Saturday, December 04, 2010

Cook only part of the story

My colleague Simon Barnes is right to devote his piece in the Times today (paywalled, sorry, but there's more than a quid's worth of good stuff on the website today) to Alastair Cook's marvellous start to the Ashes series.

Having arrived in Australia with people questioning his place in the team, Cook made a decent enough start in Brisbane with 67. He followed it with 235 not out in the second innings and is now 136 not out after a day's batting in Adelaide.

It has been 674 balls and pushing 1,000 minutes since an Australian last took his wicket and near the end of today's play he passed Len Hutton's record of 364 runs without being dismissed in an Ashes Test. If he carries on where he left off tomorrow, England can build a total that should be match-winning with three days left in the Test and mean that Australia need to win two of the last three Tests to regain the Ashes.

It is sublime form and even if he makes a duck in every innings he plays for the rest of the series, he will still leave Australia with an average from ten innings of at least 43 and probably, with even modest success, 60 or 70. But let us not get carried away just yet. As England saved the first Test by making a big second innings score, so Australia could bat their way to a draw in Adelaide.

Simon is wrong, though, to say that "it is a long, long time since an England batsman has been in such form in Australia". It was only eight years ago that Michael Vaughan made three hundreds in five Tests and ended the series with 633 runs, the best by England since 1970 and only 25 runs short of being the best since Wally Hammond in 1928-29.

England lost the first four matches in Vaughan's series heavily and the Ashes were surrendered in 11 days. The key to success is more than one batsman over-performing. You need several (hence Trott's support of Cook in both Tests has been crucial, as was Strauss's in Brisbane and Pietersen's today) and a strong bowling attack.

Ultimately, if England are to win the Ashes Down Under for the first time in 24 years, Cook's runs will play only a part. It is the wickets that the England bowlers take that are more important.

1 comment:

Peter McGuinness said...

Superb from Cook. Absolutely epic mental application. Unless it happened while I was tearfully constructing my Vegemite sandwiches during the afternoon session, I don't believe he played a false stroke. Credit must also go to Figjam, who measured the punishment with atypical patience.

On the flip side, Trott was given three lives, which is simply unforgivable when protecting 245. Harris especially and Bollinger were actually pretty good. They bowled very courageously on the flat deck. Watson likewise, but under-used. Siddle proved that one session of good length in Brisbane emptied his tank. Doherty was excrutiatingly flat, but little wonder as his captain simply gave up on him after two overs and threw out an ODI ring.

On the subject, Neilsen and Ponting's nonsensically complicated DEEfensive strategies are being humiliatingly exposed. It's nothing new - many of us have banged on about them for years. However with the bowling cupboard pretty bare, no one player can rise above the ludicrous, scientific fields and panicky inability to stick with the slightest attacking orthodoxy in support of the bowlers.

Newsflash. Instructing bowlers to attack a batsman's strengths and attempting to choke him into error by stacking tricky fields to them may be part of the Neilsen Operations manual, but it very very obviously does not work. Something revolutionary like a slips cordon and decent length, off-stump lines may be useful. Or possibly inviting the batsmen into risk by opening up channels through which he'd rather not play? Only very senior or very established bowlers can over-rule the abiding mind-set and Australia has none. It is the Emperor's New Clothes.

It is simplistic to blame the bowlers when they are not given stable fields and tactics around which to build their confidence. Most Aussie bowlers elevated from success in the Shield, find themselves at the top of their marks in Tests, beholding one exotic field after another after another. Much of what the Neilsen 'playbook' (yes, it is actually called that) requires of them is downright counterintuitive.

Still, Cook's form and the equally sublime form of Anderson probably make the point of inadequate strategy and captaincy in their opposition moot. They are making the difference and placing a huge quality gap on us. Great stuff indeed.

Paddy, you are quite right to say out that regardless of how many runs you score, 10 more of our wickets are required for victory. There's a far more acute contest between our bat and your ball than there is the other way around. But - of course - that is not really the point. We could score thousands and thousands of runs in the series.

The brutal truth is that if Australia cannot take around 60 more wickets in the next 18 days of play, regaining the Ashes is impossible. The beauty of holding the urn, is that the possessor can turn the series into a bat-a-thon with perfect safety, if they are good enough. England certainly are. A colossal reversal is required to shape the series into a close one. Stranger things have happened in the Ashes as we all know...