Some post-Perth thoughts
England aren’t as good as they were in Adelaide, or as bad as they were in Perth. They’ve been on an upward curve under Andy Flower, and they’re still on that. Sometimes a heavy defeat can be an excellent way to refocus and banish complacency. We know England struggle against pace on quick pitches – see how they did against Jerome Taylor in Jamaica and Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel at the Wanderers. The good news is that this defeat has happened in the 3rd Test, so there are still two Tests to recover lost ground.
Despite the similarity of the scores – 187 and 123 – England’s two innings in Perth should not be lumped together. In the first innings they were got out – Alastair Cook’s lazy shot aside – by top-quality fast in-swing bowling. That happens. Far worse was the second innings, where they appeared to have no strategy or real belief that they could chase 391, chasing wide ones despite a decent pitch and a lesson in how to bat on it from Mike Hussey and Shane Watson. Mitchell Johnson wasn’t even swinging it. Shot selection was poor and indecisive, and given that it rained for half a day on Monday England could have been facing their own Adelaide moment. The question is whether it was substandard technique or frazzled minds, two months into a long and arduous tour? England have given the players four days off before the next Test, meaning just two practice days before Melbourne, which would suggest how Strauss and Andy Flower view it.
Aside from the obvious impact of Mitchell Johnson, the return of Ben Hilfenhaus and the absence of Stuart Broad were key in Perth. Hilfenhaus bowled 31 overs for 69, and despite only taking one wicket himself, five were taken at the other end while he was bowling. In Broad’s absence Steve Finn went at 5.1. Broad might not have changed the result, but you would think England would have bowled Australia out cheaper in the first innings, and made them take longer to get their runs in the second innings. One of the main reasons Australia lost in 2009, despite having much the better batsmen statistically was that their bowlers couldn’t keep it tight consistently. England were excellent in this respect in Brisbane and Adelaide, and if Tim Bresnan comes in for Melbourne this will be more of a factor than lengthening the batting line-up.
At least five of the Australian team hardly contributed in Perth – Phil Hughes, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Steve Smith and Peter Siddle. That’s four of the top six – either ominous or encouraging for England depending on how you look at it. Ponting and Clarke look due a score, but both have injury concerns. Australia can’t keep relying on Shane Watson, Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin – Hussey and Haddin have scored about half of Australia’s runs this series. Good news for England is that Hussey averages 31 at the MCG, but less good he’s up at 101 at the SCG. As for the youngsters – Smith and Hughes may not have contributed much materially, but two young blokes must have had a positive effect on a stale dressing-room.
England have been a real unit so far in this series – succeed together, fail together. They could do with a couple of people sticking their head above the waterline when things aren’t going so well in the style of a Mike Hussey.
Who are favourites now? It depends on whether you think Mitchell Johnson has any concept of form. If so then the Aussies have a great chance – Johnson is the one destructively quick bowler in this series, even if Melbourne and Sydney have not traditionally been as profitable for him as The Gabba and Perth (he takes wickets at 26 at the MCG and 35 at the SCG). Those people pointing to Johnson’s record at the WACA as an explanation for his return might be missing a trick – pre this Ashes Johnson’s record at Brisbane (17 wickets @16) was actually better than at the WACA, yet he took 0-170 there this year. Maybe it was the work on staying taller in the nets rather than the Perth breeze that made the difference – we’ll see in the enclosed MCG. If you believe that Johnson has the short-term memory of Monty Panesar then England must still be favourites. Like 2009 it’s a series between two average sides, but this smashes that summer so far – match-winning performances and genuine drama. More result pitches at the MCG and SCG and it could be one of the great series.
Anyone out there thinking England are hard done by to be sitting at 1-1 after three Tests? The session count would agree with you – England leading 20-14 (with a couple of draws and one rained out), although the figures are distorted by Adelaide where Australia won only one session. In reality this series is probably 1 ½ all, Australia winning the first half at Brisbane and England the second, a scoreline probably about right given England are a slightly better side but Australia have home advantage. The big question is why two even sides cannot produce a close match.
It’s impossible to measure the effect the WAGS arrival had on England’s performance. They had to come out at some stage, and realistically after six weeks plus away the timing was about right, but one Perth resident I spoke to was at a pre-Test dinner attended by Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott. In his words, one look at Bell’s girlfriend told him Bell’s mind wouldn’t be on the Test over the next few days, while Trott was wheeling a pram around. This guy went straight out and put some money on Australia. Good call.
England are likely to play Paul Collingwood in Melbourne, even though he has hardly got a run all series. Collingwood is a big player for them – an excellent fielder, decent back-up bowler and real team man – Melbourne and Sydney are slower surfaces and should suit him. Loyalty and consistency of selection has been a big part of Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss’s leadership – Collingwood is more likely to be gently eased out after this series is over. The one problem Strauss and Flower have is that their four-man attack was based around Broad, Anderson and Swann’s ability to keep things tight while taking wickets. Their reluctance to get rid of Collingwood and trust Matt Prior at six may leave them a bowler light, but it seems they believe the four-man attack can produce at least one victory from Melbourne and Sydney.
Where does Ian Bell bat? He has to move above Collingwood now, but as I wrote during the last Test there is a real case for moving him up to No.4 and dropping Kevin Pietersen down a place.
Roll on Melbourne, and happy Christmas!