In the words of Rosa Klebb: “Training is useful, but there is no substitute for experience.” The most inexperienced middle-order England have fielded for years was no match for an inspirational spell by one of the all-time great fast bowlers in the first Test of this Ashes series. The inability of England’s batsmen to cope with the brilliance of Glenn McGrath, who reduced them to 21 for 5, combined with six dropped catches (a phenomenon England thought they had put behind them) as Australia claimed a devastating 239 run win in the first Test of this long-awaited series.
239 runs is a margin far in excess of what was expected in advance. How could it have happened? Before the series began it was widely expected that the experience of Graham Thorpe would be vital to England’s efforts in regaining the Ashes, in my own preview I wrote that I would have preferred Thorpe to the inexperienced Pietersen. I was wrong. Pietersen, inexperienced as he is, proved to be England’s most capable batsman - although his fallibility in the field cost England dear.
But the inevitable conclusion of this match is that Thorpe should have played, perhaps in place of Bell. Of England’s top six, only Trescothick and Vaughan had played Test cricket against Australia before. In view of previous results, and the psychological damage inflicted, this might be seen as an advantage, but two facts conspire against this view. First that fact that numbers four and five in the order had played just three Tests between them, Pietersen being a debutant and Bell having played once against a weak West Indies attack and twice against Bangladesh. Second the fact that whoever they had played against at this level, or however often, no such experience would have been approximate to playing against this Australian side.
How could this flaw in planning have been missed? Well, in part the England selectors have been fooled by their own success. Recent evidence of young players introduced to the Test side, Bell and Strauss in particular, has been overwhelmingly successful. But certain flaws in logic are inescapable; if Thorpe was not to play here, then why did he play against Bangladesh? If Pietersen was to play in the one-day series, was it not likely that he would present an irresistible case for inclusion in the Tests, in which case why did he not also play against Bangladesh?
Two years ago, when Alec Stewart’s retirement was imminent, there were some critics, myself included, who argued that he should not play against South Africa as two years were needed in order to establish an experienced replacement before the Ashes. The possibility of needing replacements for Hussain and Thorpe as well was evident at the time, but despite Hussain’s retirement last year little action was taken. Just over a year ago England were playing in the West Indies with numbers 3-5 being Butcher, Hussain and Thorpe. In the time between then and now England might have bedded one new player in, but the thought of replacing all three and winning the Ashes now seems fanciful.
Much of this has been mentioned in lucid newspaper columns by former England captain Michael Atherton, who, to his greater credit, said most of it before the Lord’s Test. If David Graveney should choose to follow recent precedent by resigning after a home Ashes series (in considerably less disgrace than recent predecessors), the ECB could do worse than ask Atherton to replace him.
And yet it all started so well. After Australia won the toss and batted, England steamed in intent on causing some damage. Harmison’s first ball landed on a perfect length and flew over off stump. His second hit Justin Langer just above the elbow, reminding him of a Middlesex v Durham encounter in 1998 when the Harmison -Betts attack had seemed almost like Garner and Marshall. Hayden too took a blow, rattling his helmet and loosening a screw.
But Australia were starting to look comfortable when Hayden was bowled through the gate by a Hoggard inswinger. It was the start of a frenetic day in which both teams came out determined to land the first blow. Ponting was dropped second ball by Pietersen, a difficult chance in an advanced fourth slip position. Soon afterwards he missed a pull off Harmison and found his visor bent back resulting in a cut to the cheek requiring stitches during lunch.
Now things were really happening for England. A beauty from Harmison found Ponting’s edge. A tight over from Flintoff caused Langer to sky a pull to square leg. Simon Jones’s first ball of the match was edged to the keeper by Damien Martyn, Jones then followed up by beating Michael Clarke outside off-stump then nipping one back to trap him in front of leg-stump. Australia lunched at 97-5, then Gilchrist smashed a few through the off-side in typical fashion before Flintoff, attacking him around the wicket, found an outside edge.
A cock-a-hoop England, having got rid of all their usual nemeses, were now faced by Simon Katich. Not having seen much of Katich I was dismayed to find myself reminded of Gary Kirsten, of whom I once remarked that the likeliest way to get rid of him was via a sniper in the Tavern Stand. In his ugly, utilitarian, crablike way, Katich was impossible to bowl to, while Shane Warne somehow managed to hit fours off balls he knew nothing about. Warne looked very uncomfortable against the short ball, but bravely got into line, until this itself was his undoing when he walked too far across to Harmison and lost his leg stump.
That partnership of 49 turned out to be crucial in the scheme of things, but its end provoked Katich into something uncharacteristic as he skied a pull and Geraint Jones took a swirling catch in among the slips. Brett Lee was dropped by Pietersen (an easy chance at gully) but was caught behind two balls later, then Harmison claimed a fifth wicket when he trapped Gillespie in front and Australia were 190 all out.
But England’s jubilation was not to last. They were about to be on the receiving end of a bowling spell which was a privilege to witness and a nightmare to face. Furthermore, there was a misconception throughout this game that dull weather led to the ball dominating the bat. In fact the pitch, dry and a little two-paced, was at its worst in rare periods of sunshine which warmed the surface and opened up the cracks. It was in the brightest of these sunny spells that England began their reply.
It would be unjustified to blame the first two wickets on the pitch. And even those for which the pitch could partly be blamed were down to McGrath’s unerring ability to hit the right spot. First ball after tea Trescothick tried to work a ball to leg, got a leading edge and was caught at slip - McGrath’s 500th Test wicket. Four balls later Strauss, who might have got forward, edged a ball which moved away from him. Now came the influence of the pitch - Vaughan was bowled by one which nipped back and crept under his bat. A similar ball accounted for Flintoff and in between Ian Bell played on after not covering his stumps quite enough.
Apart from the loss of wickets by England, at this point it was noticable that 6 of the first 13 overs bowled by Australia had been maidens, while only 2 maidens had been bowled by England in Australia’s entire innings. Australia, especially Brett Lee, had started out in bouncer mode, but once the wickets started to tumble they had very quickly worked out how to bowl on this pitch, in the right way for them at least. And McGrath took all the plaudits, his first five overs after tea earning 5 for 2.
A brief revival for England was led by Geraint Jones and Kevin Pietersen, Jones somehow driving McGrath on the up through point without it seeming a risky shot, until a vicious lifter from Lee had him caught behind. Giles too seemed very uncomfortable against the short ball and fell to the last ball of the day, leaving England 92-7.
After losing Hoggard the next morning Pietersen launched such a brutal and calculated assault on the Australian bowling that it made observers such as me, who had questioned whether he should be picked, wonder whether we knew anything about the game at all. Facing McGrath, he hit a shortish ball just outside off-stump straight back down the ground, cross-batted fashion for four, then a massive straight six, then a classic drive through extra cover for four off three consecutive balls, to go to a debut 50. Launching another massive six into the Grandstand off Warne, he fell for 57 trying to repeat the shot, Martyn taking a wonderful diving catch just before the rope.
But the mood was caught by the last pair, Simon Jones and Steve Harmison, the latter dancing down the wicket to loft the first ball he faced from Warne over mid-on for four. The morning was cool and cloudy, the pitch well behaved, and McGrath was removed from the attack after 5 overs which cost 32 runs. The return of Brett Lee saw Harmison caught at mid-off with the score 155, but despite the 35 run deficit the smiles were back on England’s faces.
And now, halfway through the match, the whole nature of the contest changed. From the early, fiery assaults, each side desperate to land the first bloody blow, it became a quiet, attritional affair, like old-fashioned pre-Waugh Test cricket. Australia came out for their second innings having, sensibly, realised that this was an attack which they could not bully as they had every other for the last few years. England came out awestruck by the mastery of McGrath and resolved to do the same. For England it was a mistake.
There is only one Glenn McGrath, and England’s fast bowlers must spend enough time in media interviews saying they want to be the first Flintoff and Harmison rather than the next Botham and Willis to realise that imitation is the sincerest form of self-negation. In attempting to put the ball on the spot and let the pitch do the work (without the benefit of the sun to open up the cracks) all the aggression went out of England’s bowling. Their first breakthrough was down to a superb bit of fielding by Kevin Pietersen, who anticipated Langer’s drop and run with a pounce and throw which left him a yard short.
It was the short ball which caused trouble again after lunch. First Hayden skied a pull which fell safe, a few balls later he tried again and dragged on via his boot. But soon things were looking comfortable for Australia, England’s bowlers could not match McGrath for accuracy and too many straight balls were there to be whipped off the pads for four. It took an abberation from Ponting, a loose back foot force straight to the substitute James Hildreth at backward point (a batsman for the future by the way), to get England back in the game.
And if there was one moment which sealed this game for Australia, it came now, just before tea on the second day. On 21, Michael Clarke, drove on the up straight to Pietersen at cover who fumbled an easy chance down by his right knee. On the strength of his batting, Pietersen later said he was mighty pleased with his Test debut. In 1902 Fred Tate, father of the great bowler Maurice and also on debut, was practically hounded out of the game after dropping a catch in similar circumstances.
This marked the moment when Australia took control of the game. Clarke went on to make 91, his use of his feet to Ashley Giles was exceptionally good and justified the high opinion of him which so many hold but which here in England had seemed exaggerated until now. Giles was quickly forced to bowl in unaccustomed fashion around the wicket, but even at this angle Clarke was still able to work him through midwicket with elastic wrists.
A crucial partnership with Damien Martyn had reached 155 when he fell, frustrated by Hoggard’s tactic of bowling wide of off-stump to a packed off-side field. There was an easy single down to third-man all the time, but Clarke’s game is a forcing one and he perished trying to use his feet to get to the ball and smack it through cover, an inside edge cannoning into his stumps.
The sun was now breaking through the cloud, and the very next ball Harmison nipped one back to Martyn, it kept low and trapped him lbw. Katich then had a scare, getting an edge down to third man for four when trying to leave. With Gilchrist in, Flintoff was straight back into the attack and bowling around the wicket, the angle again disconcerting Gilchrist who got an inside edge onto the stumps. Then, in the last over of the day, Warne got a leading edge to Harmison and was caught in the gully.
England ended the day on a high, but knew that they would have to clean up the last three wickets quickly on Saturday if they were to face a manageable target of 350 or less. Again things started well. Lee took blows on both hands, then Katich tried to get him off strike, called him for a single when he had played out to point off the back foot, and Lee was run out by a direct hit from Giles. In a final indignity the ball bounced back off the stumps to hit him on the head as he slid home too late.
But from then on the game rapidly went away from England. Katich, looking as unbowlable as anyone has ever done, began to hit out, taking three fours in one over off Flintoff and hitting him out of the attack. Gillespie was as stubborn as ever, earning occasional runs with delicate nudges and glances. England began to look rattled. The dropped catches began again. Geraint Jones had taken a blow on the left hand earlier in the game, which may explain why he went for an edge off Gillespie right handed and grassed it, although wicket-keepers have been taking blows to the hands since the game began without such drastic effects. By then it was 333 for 8, and the game was probably beyond England anyway. The aggrieved Simon Jones removed Gillespie’s off -stump in his next over, but soon suffered further annoyance as first Flintoff dropped a simple slip-chance off McGrath, then Geraint Jones failed to get his gloves underneath a looping chance from the tail-ender. It was Simon Jones himself who finally bagged a catch to dismiss Katich down at third man, but by then the lead was 419, and England would have to set a world record for victory.
England had clearly learned something from their first innings debacle however. Facing McGrath, bowling from the Pavilion end at Lord’s, the left hander is at a distinct advantage. McGrath’s natural seam movement away from the left hander means that anything pitching on the stumps can be left to run away down the slope, while anything pitching outside leg stump can be dealt with by the pad. Strauss and Trescothick applied this elementary common sense to see off the new ball and reach 80-0 with little trouble.
But then came Warne, and Strauss was quickly in trouble. The Middlesex left hander has faced little quality spin in his short Test career, this series and the tours of the subcontinent this winter should be a useful learning ground for him, but it was too soon in this match. He was lucky to survive an lbw shout when padding up, and looked very uncomfortable generally. It was Lee who claimed the wicket in the end, rushing forward in his follow through to claim the ball just inches above the ground after Strauss had pulled out of a hook too late, but the wicket was as much Warne’s as his, purely for the way he had unsettled the batsman. Trescothick too had some scares against Warne, but managed to hit some lovely shots too before he squirted a yorker length ball to Hayden at slip.
This left Vaughan and Bell together at the crease. Neither lasted long. Bell may have been a trifle unlucky. He left what looked like a leg-break alone, but it didn’t spin and struck him on the pad in front of off-stump. Warne later claimed this delivery was the “new slider”, but I’m not sure anyone was buying it. Vaughan, on the other hand, played half-forward to a ball from Lee, expecting it to move down the slope, only to find that it held its line and removed his off-stump. Then Flintoff fell trying to square drive Warne off the back foot and England were 119 for 5. That Pietersen made batting look sublimely easy in the minutes left before bad light called a halt must have been a source of mixed feelings to England’s dismissed batsmen.
By now rain was England’s best hope of survival. It kept the players off the pitch until 3.45 on Sunday, and with more rain forecast for Monday a couple of hours resistance might have been all that was called for to save the game. Instead England seemed determined on capitulation. Rain was already falling again by the start of the second over of the day, but in the third Geraint Jones hit an idiotic pull straight to mid-on, and two balls later Giles played away from his body and edged to gully. Almost immediately rain forced the players from the pitch, but the respite was brief, and soon McGrath and Warne were back to wrap things up, leaving Pietersen completely untroubled on an undefeated 60.
“Same old England, always losing,” crowed an Aussie to my left in the Edrich Stand. And I felt a surge of venom caused by years of suffering taunts which were all the more painful for being justified. So what can England do now? Well they can start by taking their catches, but if pressure was the reason for chances going begging in this game then that pressure will only be doubled now the team is one down. They could also take a leaf out of my book, and follow the line taken by Douglas Jardine, get mad and get even. “Hate the bastards,” Jardine famously said as he set off with his team for the Bodyline tour. England could use some of that aggression and venom, of which they showed plenty in the first innings of the match, and which Allan Border instilled into his team during his “No More Mr Nice Guy” campaign in 1989. Something of the ruthlessness of SMERSH is called for.
Australian readers should be reassured that there is nothing personal in this! But if this match has demonstrated anything it is that in purely cricketing terms Australia have a better side than England. If this series is to live up to its billing, England will have to make the most of their own advantages in order to level things up. And their principal advantage is in nasty fast bowling. They should aim to make sure that, even if Australia take the Ashes home with them, they will have to get a lackey to carry them since all their fingers will be broken.
Another thing that this match has proved is that Kevin Pietersen is far too good a batsman to be down at five in the order. He should move up to four for the second Test at Edgbaston next week. England may also wish they had not slammed the door on Graham Thorpe so comprehensively. Hard as it would be on Ian Bell, who will learn a lot during this series, England’s chances would be better served if Thorpe were to return in his place. Sadly, the veteran’s sudden announcement of his retirement makes that unlikely.
This is not the time for England to be making any other changes however, a quick comparison of the number of players capped by England and Australia during their equally long Test histories will show how badly England have been served by selectorial indecision over the years. But they will have plenty of thinking and practising to do in the days remaining before the next encounter. For Australia, they can feel satisfied that they have proved once more their status as the World’s Best. There is time yet in this series for that position to be challenged, but even if it is it will remain a privilege (albeit, for a pom, a painful one) to watch them go about their business.
Australia 190 (Langer 40, Harmison 5-43) & 384 (Clarke 91, Katich 67, Martyn 65)
England 155 (Pietersen 57, McGrath 5-53) & 180 (Pietersen 60*, Trescothick 44, McGrath 4-29, Warne 4-64)
Australia won by 239 runs.
Man of the Match