Wednesday 6 December 2006


Second Test, Adelaide
Day 5 Comment

To win Test matches, you need to make opportunities and grab them. Australia, for the majority of the time at Adelaide, had been outplayed. It was England who had the opportunities but failed to take them.

This test match has exposed two teams with two different approaches. Australia are hungry, motivated and desperate to win the Ashes back. England are desperate not to lose them. It's only a subtle difference of approach, but, when amplified by day-five pressure, it became a devastating rift that saw England become gutless with the bat and then hopeless with the ball.

It’s sad for England but cricket is a cruel sport. One bad session cost Andrew Flintoff's men this match, and with it the series. The credit, however, must go to Australia. Seeing an opportunity to scare England on the final day is one thing, but having the unwavering belief and skill to ram home a famous victory is quite another. Here was a team of champions, albeit flawed champions, intent on ending the series as Ashes victors.

England needed to score about 100 runs on the final day to be safe. In the dressing room, all the talk would have been of surviving the first hour and then pushing on from there. This is where it went awry for England; you do not just survive on a last-day pitch against Shane Warne. He can build up all the momentum and pressure that way. It took England six overs to get 10 runs in the morning, an approach that played into the super spinner's hands.

On paper it seemed painfully obvious – flat pitch, go out there, attack and we’ll write this game off. But the middle is a lonely place for a batsmen; a combination of 11 fielders, 30,000 spectators and the knowledge that one mistake ends your match creates a pressure that is unique to cricket.

The muddle in the batsmen's minds was made clear early on with Andrew Strauss wafting outside his off stump. The survival plan came to a tumbling, pointless end with a poor decision from umpire Steve Bucknor, giving the Middlesex man out caught. England had not progressed at all and Australia had a breakthrough. There was no recovery; Paul Collingwood was the only batsman to survive but he could not get the ball of the square and England drifted slowly and painfully towards disaster.

Warne, as he so often is, was the master, fizzing and spitting the ball past the batsmen. This, however, is only half of his skill; his presence and will got inside of the England psyche. He had them panicking and he knew it. There was no respite for the tourists, either, as Warne received great support from Brett Lee, Stuart Clark and Glenn McGrath who, seeing the opportunity, backed themselves and raised their games as champions do.

It left Australia needing 168 to win from 38 overs.

Whilst Australia got off to a flyer, they did lose early wickets. At 33-2 England had a chance of winning the match, but no one in their side believed they could. With Australia needing less than four an over, Flintoff set defensive fields, with men on the boundaries and singles available everywhere. Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, under no pressure, collected easy singles as England drifted towards defeat.

Ashley Giles, who has built a career on bowling negative dross outside leg stump, suddenly found himself incapable of doing that - bowling short and on the stumps for 10 pointless overs. His place in this side further betrays England’s defensive mindset, but with victories now essential, he surely he must be dropped. Flintoff toiled manfully but had no support and Australia were guided home for a famous victory.

It is heartbreaking for England fans, and for cricket fans in general. This was the most hyped-up Test series in history, and after two matches, it's over. No England side has ever come back from 2-0 down to take an Ashes series. We shall of course, stick by them, but they need a fundamental change in approach if they are to compete.

For all but one day of this series, they have seemed to lack belief. Their aggressive, attacking instincts have been frozen by what Michael Vaughan called ‘fear of failure’. It is only now that we see how strong Vaughan’s influence was on last year's series. The England management have not instilled a belief in their players and questions must be asked of Duncan Fletcher. His team selection has been wrong, but the errors betray a deeper lack of confidence that has manifested itself in England’s play.

It is hard for England, as they played with authority for half this match, even though Australia fully deserve their victory. Arjuna Ranatunga – the Sri Lankan World-Cup winning captain, wrote how cricket is a physical sport decided by strength of mind. Australia’s mindset has been one of complete confidence and aggression, and for that they have been rewarded with the match and with it, surely, the Ashes.

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