathan Trott has done similarly well, scoring 2 hundreds and averaging 69, but again, there is no reason to promote him above England’s current batsmen. His performances are hardly revelatory, with no fifties, implying a run of failures and the odd big score. One other player who merits consideration (and has received none) is Somerset’s James Hildreth, whose form has been brilliant. His 728 county runs have come at 61, and includes an innings of 303 not out – along with one other hundred and three fifties. The ability to compile a triple hundred suggests test potential, and he should be in contention.

The problem seems to be that English cricket is still run according to the favoritism of a small elite. The county game is sidelined and trivialized by selectors who fail to reward good performances by county players and are unwilling to see the faults of those that they persevere with at a national level. That isn’t to say that the team selected to play in Cardiff couldn’t win if things had gone differently, just that there are some glaring absences and players who should not be there based on the statistical evidence.

There will be those who say that England should not change their team considerably before Lords, arguing that the selectors should show their mettle by sticking with their squad. But given the favoritism at work in promoting Broad and Panesar, it would take more strength for the selectors to admit that they are wrong, or at least that there are other potential formulas to build a winning test team. It would be nice to see Onions, Harmison or Rashid selected for next week’s test, and refreshing to see Hildreth or Trott considered (and amazing to see Trescothick return). It would be infuriating to see poor performances rewarded with one more go. That’s not how the system should work.


By the way, this post has been written while the fifth day has been unfolding. England aren’t dead yet, and have been writhing in agony all day, saved only by a brilliant fifty from Paul Collingwood and some tail end defiance. It could be a draw, but for heaven’s sake, don’t bet on it.


One Response to “Dissecting Defeat in Cardiff”

  1. […] A lot of journalists will have been feverishly revising their dispatches in order to smear the egg off their professional faces after James Anderson and Monty Panesar managed to save the first test in Cardiff this evening. The least of them will be me, having pronounced the game lost at three o’clock. […]

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