Category Archives: Test Match Diary
Cricket is going through a phase where aggression is interpreted as the by-word for success. Positivity brings victory. This was the shared ethos of both English and Australian camps prior to the first Ashes Test at Cardiff. It must follow, therefore, that the team that was most aggressive won the game… Apologies in advance for the subsequent massive rant, but I don’t think they did.
The Ashes Series approached. The world was brimming with Michael Vaughan articles pleading for an ‘aggressive brand of cricket’, with numerous outlets and individuals parroting the phrase. ‘Brand’ is a commercial phrase, ‘a feature that distinguishes one seller’s product from those of others’, rather than a sporting one, but given the closer association of sports and commerce in recent years it is hardly surprising to see a fusion of the two. I resent the idea that cricket is a product – it is a sport played to win. You can utilise different styles and methods in the course of a game of cricket, but that is being confused for representing a ‘brand’ of play. Just think about how the multidimensional approaches and techniques required to succeed at cricket can possibly be condensed into one solitary ‘brand’, invariably aggressive, which covers all aspects of the game. It is borne out of an inherent laziness to engage with cricket’s nuances, and merely indicates that the man speaking the phrase wishes his side to play positively. Australia won the 2013/14 Ashes series because they played ‘an aggressive brand of cricket’ is what the likes of Vaughan will tell you. So aggressive in fact that every time England started to score some runs at a reasonable rate (not that often, granted) Clarke would bring Shane Watson into the attack to keep it tight. Aggressive indeed. The desire to explain how Australia utilised excellent fast bowling to unsettle England gave rise to the phrase that blights the game, the ‘brand of cricket’. It was as if this was a revolutionary approach to winning games, and it needed a funky buzzword to explain it.
‘What if cricket could be a brand?’
Cricket can be approached in a number of different ways, but ultimately you either play it well, or badly. The Australian approach in 2013/14 was merely to play ‘good cricket’. But that doesn’t sound cool enough in this digital age of revolution.
Jumping back to the start of the summer, the New Zealand tour was a very entertaining one, which gave further credence to the ‘aggression is best’ crowd. Brendon McCullum was hailed a genius for his commitment to this previously unimaginable ‘aggressive brand of cricket’. New Zealand attacked all the time. It was so great that many analysts and writers seemed to crown them as one of the best sides in the history of the game! They drew the Test Series, and lost the ODIs. How could this be true? It was explained away by saying that England heroically matched the tourists’ aggression, signalling the dawn of a seventeenth ‘new era’ in as many months. (I’ve attacked buzz phrases enough, so ‘new era’ will escape unscathed for now.)
England persisted with the narrative. ‘Take the attack to the Australians’ was the rallying cry. In response, Australia also vowed to attack. The most aggressive would surely triumph.
Yet the Cardiff Test was won by England because they played better cricket, not more aggressive cricket. It is certainly true that in important moments England demonstrated more positive intent than they had done in previous years, not least because Joe Root is now a world class batsman. To summarise England’s win as merely being a product of this new aggressive mentality would be woefully inadequate, given the numerous facets of the game in which England proved themselves superior on this occasion.
What I hope would finally explode the myth of the ‘aggressive brand of cricket’ being the route to success is that Australia followed those principles and failed. Root scored at a free rate, but was not overly aggressive. Australia, on the other hand, felt it necessary at every opportunity to prove their intent in the first innings. Moeen Ali isn’t good enough, so he must be carted around the park. Steve Smith played some impressive shots that brought him runs, but in pursuing his aggressive approach he conspired to be dismissed in a comical and ungainly fashion. Clarke, too, fell into the trap, caught and bowled attempting to drive, and the second innings dismissal looks even worse. Voges played an ill-judged shot late in the day. It wasn’t that England had bowled aggressively, it was that they had bowled well. And in failing to exercise sufficient restraint, Australia found themselves behind the game from an early stage.
The Australian chase was a tough ask on a slow pitch, but they had two days in which to pace themselves. What they then demonstrated was a complete inability to occupy the crease for long periods of time. This is the other myth that needs exposing – that defensive approaches have no merit in the ‘modern game’. Root took the headlines and the man of the match award, but after losing three quick wickets on the first morning, it could have been a lot worse had he been caught on 0 by Haddin. His parter at the time, Gary Ballance, played an ugly but determined innings, making a half-century that not only allowed England to build a good partnership, but saw off the dangerous new ball which had already put England in trouble. Defensive cricket is not as glamorous, not as exciting, but I’m pretty sure that most cricket fans recognise the importance of it. Ballance succeeded where many Australians failed, in that he occupied the crease for a period of time that increased his team’s chances of success.
England’s bowling was also much better than Australia’s. It was cleverer and was executed more successfully. Broad and Anderson bowled consistently fuller than they had done for a long time, probing for drives to induce edges. Broad pointed out after the game that having seen the nature of the pitch, England realised they could not afford to offer width to the batsmen, so they stuck to a plan of bowling straight. (It seems odd that they’d never realised this before, but as an assessment of the pitch, it is fair enough.) Moeen’s greatest strength is his perceived inadequacy, which is met with aggression and subsequent errors. Mark Wood bowled with great discipline that was not matched by Starc or Johnson. Admittedly the pitch was produced with an intention of reducing the threat of the Aussie pace bowlers, but both sides had to bowl on it, and England did so far more successfully.
There remains a risk that England are swept up by the narrative that they themselves have helped create. Whilst Ian Bell’s fluent return to form was heartening, the rate at which England batted at times jeopardised their advantage. Often the pitches can be such that to score quick runs is better than trying to bat time when you could easily nick off. An article in the Daily Mail has focussed on how Mark Wood’s 32* off 18 balls tells us all about England’s positive approach to the Ashes. What it really indicates is a punchy lower order bowler made a vital contribution to nudge the target up – bowlers have hit quick fire runs before. England managed to score enough so that the target was insurmountable, and I realise there are few strategies that are completely risk averse, but they must not forget that aggression in all scenarios isn’t always the best strategy. Buttler chipping to mid-on late on day one was an error. It is true that England wouldn’t score the runs as quickly as they did if they didn’t play those shots, and Moeen’s counter-attacking 77 is evidence to support that. However, it is still important to play the situation, and recognise which balls to attack and which not to. There is a balance to be struck.
The cricket world, with it’s Twenty20 franchise tournaments and a love of entertaining batting, has fallen in love with aggression. A revision to all-out attack needs to be made, however. McCullum ceded strong positions with his attacking approach as it provided opportunities for England to score at a quicker rate. Australia too found that aggression without adequate control will not yield results. England showed a pragmatism that earned them a well-deserved victory, but with quicker pitches to come they will undoubtedly be tested in their capacity to defend and resist. At the moment, they seem better equipped to achieve this than their opponents.
Positivity may well be enhancing the ability of England’s players. But they won at Cardiff because they played good cricket. The key to that is not uniformity of approach, but a pragmatism that recognises when different tactics are required, and the skill to execute them. As for Australia, some might say that they simply weren’t up to the task of playing an ‘attritional brand of cricket’…
England have failed. The following steps need to be taken in order to salvage this tour.
Key player: Alastair Cook has proven that he is not capable of leading England, and scoring runs at the same time. It is clear that this team lack a substantial amount of inspiration. There is one man whose appointment would immediately instill belief and turn the team’s performance around. Rob Key has been reappointed as Kent captain in our hour of need, and there is much evidence to suggest that he would be able to do the same fire-fighting job for the England team. Key is a hero. His passion for the game is evident every time he takes the field, and his ability to set a ‘silly field’ would go down very well with everyone who loves Michael Clarke’s scatter-gun approach. Not only is his tactical approach good, but he plays with passion. When dismissed, he is often seen to trudge off, turning round to stare at the umpire who incorrectly gave him out. His fight will immediately inspire this England team. Furthermore, if the Bob Key Fan Club turn up, Australian confidence will sink in the face of such an inspirational English institution.
Drop our best players and replace them with inferior ones: English cricket has suffered since the David Lloyd era in the 1990’s from an absence of random selections. Such was the success of those tours that England need to consider dropping all of their best players, and picking some inexperienced and inferior replacements. The need for a blood sacrifice at this point should be more important to fans and coaches alike than standing by the best players. They might be great, but the fact is that three defeats mean that, in the words of Bob Willis, “heads must roll”. Chuck a few players who aren’t ready into the fire – that should do the trick. They can’t do any worse.
Tell the Australians that they shouldn’t be enjoying this lack of a contest: In the English summer, there were many English complaints that the series was not competitive enough, and thus the enjoyment of victory was reduced. This is an entirely logical argument. Australia clearly aren’t enjoying this drubbing of England, so a gentle reminder that the Ashes should be more competitive will result in the home side taking their foot off the gas, and enjoying the win more after resisting an England fightback.
Listen to everything the media suggest: One critical problem of English cricket is the absolute failure to ever listen to what the media have to say. For years, the men with the laptops sat in their free seats with free WiFi have been best placed to view the numerous English disasters. These men have no agendas, but act purely as impartial observers. They hate it when England lose, as it means they have to devote articles to criticising the team. They are very rarely wrong in their assessments. Many have been suggesting that we drop our best players, which is clearly the best way forward. Getting rid of a previously successful coach is also a good idea. Instead of leaving them to moan about the quality of the free food in the press box, we should give them an active role in the running of the England set-up. That Piers Morgan seems to talk a lot of sense. What could possibly go wrong with the likes of him in charge?
Send Pietersen back to South Africa: England’s highest ever run scorer in Test cricket is evidently not good enough for Test cricket. His methods have been shown to fall short of the required level, and as a result he has only scored 8,000 runs. Failing that, we should tell him to play in a different way than he has when scoring these 8,000 runs, because it suits the team better. We’d rather see Kevin scrap for a 150-ball 30 than smash a run-a-ball century which would only serve to massage his massive ego. Priorities, boys.
Failing those five steps, there is one further option available at this stage of the tour. Sail home. The boat leaves in two days. Unfortunately there isn’t time for the final two Test matches to take place. Shame.
The Ashes are gone, but with a man like Rob Key in charge, the only way is up.
If you have read this far and not realised that this is a terrible attempt at satire and sarcasm, then congratulations.
A series of unknowns awaits, both on and off the field. Can England win their fourth Ashes series in succession? How long before Shane Warne praises Michael Clarke for putting Australia in a losing position? Can Mitchell Johnson bowl straight? Will Stuart Broad manage to survive the hostility? Will Malcolm Conn ever praise England? Many more questions to ask, but the most relevant to those of us back in England is this: How long can we last?
The Ashes Down Under present a unique set of challenges for the English spectator. With play beginning at midnight for the first two Tests, and 23:30 for the final two, it is relatively easy to start watching a day’s play. I was at school the last time we toured Australia, meaning it was always a case of pushing boundaries. I didn’t manage as long as most, until Melbourne and the glories of day one. I witnessed many of the great moments of that series, and it really was special given the years of hurt endured before then.
Back in 2010, I watched the first hour of the series before going to bed, and leaving the radio on. I awoke randomly in the middle of the night, and focussed on the cricket. Cook, Prior and Broad were dismissed in consecutive deliveries. Essentially, I’d woken up to hear our worst over of the series. It was a crushing blow. Its a demonstration of how the events on the field are enhanced by the memories of the supporter off it. My personal recollection of England’s greatest (and worst) moments come alongside a location – where they were witnessed. In 2005, I was in a French bar packed full of English holidaymakers when Geraint Jones held on to that catch to win the Edgbaston Test – the room exploded, and the French were confused. Instead of spending my first lunchtime at secondary school that same year mixing with my new friends, I snuck into the sixth-form area and watched Kevin Pietersen smashing boundary after boundary off Brett Lee. When Katich was run out at Adelaide, I fell off the sofa, having settled down for what was supposed to be a relatively uneventful session. You can’t always go to the game, but you can often remember where you were.
Ashes series in Australia are difficult to watch, but if you manage it, the memories will stick because of the ridiculousness of the task you’ve undertaken. You’ll be sat there, clock ticking towards 4am, whilst Shane Warne is spouting another one of his diatribes about how the defensiveness of Cook is going to lose England the game, despite the 200-run lead they have on the board. It will be a struggle, and there will be times where you look at yourself, then the time, and wonder why on earth you ever thought this was a good idea. But if and when those rare moments of joy arrive, it will all have been worth it.
Supporting a side is about loyalty, and fortunately this series I’m in a situation where I can afford to lose many hours of sleep watching the cricket. Many can’t, due to work commitments, but that won’t mean the buzz isn’t still there. For every England fan this winter, there’ll be a different story of how the Tests were followed. That’s what I love about sport – the variety of experiences everyone has when witnessing the same event.
I’ve managed just the one all-night shift watching England – the heroic draw in Auckland earlier this year. After the adrenaline and excitement had finally dissipated, it was getting light outside as I made it to bed. But that was just one night. Five in succession? Madness. I doubt I can manage that.
Anything could happen this series, but when it does, I’ll definitely remember it. Unless I’ve fallen asleep…