Wednesday 27 December 2006

Leaked plans in a lacklustre series

Third Test Melbourne
Day 2 Comment

Before this tour began it would have been impossible to predict just how one-sided the series would be. At every stage England have plummeted to lows they could never have imagined. Yesterday, in the midst of a Symonds inspired riot, England found a new way to illustrate their scrambled minds and find greater depths to sink into – their game plans were leaked.

The significance can and will be played down by both sides, but for Australia to have hard copy of England’s carefully-planned strategies for each batsmen is a blow that will tear away at the few fibres of morale the team may still have. The fact that such a document was left around and misplaced is shocking, and illustrates the lacklustre and muddled approach England have had all series.

That England does not have the depth in their attack to maintain their plans was perfectly demonstrated yesterday, but full credit must go to Hayden and particularly Symonds, who came in at a tricky time and played a scintillating innings. He managed to defend well initially before launching into all the shots we know he has. For all cricket lovers we hope that this turns out to be his "breakthrough" innings because he brings a panache and flair that is exciting to the game.

However he, and many of the batsmen this test match, will be thanking Rudi Koertzen for his dreadful umpiring.

England are staring four nil in the face, and will soon be staring into the abyss. I would say that Australia are finishing on a high they never dreamed of, but remembering McGrath’s 5-0 prediction ritual, I guess I’d be wrong.

Tuesday 19 December 2006

The Ashes are over

Third Test, Perth
Day 5 Comment

It took 6,273 days to win them back, but just over a year to lose them again. Australia have regained the Ashes. It was promised to be an epic battle, but in truth it was never a contest.

This is an Australian side utterly consumed with one goal – winning the urn. Given the challenge of any pivotal session this series, they have surged ahead and left behind a bewildered, shocked England side.

I would never have said that one side could have more desire then the other, I thought the Ashes was too big for that. But watching Australia drive through and then celebrate victory, one sensed, that at a level unknown to even the players themselves, Australia needed to win it back more then England desired to retain them.

It is easy to say that this was an all-conquering Australian side, complete in every department. However, unlike the sides of the 90s, this one had significant flaws. It was also an ageing side with many playing their last ashes series, but the desire this gave them outweighed the creaks.

In truth, England’s grip on the urn slipped from the moment they first grabbed it on that September day. Their focus from that moment has oscillated from basking in the glory, to looking ahead to the rematch. In the intervening period between ashes series, Australia, paused, reflected and then concentrated on improving themselves. They won 12 out of 13 games. For England, winning the Ashes before 2005 was a mythical, unimaginable end to a cricket side. Reaching that point, they suddenly didn’t know what to do. Rather then continue sharpening their physical and mental skills, they lost focus and won just four out of twelve completed matches. They submitted to a ‘be all right on the night’ attitude for this series.

Players spoke before hand about it all ‘clicking in place’, but the sound of ‘clicking’ in test match cricket is months of hard graft and preparation. England arrived with few players who had been through that process. It is no coincidence that the ones who did – Pietersen, Collingwood, Bell, Panesar and Hoggard – have fared well this series.

For England fans, tonight is a relief. The agony of hope and despair is finally over. As I said after day 1 in Brisbane, it is hope that feeds the addiction of momentary, wonderful highs followed by long periods of desperate lows. The frustration and anger has now turned to acceptance for me, and the cold rational autopsy now begins.

Ashes defeats provide natural watersheds and there deserves to be debate about the future and setup of ‘Team England’ but we should not, again, fall foul to mis-focus. This is a young and talented side and the gremlins that a 5-0 defeat would provide could haunt England for many years. If the recovery of England is to happen, it begins with the first hour of the next session of cricket.

Saturday 16 December 2006

Australia cook up a storm

Third Test, Perth
Day 3 Comment

It required a Churchillian speech from my grandmother to get me up enough to write today’s entry.

The human body must have a natural capacity to defend against pain. For the first time this series I fell asleep during play. It was blissful. I missed Hussey completing his century, then Clarke his and the final showpiece from Gilchrist. I woke up, saw Strauss being triggered again by the theatrical slow finger of Rudi Koertzen, and promptly fell back asleep.

I have discussed the tourists non-stop this series, but today, more then any other is not a day for that. (Having watched the highlights!) This was a day for Australia the magnificent. In turn, each ingredient that makes Australia such champions was displayed. First, against spirited bowling Hussey and Hayden got stuck in, determined and hard-nosed. Then, as the opportunity to drive home the advantage developed, Clarke cruised with confidence and control, and finally, when they the game was theirs, Gilchrist unleashed their flair, panache and touch of genius with a stunning 57 ball hundred.

This may well be the last test series for many of the Aussie players and they have departed in style.

Friday 15 December 2006

It's all but over...

Third Test, Perth
Day 2 Comment

The day was as sad for England fans as it was predictable. There is little more to say then England are not good enough at the moment. Australia are driven enough to make up for their shortcomings and have raced ahead of England every time they tried to get near them.

The inevitable post-mortem will point fingers at the coach, but the players must take some responsibility too. Since the 2005 series, the focus and ruthlessness has been lost. Ironically they kept looking to this series instead of the ones they were playing, and they are paying the price for that now.

This was, for me, the saddest day of the series. England were brilliant at times yesterday, and even though it was all too late, I felt pleased that we had shown that we could match Australia. But today it finally sunk in that we can’t, not this time.

The current mood is best summarised by the Barmy Army Trumpeter, who began they day with ‘The Great Escape’ but ended with Christmas carols. There will be no escape for England in this game or series. Chilling as it is, they will have to strive to avoid a five-nil drubbing.

Thursday 14 December 2006

Perth's lift raises England's spirits

Third Test, Perth
Day 1 Comment

The plaudits will go to Panesar but the real hero today was Cameron Sutherland - the head groundsman at the WACA. This series so far has, inevitably, failed to live up the hype that preceded it. Injuries and and a desperately defensive approach from England have played thier part but primarily it is because the first two tests were played on slow, low, boring featherbeds.

It was promised before this test that the once lethally quick Perth wicket had lost its venom and become yet another Australian batsmen's paradise. Thankfully for everyone, the pitch had carry, some pace and occasionally some seam movement. As a result batters could play through the line and on the up, yielding exciting results. Bowlers could run in with purpose knowing, if they bend their back, the pitch won’t ignore them. It produced an exhilarating days cricket.

England, strangely, found themselves free of their self-imposed shackles. With nothing to lose they decided, finally, to play their most attacking side. Ashley Giles made way for Monty Panesar and Jimmy Anderson for Sajid Mahmood.

The approach of both sides was different to the previous tests. Australia, just a game away from the Ashes, set out to dominate and crush what they sensed was a vulnerable England team. Hayden, who had spoken bullishly about his plans to go after Hoggard was initially aggressive, but ultimately too frantic as he was found out for the sixth time by Hoggard’s nagging accuracy and cunning.

England, as is their sporting heritage, revelled in their backs-to-the-wall position and came out firing. Somehow, Stephen Harmison managed to produce a quick straight ball that defeated the Australian captain. Wickets fell steadily through the day but all the while Mr Cricket was quietly counter-attacking, repeatedly stroking the ball to the cover boundary. The best passage of play was a classic battle between Monty Panesar and Andrew Symonds. Both players were recalled to the side but for Symonds this was last chance saloon. A towering figure and world-beating one-day player, he had yet to make his mark on the test arena. At 31, he won't be given many more chances. He had promised everybody and himself that he would go out and play his natural, destructive game. It was the power of the bludgeoner versus the delicate variations of finger spinner. After a couple of watchful overs he launched Panesar for two towering sixes and a four in an over. It’s the first time that Monty has been genuinely attacked in his career and it left Flintoff with a difficult choice of whether to persist with Panesar. Bravely he kept Monty on, and in his next over, he had Symonds caught behind. It is this sort of aggressive, attractive cricket where both sides are at their best, and is what fans have been craving for all series.

In the end, England probably edged the day, but the two late wickets left Australia on a high and as is always the case, the first hour tomorrow will be crucial.

Saturday 9 December 2006

The truth hurts, but hiding it is far more painful

As frustrated fans look to management for explanation, we are treated to nothing more then hollow declarations of confidence. Why does Fletcher insist on spinning it more than Gilo?

Read my full story here

Diary of an Ashes Insomniac resumes on Thursday.

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.

Tuesday 5 December 2006

Nightmare visions coming true for England - Day 5, Lunch

Note: I do not usually post between sessions, but this session was unique and could prove to be the final contest of this series.

Such is the tension of the situation that I can barely get my hands to type these words. It was what we all dreaded most, but put conveniently in the back of our minds. England have had a first session from hell, and Australia have been truly magnificent.

It is now the biggest innings of Geraint Jones’ and Paul Collingwood’s life. If Australia power through here the series is over. All that anticipation and hope will come to nothing.

Monday 4 December 2006

War of attrition as Clarke kicks in

Second Test, Adelaide
Day 4 Comment

England started the day knowing a quick wicket could open the door to a series-levelling victory. The Aussies knew that if they could that overcome this threat they first made the game safe, and then if they batted well enough, create an opportunity to bowl England out. With so much at stake both sides started tentatively. It was England, however, who first hit the mark and, for the first hour, bowled with great discipline, pinning down two of the fastest scorers in the Australian side.

England deserved some luck, but found none as catches fell just short and a Hoggard's lbw shout against Gilchrist was turned down. Eventually, Flintoff needed to rest which brought Harmison into the equation. And promptly the pressure released.

Harmison has improved from Brisbane, but if even if I turned up to bowl, it would be an improvement from that game. Gilchrist cut loose and Australia dominated the second half of the morning session. England were lucky to get him, just before lunch, when he launched Giles needlessly into the hands of Bell.

It brought Warne to the crease and he was welcomed with a volley of chat, that, well, only he could imagine. It was enjoyable to watch, though slightly surprising to see that Warne, who dishes so much out, seemed annoyed about getting some back.

It was a brilliant mornings cricket, England were striving for an elusive wicket which seemed just a ball away, before Gilchrist counter-attacked as only he knows how.

England continued to be frustrated, particularly by Michael Clarke, who has played as well as I’ve seen him for his impressive 124. He will surely take Martyn’s spot when Watson comes in at number six.

It was not until Hoggard removed Warne just before tea and mopped up the tail quickly thereafter that England made any real headway in the day. You will continually hear about Hoggard being an underrated bowler, but anyone who has watched England over the past couple of years will be familiar with his brand of unfashionable, consistent and occasionally brilliant fast-medium bowling. Indeed a glace at the ICC World Rankings, will show he is rated as the fourth-best fast bowler in the world. His bowling here was nothing short of phenomenal, and is likely to be the best performance by a quick bowler this series. The pitch was an absolute grave-yard yet he still ran-in for two days and picked up seven wickets.

England were left to survive a tricky 19 overs at the back-end of the day. The only casualty was Cook, who was caught behind off Clarke. Alistair Cook is an mature person and talented batsmen, but he is going through the learning phase that every player has to. England must stick with him even if he continues to struggle, because as Bell is showing, learning in the Ashes may be hard, but you come through it mentally and technically stronger.

Warne turned the ball and sledged sharply last night, which sets up yet another crucial morning session. After their dominance for much of this match, England would not want to give the Aussies a sniff of victory in this game. To ensure this they must bat two sessions. In the end this hopeless pitch should be the winner, but provided nothing goes wrong tomorrow, England can draw much confidence from this test match.

Sunday 3 December 2006

Ponting performance tells only half the story

Second Test, Adelaide
Day 3 Comment

England entered today hoping to still be in a chance of winning the game by close of play. On this batting paradise the Aussies had every chance of scoring big and killing the game. England were, however, resourceful and disciplined and kept themselves marginally ahead.

Irrespective of how this match ends, and there remains hope for both sides, the pitch has been dreadful. It’s ridiculous that mats that favour bowlers too much attract high criticism (and in English domestic cricket, can result in points being deducted) while these sort of featherbed’s are termed ‘good wickets’. The volume of cricket played these days has threatened the potency fast bowlers generally, and making them play on these sorts of wickets adds to the damage. Looking back at Ashes 2005, the quality of fast bowling on good cricket wickets led us to the most exciting test series of all time.

It’s sad that so many pitches in Australia have become so lifeless. Australian pitches have, aided Ricky Ponting’s remarkable run rout. His run of scores is actually unreasonable. In completing his 10th hundred from his last 13 Tests, he became the most prolific century maker in Australian test history. These milestones are markers used to compare players, across the world and through history. His Bradman-esque run will draw lots of debate as to his standing in the game.

Statistics tell much of the story but they are not definitive. One of the many things that makes cricket so special is the examination of character that is offers. How personalities reconcile with themselves and how people overcome the ghosts in their head decides effects their performance. Watching this process is fascinating, it can be genuinely hurtful to witness, as anyone who saw Graeme Hick being defeated by his demons in the nineties will understand. It can also be thrilling – watching Kevin Pietersen stamp his arrogance and authority all over Australia was compelling.

So for me, the truly great innings, and the truly great batsmen needs character. Ricky Ponting should have all those ingredients. His undoubted talent was tempered in his youth by alcohol and gambling, something that threatened his career. But he overcame those demons so successfully that he has crushed any flair or personality with them. His runs are scored with regularity, aggression and at vital times yet there are just too efficient and void of exuberance for me to enjoy them.

No, for me, the greatest of our generation is Brian Lara. Watching a Lara innings is unforgettable. No one can score runs in the way Lara does, no one can take attacks apart with such mesmerising, fluid beauty. Though he is now a more mature person and player, during his great period, where fame and unrivalled success had come too early for him, he was childish, arrogant and surrounded by a team in terminal decline. The abandon that gave him when he arrived at the wicket was perfect.

Ponting, however, would have never had the chance to score is 33rd ton if England had taken their chances.

Anyone who has played any vaguely competitive cricket will know how painful it is to drop a catch. It is the most, unrivalled feeling of despair that you can have on a cricket field. Today, Ashley Giles dropped probably the biggest catch in cricket. At a vital time, in a vital match, on a pitch where wickets are a rarity, he dropped the Australian captain on 35. It could be turn out to be the moment that decides the series – at 78-4 Australia would have been reeling. It should be said, however that Giles was not the only culprit; Collingwood missed an equally gettable run out soon after.

Nevertheless England can be pleased with their effort. Hoggard was outstanding, Harmison and Anderson much improved. Giles did not add anything to the bowling effort but he’s in the side for his batting. Pleasingly Flintoff’s captaincy was superb today, and given England’s general turnaround he should be widely congratulated. Yesterday he instilled discipline, aggression and smart tactical moves into England’s play. Looking ahead to day four, as usual – the first hour will be vital. If England can remove Clarke and Gilchrist early, they will give themselves a great chance of levelling the series. If not, a draw seems inevitable.

Saturday 2 December 2006

Warne reduced to wides as Pietersen digs in

Second Test, Adelaide
Day 2 Comment

It is not often that you’re able to compare Ashley Giles to Shane Warne but such was Pietersen’s complete technical dominance over his Hampshire team mate that Warne was reduced to bowling the negative, hopeless around-the-wicket line that made our very own King of Spain famous.

We must remember that this pitch is painfully slow and offers absolutely nothing to bowlers of any creed. Indeed New Zealand legend Martin Crowe once remarked on the three certainties of life - death, taxes and hundreds at the Adelaide Oval. But the nature of the hundreds scored by Collingwood and Pietersen was astounding. Whilst yesterday England seemed content on survival, today they took the game to the heart of Australian bowling – McGrath and Warne and left them battered, bruised and with one wicket for 274 between them. Their worst ever return.

McGrath in particular looked a spent figure, at Brisbane he was flattered by England’s woeful batting but on this pitch he never looked like taking a wicket and was treated with disdain by Pietersen who waltzed down the track to smack him through the leg-side on numerous occasions. As more question marks over McGrath’s fitness presented themselves, so did the perceived weakness of Ponting’s captaincy. Some of his ultra defensive field settings were shocking as England merrily collected runs under no pressure whatsoever.

Duncan Fletcher has remarked that Pietersen is one of the smartest cricketers he has ever come across. A quick interview with Kevin will illustrate that it is his cricketing brain that Fletcher is referring to but the way in which he dealt with the ‘Shane Giles’ negative approach was superb. For a player so exuberant and in such fluent form it was not easy to kick the ball away over after over but he kept his head and with the aid of some stunning footwork and balance was able to hit Warne against the spin through mid on, whenever Warne’s negative line erred slightly. It was his best test innings by a distance, and one of the best displays of tackling leg-spin that you will ever see.

Australia may have regretted playing four bowlers on the best batting wicket in the country, especially after the England bowlers could only muster up 9 wickets for 804 in Brisbane. But England, may well rue the similarly conservative selection of Ashley Giles. For them to take 20 wickets and win this match would be a remarkable effort, for greater then the brilliant batting display – and Panesar’s presence would have helped.

What followed was England’s best passage of play this series, giving themselves nine overs at the back end of the day to have a go at the Aussies. It is not easy coming out to bat after 168 overs in the field and England took full advantage. They were aggressive, lively and right up at Australia. Flintoff crucially took the new ball and got the reward of Justin Langer caught off a rising delivery. When at his best, our captain is one of world’s premier fast bowlers and if England are to square the series here in Adelaide, his performance will be the difference.

Friday 1 December 2006

Honours even as England shun opportunity

Second Test, Adelaide
Day 1 Comment

England were given everything they could have asked for today, but lacked the decisiveness or confidence to take full advantage.

The conservatism directing England’s batting display was evident before the game began with Flintoff announcing an unchanged side. Many have argued that leaving out Monty Panesar was simply the result of a stubborn, pig-headedness of Duncan Fletcher. This may not have been the case. It remains a defensive selection but the reasons behind it may more subtle than many will give the coach credit for.

A change in selection policy after one, admittedly terrible, match may have sent signals to the opposition that they had upset England’s plans early on in the campaign. Australia has gone down a similar, ill-judged route. Keen to disprove to everyone that they are not an aging ‘Dad’s Army XI’ they played a half-fit McGrath. His presence in the field alone cost Australia two vital wickets – a run out of Collingwood and on the penultimate ball of the day, a tired missed catch off a Pietersen hook. The later miss may prove to be the difference in the match.
Despite the combination of an unfit McGrath, an out of form Lee and a first day pitch that most batsmen would spend their time dreaming about, England failed to win the day. They started appallingly, with Strauss (14) and Cook (27) playing themselves in, before getting themselves out tamely, to leave England 45-2.
England improved from there but Bell and even Collingwood initially batted for a session as if it were a net. On an easy paced pitch where 480 should be par, England seemed overly content with occupying the crease; even if it meant letting the game drift aimlessly. Half volleys were patted straight to fielders and there was no urgency in the running between wickets.

When Bell was finally dismissed for a hard-graft, though undamaging 60, Pietersen took to the crease and inject purpose into England’s performance. His battles with Shane Warne made compelling viewing, and aside from Tendulkar in India, few have ever played Warne better. Like Ricky Ponting, Pietersen picks up length so early, that if a bowler errs even slightly short, he can rock back and cut with power and precision.

It is momentum that affects the pressure and the mental resolve of each side. The problem for England is, with the approach they adopted for most of the day, they did not shift the momentum. If they had been bolder and shown greater belief in themselves, they could have clawed back the momentum from the opening test – as they did at Edgbaston in 2005. As it is, if England lose two quick wickets tomorrow, the momentum will be entirely with Australia and England would have gained nothing.

Predictably though, the good score could not temper the overblown reactions of the media or many armchair barmy army, who had abandoned all hope day before yesterday, but have now returned to full voice.

For the rest of us, we can breath a sigh of relief that after the first day, we are still in the game. The first hour tomorrow, as always, will be vital. If Collingwood and Pietersen can complete and then build on centuries then it could give a chance for Flintoff to finally ‘express himself’ against the old ball. Five hundred is not enough to win this test match but England are more then capable of reaching a total that can.

Thursday 30 November 2006

England cricket's hammer and fickle brigade

A mass of fans may have deserted Andrew Flintoff's men after their first Test defeat in Brisbane. But one good contest and they'll all be back.

Read my full story here

Diary of an Ashes Insomniac resumes tomorrow.

Monday 27 November 2006

Seven steps to fight back in Adelaide

First Test, Brisbane
Day 5 Comment

Australia reaffirmed their dominance by quickly dashing any hopes of a batting miracle this morning, leaving England with very little to take from this game into Friday’s crucial second test.

Now if this Ashes series is to really take off, England have to win in Adelaide. The result is even more significant than the first test. And England might find that the sense of occasion – though immense – will be less fraught then it was in Brisbane.

It’s a familiar situation for England and they know what needs to be done. The question is whether Flintoff can convince his men that they can do it; that they are capable of formulating a strategy that will press the Australians, and ultimately force a win in Adelaide.

As a guide to the psychological feeling England should be adopting here, let’s be introspective for a moment. I know how much I care about the England performance. I dream, analyse and despair over each ball in every test. So, look at yourself honestly. Do you believe England can come back?

I know I do, and here’s how.

1. Pick Panesar. It’s attractive to delude yourself into thinking that the mighty Monty would have made all the difference at Brisbane. He wouldn’t have. But he gives England control and an attacking option during those long Kookaburra 20-80 ‘middle’ overs. Anderson, though bowling well at times, was too inconsistent for a batting line-up of Australia’s stature. Monty should replace him at 11.

2. Win the toss. You could argue that one shouldn’t plan for things that are out of our control, but Harmy’s radar is beyond anyone’s control and yet we still plan around that.

3. Needless to say it, but bat, bat and bat. This means that Strauss will actually have to play himself in before trying to clear the world’s biggest boundaries with his almighty hook.

4. Open the bowling with Freddie. I have banged on about this for the last three days. Give your strongest bowlers the best possible chance with the new ball. It is for the same reasons that Australia prefers McGrath over Hussey with the new ball.

5. Think 2005 not 95. England are Ashes winners. They are a bunch of aggressive, gifted and tough players who thrive on playing attacking cricket. Through much of this test, England’s body language in the field was meek, lethargic and purposeless. On flat pitches, fielding sides have to work doubly hard to create pressure. This means disciplined fast bowling with occasional short balls that reach neck height, not regular waist-high long-hops.

6. Play on the opponent’s pressure. Australia had a 100-day countdown to this series. They have been subjected to boot camps and at Brisbane resorted to dispersing the Barmy Army around the ground and sending their trumpeter packing. They are obsessed. Their desire is feverish. Ponting almost threw a Trent Bridge-esque fit when dismissed for 196 and when Stuart Clark dropped Pietersen on the third day, he received withering glares and was ignored by his teammates. Australia has put themselves under huge pressure to reclaim the urn. If England could sustain a period of dominance and scare them; the Australian players, media and supporters have the potential to explode.

7. And finally, the elephant in the room, Stephen James Harmison. It is unfair of us to project our dreams on to him, but many have. He has to play at Adelaide, but must not become the distraction he did at Brisbane. If he’s not firing, use him as a middle over stock bowler. Set the field back and let him toil away for few runs. In Brisbane England wasted time and energy trying to get him right. Sky Sports spent more than two days demonstrating their split screen analysis of his bowling action. Every paper has put in their two-cents worth. It’s all a distraction. For now he should accept Dennis Lillee’s offer for a few coaching sessions. Lillee is the finest fast bowling coach in the world and a mentor to Troy Cooley, the coach who took England to Ashes success before switching sides. Now that nothing is expected of him, Harmison may roar in and win England the Second Test. But if he doesn´t, lets not spend five days talking about it.

The first test has been the worst of starts for England, yet they and the Aussies know that this series is far from over. Bring on round two.

Sunday 26 November 2006

Pietersen plants late seeds of hope

First Test, Brisbane
Day 4 Comment

After 261.1 overs, two declarations and three abysmal days, England finally turned up to Brisbane and injected fire into the Ashes.

Of course, it’s all a little too late, but the performance dragged some much-needed momentum back into England’s Ashes campaign. It has exposed some of the weaknesses of the home side that the visitor's shoddy performance has so far masked so effectively. More surprisingly, it has left England with the most miniscule of chances to pull off a draw.

It’s a strange and unnerving thing being a die-hard England fan. Like a twisted form of love, you can be mistreated, uncared for, utterly dismayed and angry for three days, but when offered the smallest signs of care, all is forgiven. Almost without realising it, the acceptance of defeat morphs seamlessly into blind optimism again.

The farce of Australia’s imposed second innings ended with Justin Langer reaching a meaningless century and Ricky Ponting sustaining a back injury. This gave England the impossible task of batting five-and-a-half sessions in an attempt to spare being ridiculed all the way to Adelaide. It was a task that would require patience, composure, skill and the smallest of miracles.

The opening scenes were familiar. Andrew Strauss, for the second time in the match offered little, hooking needlessly down deep to square leg early in the innings for just 11. When Warne dismissed Bell with a slider a duck, England seemed to capitulate. Collingwood also started off unconvincingly, stuck on the crease as if waiting to be dismissed, before the welcome lunch break.

Whatever talks took place over England’s lunch table had been badly missing two days ago. England took the field looking positive, determined and crucially decisive. Cook battled hard, before being caught at short leg via the inside edge off Warne, and would have learned much from his 43. Pietersen then enjoyed the first classic contest of the series with his pal Shane Warne. After playing himself in with maturity he took the game to the Australians, using his feet well and flicking him through mid wicket before unleashing his trademark slog sweeps.

Together with Collingwood, the pair dominated Australia in a determined 153-run stand. Suddenly with Ponting unable to take the field with his dodgy back and McGrath showing his age with a bruised heel, Australia may have exposed some seeds of doubt. England were finally able to punish them with an authority that has been badly missing since 2005.

Just as he always does though, Warne struck the decisive blow towards the end of the day. Collingwood had played calmly and superbly, but with barely 15 overs left of the day, fell victim to Warne’s trickery, waltzing down the pitch and getting stumped on 96. Flintoff then got to the wicket, stroked a couple of commanding boundaries before mistiming a pull from a Warne long hop and skying it to mid on. It was a cruel blow after such a convincing performance, only firing another nail into England’s coffin.

Australia has been in complete control of this game, but it was vital that England clawed some self-confidence back with a good performance. Tomorrow Pietersen and Jones will need to apply themselves and continue much in the same vain as today, steering the game well into the afternoon at least. And whisper it quietly, but there is mention of rain late tomorrow.

Saturday 25 November 2006

England shoot a gift horse in the head

First Test, Brisbane
Day 3 Comment
These are dark days for England. Yesterday they made good bowling look great, and a dodgy pitch look a minefield. Predictably, they were skittled out for 157.

But what followed was less predictable, though far more damaging. Ricky Ponting as if he was somehow bemused by the lack of contest, threw England a lifeline. Not for the match, which was over, but for the series.

Before that what we desperately needed was an opportunity to regain ground in the mental war. We needed something positive to take into the rest of the series. Just as how despite being thrashed at Lords in 2005, England showed they could take learning into the rest of the series.

And Ponting threw down that gauntlet.

He gifted England an opportunity to run in and redeem their shoddy display of the first day. To prove to everyone that it is England who has the more potent fast bowling unit. Prove that day one was just nerves. Prove that they can come back strongly in this series, just as they did in the last.

It was an extraordinary piece of generosity. It looked like Buchanan and Ponting had conjured up one trick too many for this game – one that could come back to haunt them. They offered England a much-needed turning point in the series. Flintoff should have roused his men, urging them to fire, aim to take down five wickets for 100 and leave Ponting declaring again in the match, but this time limply and under a barrage of questions. It is not easy to lift yourself after such an abysmal batting display but Flintoff and England were given that chance.

Instead we were subjected to the worst display by an England side for years. Anderson was tossed the new ball as an uninterested and despondent England shrugged around the field with little purpose, almost waiting for Ponting to put them out of their misery. There was little noise from England, no fight; this was a side that showed remarkable disbelief in their ability to compete. Flintoff has to take some responsibility for this. His leadership credentials are based on his ability to inspire and instil belief in his players. He failed to do that, and failed to take charge with the new ball. Given the opportunity to begin the fight back now, instead of at Adelaide, England seemed curiously limp of any desire. For followers of England it was the most desperately disappointing passage of play, matching anything from the dark ages of the 1990’s.

It cannot be stressed enough that test matches, and Ashes cricket in particular, is a psychological game. It’s very rare in this game that you’re thrown a lifeline from the brink of defeat. If England can’t regain the desire to compete in this series, there’s a flight leaving from Brisbane tonight.

Friday 24 November 2006

In the battle of minds, Flintoff holds the key

First Test, Brisbane
Day 2 Comment
If you ever needed proof that much of test cricket is played in the head, look no further than England’s two strike bowlers. Flintoff and Harmison have all the potential to be world-beating quicks. Both have abilities to make a decisive impact on this series. But while Flintoff is revelling in carrying his side, Harmison is struggling with himself.

So much of Ashes cricket is about stamping authority on the opponents, thriving on the contest and dealing with confrontation. Harmison’s struggles are continued fuel for debate but it has been clear all tour that he is desperately low on confidence. Flintoff meanwhile is a different being. His strength of mind shows in the way he charged-in to Australia's batsman all day. Questions of confidence have never entered the equation. Yet Flintoff has bowled far less in the last six months than his Durham peer.

Looking back on this test match – which is all but decided now – many will cite that infamous first ball on Thursday. If the statement had to be made in that first over of the series, surely Flintoff was the man to do so. To play on a ground where Australia have always been dominant, and to take it upon himself to launch the Ashes would have been the best way for England - and Flintoff - to stamp authority on this series. Instead they opted for somone desperately short of match practise and vulnerable to gremlins when the chips are down.

It was a horrendous error of judgement that exposes the muddled thinking among England’s backroom staff. While we were driven to distraction about England's potential lower order batting woes, there has been failure to recognise that with so many bowlers coming back from injuries and lengthy layoffs, it is not the batting that needs propping up, it is the bowling.

What are these extra 30 runs that Giles is capable of providing down the order worth, when the opposition has amassed 602-9 declared? Giles toiled away admirably, bowling the dependable dross that has lent him a fantastic career. But what would Flintoff have given for the attacking and controlling presence of last summer’s highest wicket taker? Leaving Monty Panesar watching on helplessly from the dressing room, while Pietersen turned the ball is a decision that Fletcher will regret.

Hindsight is a curse for decision-makers, but a gift for commentators. Looking ahead, any chance for salvaging a result from this test ended yesterday evening when Strauss ended up pulling thoughtlessly down deep square leg. Now it it is essential for England to regain ground in the psychological battle. Bell must replicate the classy authority he showed this summer against Pakistan in the cauldron of Ashes pressure. Pietersen must show his resolve to stay at the crease long after Australia’s fiery spells of the opening session. Keeping the aging McGrath in the field for two days will do England’s chances no harm for next week’s second test.

England must prove to Australia – and perhaps themselves – that they are capable of taking this Ashes challenge head-on and coming out on top. If not for this test, than for the sake of the series.

Thursday 23 November 2006

Flat pitch, blind optimism

First Test, Brisbane
Day 1 Comment
Whatever the state of a game, you are often just a few balls away from turning it on its head. It is this notion that exploits humanity’s most inexplicable emotion - hope - and that which feeds the addiction of a cricket observer.

So even after Steve Harmison’s aberration of the first ball ‘statement’ on the series, there was still hope of recovery. Despite ending the first session one down for over a hundred, I still believed. And at 198-3, I almost felt England were on top. Now, with two of the greediest batsmen in cricket still at the crease and a first day score to match any of the depressing scorecards of Ashes series of the 1990s, I still think, well, a couple of wickets with the new ball tomorrow and…

But neither hope, belief nor blind optimism can mask the daunting feeling that England are in a spot of bother here. Let’s be clear, this Brisbane pitch - a ‘good batting pitch’ - is not good for cricket in any sense. It removes all the variation and subtlety from the bowler’s armoury. That is of course, unless you’re one of the best spinners to ever play the game. And this is what will end up separating the sides in Brisbane.

Take Warne out of the equation and – on the pitch we saw yesterday – you could imagine Australia’s bowlers may have been equally innocuous. But with Kevin Pietersen finding turn, one can only imagine how much Warne is looking forward to making his mark on this match. As it is, England must find a way to take 20 wickets without seam, swing, reverse swing, or much pace and bounce.

To do that, all we can do is draw inspiration from the second test of 2003 that India played against Australia on a similarly placid pitch in Adelaide. Batting first, Australia's Ricky Ponting made 242 in a commanding first innings of 556. Unnerved, India responded with 523 and went on to win the match by four wickets. So it can be done. England just need to strike early tomorrow with the new ball, get Clark and Gilchrist to the crease while there is still a hint of shine and…