Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Holding Game

It will decide the Ashes. In the first two Tests of this Ashes series, Australia have been unable to contain the English batting. Tests in England generally tend to be fast scoring affairs because the wickets are rarely slow and dead, but even so, controlling the scoring is key. Even if the innings scoring rate is likely to be in the high threes or low fours, it becomes crucial that a fielding side must be able to control the scoring when the conditions favor the batsman.

In the first two games, Australia have lacked the defensive bowler. Nathan Hauritz has been unable to bottle on end up, it has been too easy for the Englishmen to attack him at will due to his lack of variation. This is something the Englishmen could never do with Warne.

Ian Chappell argues in the Telegraph that Captaincy will decide the contest this time around. The jist of his argument, is that England have the better bowling attack and Australia the better batting line up, and so if Andrew Strauss gets defensive every now and then, he will concede the advantage to Australia. Strauss, according to Chappell, must always attack with Flintoff, Anderson and Swann, his three best attacking bowlers. I think it is more complicated than that. Flintoff is naturally hard to hit, and tends to be miserly even when he's not taking a wicket. So with a fairly standard Test Match field, Andrew Flintoff's overs can be taken to the bank as a win for England. He controls the scoring and tends to trouble the best opposition batsmen. With Swann and Anderson, a little more tact is required from Strauss as both can be attacked more easily than Flintoff. Swann might be used to buy wickets occasionally, but that means that someone needs to control the scoring at the other end, and this can't always be Flintoff.

So while Strauss needs to press his bowling advantage, this may infact be best served by defending well. Australia's middle order is experienced and accomplished, and is unlikely to fall for traps like defensive bowling and fielding. But they can be slowed down. As the batting line up which faces the superior bowling attack of the two, that will mean more pressure on the Australian middle order. Brad Haddin is a great help to Australia in the wicketkeeper-batsman's position.

In this Ashes contest, Australia are going to have to play the same game that India have been playing in Tests against superior bowling attacks (almost all overseas Tests in the last 15 years). They have depended on their batting to survive in games until an occasional opening appeared, through which they could press home their advantage. This means that the Indian batsmen tended to be very careful in their scoring. But it rarely worked when the opposition tried to kill the runs, until Tendulkar and co. learnt to play around these tactics and survive even longer.

England have a good attack, but im not convinced that it is good enough for them to play the sort of game that Chappell envisions. His analogy from 2005 is flawed in my opinion, because Ponting's decision to field first at Edgbaston in the 2nd Test, despite losing McGrath on the morning of the Test, was in my view taken in the mistaken belief that McGrath was dispensable - that it didn't matter that McGrath was unavailable, the rest of the Australian bowling attack was good enough to execute Plan A, which consisted of 6 batsmen, 4 bowlers and Gilchrist, seizing small openings like the conditions on the first morning at Edgbaston. Another way of looking at it, is that Australia were worried by the damage Steve Harmison had done on the first morning at Lord's, though this is less likely because Australia had dominated Harmison in all but that one Lord's Test upto that point, often on livelier wickets than the one at Lord's. Australia's problem at Edgbaston was their unabashed belief in attack, irrespective of the actual resources at their command. Chappell's implicit point seems to be to warn England about trying to sit on their lead.

It would be fatal for Andrew Strauss to believe that he has the bowling line up to attack no matter what the conditions. After all, it was only one Test Match ago that this same attack conceded 6/674 to this same Australian batting.

With two evenly matched sides each with only moderately good bowling attacks, the way to force an error is to commit as few unforced errors as possible. Mitchell Johnson's performance is a case in point. To say that England have attacked him, is to miss the point. He has attacked too much himself and allowed England to put some rank bad bowling away. The bad ball is the most underrated thing in Test Cricket. Not only does it cost runs, but it costs the fielding side in terms of control and pressure. It changes the sub-text of the contest. England may rue the loss of Pietersen more than they think, and Strauss the batsman may be more important than Strauss the captain right now, for Andrew Strauss as things stand now, is England's best batsman.

Watson, Clark and MacDonald, atleast two of whom are sure to play at Egbaston, are just the players Australia need. With Brett Lee likely to return at Leeds, England's bowling advantage may evaporate. Then again, an in form Steve Harmison could change that.


  1. Clark, definitely.
    Watson, maybe, as long as he stays fit.
    Macdonald, well he's not bad, but...

  2. Agree.

    Whats the chance of all 3 playing in Birmingham.