England breezed to victory in the first Test in Cardiff. Root scored a wonderful hundred, our attack bowled with great skill and discipline, Moeen continued to show his critics what he is capable of and Cook out-captained Clarke, using attacking fields and rotating his bowlers in a way not dissimilar to Michael Vaughan in 2005. Despite many cricketing pundits hailing the performance as ‘perfect’, there is no doubt in my mind that it was the lacklustre performance of the Aussies that was the primary cause of such an easy victory.
Following the series whitewash by Australia in Australia, many predicted a similar result here in England. Their bowling attack has been lauded ever since that victory in 2013, Steve Smith and David Warner have been built up to be among the best batsmen in the world and in general theirs is a team that is seen to be feared. Why?
Since that 5-0 win in 2013 (which was of course preceded by a 3-0 loss to England in England) Australia have beaten the West Indies, the worst Indian Test team for 20 years and lost to Pakistan. Other than an admittedly impressive victory over South Africa away from home, Australia have very little to shout about. Australia are only successful on bouncy pitches where their bowlers can utilise their extreme pace. With a bowling attack bereft of the skill and accuracy of Ryan Harris, the waywardness and unpredictability of messrs Johnson and Starc leaves the Australians lacking in the necessary tools to be effective on the slow, seaming pitches of England.
Lehmann will continue to bemoan the slow pitches in England, as if he did not ask the Australian groundkeepers to make the driest, bounciest pitches possible when we went down under to suit his bowlers.
Steven Smith has had an incredible couple of years. He was impressive against England in 2013 and smashed Sir Donald Bradman’s record to score 769 runs against India. However, like many of his batting counterparts he is yet to prove his ability in England. Other than Rodgers, who will consistently grind out runs and the world class Michael ‘Quasimodo’ Clarke, their batting lineup leaves a lot to be desired.The team that Australia selected for the first Test had an average age 4 years greater than that of England, and it showed. Henry Blofeld likening the warm-up of Shane Watson to a ‘Grizzly Bear awakening from a long hibernation’ tells you all you need to know about the ageing, aching bodies of the Australians. Other than Anderson and perhaps Bell, who may only have one more Ashes series left in them, this England team has the potential to be together for an extended period of time. On the other hand, of the Australian team that started the first Test, I would suggest that less than half of them will be around for the next Ashes series in Australia. If this was the England team, we would be at panic stations.
England’s bowlers were impressive in the first Test. Anderson and Broad showed why they are heralded by many as the best opening pair in world cricket, Wood bowled quickly and made the Australian batsman look uncomfortable at the crease and Moeen again picked up crucial wickets. A Test bowling average of just over 30 with scalps like Clarke, Sangakarra and Kohli to his name, it seems unfair to continue to feel surprised when he picks up wickets. Perhaps it is because Moeen could hold his place in the England team solely for his fluent, elegant batting that we continue to question him as our frontline spinner.
Despite fine performances from Joe Root and Moeen Ali with the bat, and signs of a resurgence to form from Ian Bell in the second innings, the batting is still a worry for England. How long can we continue to rely on Joe Root to get us out of trouble? There is no doubt in my mind that Cook will score some big hundreds in this series. His record speaks for itself. It is the other members of the top four that are the cause for concern. Ian Bell probably bought himself another couple of Test matches following his half century in Cardiff, but Lyth and Ballance are in the firing line. Ballance made what many of the cricketing experts called a dogged half century in the first innings, but I would call streaky and mistake ridden. Lyth seemed understandably nervous in the first Test. There is no doubt over his ability, following an excellent 2014 in the County Championship, it is his temperament that I’m sure Bayliss, Farbrace and Thorpe will be working on.
I think there will be alterations to this England team as the series goes on. The following is the team that I think will (or maybe should) take the field for the last Ashes Test on 20th August at the Oval (injuries aside):
England’s batting line-up at the moment is unnecessarily long. Having Moeen coming in at number 8 is ridiculous. Rashid should be brought in for Ballance and everyone should be shifted up one in the order. Rashid is no mug with the bat and the option to tie Australia down with two spinners should not be underestimated. Allowing Broad, Anderson and Wood to stay fresh and bowl shorter, more effective spells. There are calls to put Root even higher at number 3, but I think we need to be wary of altering the position of our most in form batsman too much. He has become in my opinion, along with Kane Williamson of New Zealand, the best batsman in world cricket. It would be a shame if a change in the batting line-up were to lead to a dip in form.
If Moeen doesn’t make the next Test (as he is a doubt), fingers crossed for Rashid coming in, getting some wickets to secure his place and then Moeen regaining fitness for the third Test at Edgbaston.
I am sticking with my prediction of 2-1 to England I made before the series started, but wouldn’t be surprised if the margin greater even than that.
To the home of cricket!