England have suffered a humiliating 381-run defeat at the hands of Australia in the First Test at Brisbane, going 1-0 down in the 2013-14 Ashes series. This encounter is unique as it is the first time back-t0-back Ashes have been played, meaning that in the space of seven months the two sides would have played ten tests. The ultimate test, one might say. England came into this series following a 3-0 victory during the English summer, and that following victories in the previous two Ashes series as well.
But any English notion of superiority over this Australian side would be false and will ultimately lead to Captain Cook and his men conceding the Ashes down under this Australian summer. The 3-0 score in favour of England earlier this year could easily have been an drawn 2-2 for the series. The first game, at Trent Bridge, was won by England only by the faintest whisker of a few runs, and another saw Australia in the ascendancy but victory ultimately scotched into a draw by the English weather. It is conceivable that England could even have lost the series if a few other “coulds” and “ifs” had gone against them, and Michael Clarke could have flown home with the urn back in Aussie hands.
So to even the keel in the current series, the England side must start by accepting it is fundamentally equal, not superior, to Australia’s. By way of relief therefore, they can also recognise that nothing drastic has changed in the past few months to have granted Australia victory at the Gabba this week. However, there have been two distinctions which resulted not in the defeat itself, but in the size of the defeat at Brisbane this week.
The first distinction is Mitchell Johnson. He won Australia the Brisbane Test taking nine wickets with a magnificent bowling display which had England players hopping about at the crease in fear of fast, body-threatening deliveries. Cast your mind back to the last Ashes down under, in 2010-11, when Johnson did exactly the same in a single, menacing spell of self-belief-fuelled fast bowling at Perth. He took six wickets to destroy England. The second distinction is Jonathan Trott. Trott’s continued weakness at number three means not only is England missing crucial runs at the top order, but also transferring the pressure of containing Australian bowlers onto Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell, the two stroke makers in the England middle order. These two points are creating the crucial difference between the sides.
The strategy to address this should centre on Johnson and consist of two Ds: Deprive and Dismantle. Cook, Carberry and whoever steps up to number three have to do the former, and Pietersen and Bell the latter. Deprival is the first step needed to bring Johnson back to being a normal bowler again. If Johnson goes an opening spell without a wicket in the Second Test at Adelaide, there is a chance that he’ll return for his next spell with a tinge of self-doubt. Provided England can contain him, Johnson’s decline could then be self-inflicted. In the series of 2010-11, following his possessed bowling display at Perth, Johnson’s confidence waned after going barren for a couple of long spells in the next test. The difference was neutralised, England went back on top, and then thrashed Australia in the Fourth Test at Melbourne and at Sydney thereafter.
In the case of Johnson, dismantling won’t work without deprival first, because without deprival his confidence will propel him to bowl viciously fast and with reasonable accuracy. However, once his confidence is undermined, dismantling him will be easier as Johnson’s line and length becomes erratic. This is because Johnson is, to use a cricketing euphemism, a “rhythm bowler.” Pietersen and Bell must not try to dominate, only dismantle. Trying to hook Johnson may result in dismissal – all that’s needed is to wait patiently and put away the wayward deliveries, mainly glancing wide deliveries down the leg side and pulling shorter balls to midwicket. Both Pietersen and Bell could then dominate Nathan Lyon, a mediocre off-spinner at best who is currently enjoying ascendancy in the wake of terrorising bowling spells from the seamers. This would take care of the misplaced notion that Lyon is a better spinner than Graeme Swann.
In executing the 2D strategy, England should ideally not have dropped Trott and push Root up the order to number three. Now that Trott is leaving the tour due to the revelation of his mentall illness, keeping him in the side for even one more Test is no longer an option. But promoting Root would expose him at too early a stage in his settling into an England career, and have the Aussie seamers sniffing for young Yorkshire blood while bowling with a harder ball. I would leave Root at six and look for an alternative option at three, for now.
Neutralising these differences by executing the 2D strategy will only earn England the right to fight for the urn, not to retain it. Notions of entitlement to the Ashes remain false. Though England is a side which works for every victory, it is a hint of superiority over the old enemy which may be resulting in them not going for Aussie throats in the way that the opposition is going for theirs. Stuart Broad’s no-nonsense attitude, though unpopular with Australians, needs to be taken up by the others. Respect for the Poms from the crowds down under will ultimately be worth a lot more than popularity.
Follow me on Twitter @mtchowdhury.