By Richard de Winter
Hands up who saw that coming. Anyone who says they predicted the Edgbaston whitewash is either clairvoyant, an incurable optimist, or a liar. This Ashes series is predictable in its unpredictability; the teams are consistent in their inconsistency; cue many other paradoxes. What will happen at Trent Bridge on Thursday is anybody’s guess.
So, how did England go from a crushing defeat at Lord’s to a comprehensive victory at Edgbaston? Obviously the answer is not particularly straightforward, but in no particular order, I would say it was thanks to: the pitch, Australia’s batting, England’s bowling and Australia’s bowling.
The pitch for the second Test at Lord’s turned out to be an energy-sapping pudding, offering little or no lateral movement, especially to England’s bowlers. Australia’s quicks negated that handicap by bowling a little fuller, allowing their extra pace through the air to hurry the English batsmen. Edgbaston’s pitch, on the other hand, looked as though it had been prepared by Jimmy Anderson himself – a hint of moisture, a light green tinge, a few small cracks. Combined with the overcast and damp weather conditions, it was the sort of pitch to delight those bowlers who prefer artistry over brute force. You could almost hear traditional English trundlers of old, licking their lips at the prospect of bowling on it.
Before the series started, experts talked about Australia’s fallibility against the moving ball – not that any batsman is entirely comfortable playing the moving ball, with the obvious exception of Geoff Boycott’s mum, provided she’s wearing a pinny and brandishing a stick of rhubarb. The extent of that fallibility was displayed in both innings at Birmingham, with almost all the top order batsmen pushing at the ball with hard hands, or seemingly unable to predict which way the ball was going to move. This is partly because England’s seamers, Jimmy Anderson in particular, are masters of the wobble-seam delivery, which is bowled so that the bounce of the ball on hitting the seam is random, but even when the ball is moved by design, Australia’s batsman seemed helpless, best demonstrated by Anderson’s dismissal of Peter Nevill, bowled without playing a shot. It was the classic three-card-trick – two outswingers, followed by a third ball, pitching in roughly the same area, but this time swinging in, the most perfect example of the genre since Martin Bicknell bamboozled Jacques Rudolph at the Oval in 2003.
Anderson’s absence through injury from the 4th Test is a huge blow, akin some say to Glenn McGrath’s injuries in the 2005 series (England’s two victories came in the games he missed). It is lucky therefore that both Stuart Broad and the recalled Steven Finn seem to be in fine form. Before the start of the New Zealand series, I was of the opinion that Broad had lost his nip, was in a state of permanent decline, and should be dropped. I still think he is slowly declining physically, but, for a change, he’s starting to bowl with intelligence, making a virtue of his comparative lack of pace by allowing the ball to move more. At Lord’s he was the only England bowler to look remotely threatening, and without Anderson, he really has to step up as the leader of England’s attack.
Finn is a real enigma. He is a wicket-taker, which sounds obvious as that is a bowler’s primary function, but by which I mean he bowls a higher percentage of potentially wicket-taking deliveries than almost any other bowler in world cricket. At the moment, his strike rate stands at a wicket every 46.2 balls, which is the 16th best of all-time in Test matches for any bowler who has bowled more than 2,000 deliveries. The only current bowler above him in this particular list is, in my opinion, the greatest seamer I have ever seen, Dale Steyn. His strike-rate is better than greats such as Richard Hadlee, Malcolm Marshall and Glenn McGrath. He is a seriously dangerous bowler, as we saw at Edgbaston.
Against this must be laid the fact that he is also a seriously expensive bowler, with an ecomony rate of 3.65 runs per over, a very poor record, even in this modern era of quick scoring. He doesn’t offer his team any measure of control, and, as happened at Trent Bridge against Australia in 2013, can be so expensive as to be unbowlable. He is also sensitive, and prone to self-doubt, and strong batsmen will prey on this, as has happened in the past. He was excellent at Edgbaston, but still expensive, and one good Test does not mean that his past frailties are over.
With Anderson out, there has been a lot of talk of who should replace him. Many people suggested replacing him with a similar type of swing bowler, such as Jack Brooks of Yorkshire, or Chris Rushworth of Durham. The problem here is the relative quality of replacement compared with replacee – Brooks and Rushworth are both fine county bowlers, but replacing Anderson with one of them would be like asking Chris Martin to sub for Daniel Barenboim.
The selectors have covered all bases by selecting three different types of bowler as possible replacements. There is Mark Wood, who would have played at Edgbaston were it not for an ankle injury. He is a skiddy quick bowler, not dissimilar to Darren Gough, and has impressed at this level so far. Against that, he is carrying an injury (a theme throughout his career) which might be considered too much of a risk. Liam Plunkett played in the one-day series earlier this summer and is a tall, uncomplicated quick bowler, who can pitch the ball up without floating it à la Andrew Caddick. However, his form this season in first-class cricket has been poor. Finally there is Mark Footitt, the Derbyshire left-armer, described by Marcus Trescothick as the quickest bowler on the county circuit, and able to swing the ball as well. It sounds too good to be true, and probably is; he has taken bundles of wickets in all formats over the last two seasons, but mainly against second division batsmen, and there is the feeling that he is only in the frame since left-arm quick bowlers are currently en vogue. Wood has apparently trained well, without discomfort, and I would be inclined to bring him back.
Australia are likely to make at least one change to their team. Adam Voges has looked out of touch so far, and most judges suggest Shaun Marsh will replace him, possibly occasioning a reshuffle in the batting order, with Michael Clarke dropping down to 5. I personally would play Marsh at 3, with Steve Smith at 4, as the Aussie vice-captain is practically impossible to dismiss if the ball isn’t moving, but vulnerable at the start of the innings when it is.
There has also been talk of a change in the bowling line-up, with both Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood vulnerable after poor performances at Edgbaston. Starc was particularly wayward, but dismissed Alastair Cook with a jaffa in the second innings, and batting-wise has looked extremely strong, playing very straight against the seamers. Hazlewood may be more likely to go, as he looked a bit tired in Birmingham. If he is left out, Peter Siddle will probably be the next man in, although Darren Lehmann believes he has lost a bit of his zip off the pitch. I personally wouldn’t be too sorry from an England point of view to see Hazlewood left out, as I think he’s an excellent bowler, offering control and decent movement off the pitch.
Despite being thrashed in the last Test, Australia still remain favourites at Trent Bridge, and a victory for them would at least continue England’s topsy-turvy win-loss record of the last 7 Tests. Both teams have shown batting frailty, but I still think Australia’s batting is stronger, Edgbaston notwithstanding, and I expect them to prevail at Nottingham, setting up a nerve-jangling decider at the Oval.