While England may have retained the Ashes, at least until they meet the Aussies in a return series Down Under later in the year, they did so in far from convincing fashion. If not for the temperamental weather in Manchester, Australia would surely have romped to victory, setting up a tantalising encounter at Chester-le-Street. However, not all is lost. Australia’s vastly improved showing in Manchester may have exorcised some of their demons regarding performance and instilled the belief that they can win test matches against their oldest foes. It may prompt some of the best cricket to be seen in the series in the final two matches, Australia now released from the pressure of returning the urn. And if the officials keep to their standards, it shouldn’t be short of controversy.
After their showing at Lord’s, the hosts looked almost bulletproof. They thoroughly embarrassed their counterparts and looked streets ahead of Australia in all departments. While it all seemed to fall apart in Manchester, by no means has the balance of power shifted. It is more the uneven balance within their side that led to their diminished showing. After Australia won an important toss and elected to bat, they amassed 527 against an English bowling attack that looked toothless and lacking in energy. While it must be noted that the pitch was good for batting, it must also be acknowledged that James Anderson returned the worst bowling figures in his entire test career and was unusually expensive in the second innings. All bowlers have bad matches, that is a given, but a look at the way England construct their side may shed more light on the issue. Batsmen heavy, the side has relied on four frontline bowlers for some time now. It has attributed to their success, in that they have been able to traverse periods where runs have been hard to come by for some members in the top order and has allowed them to save test matches by batting unusually deep. However, the workload on all the bowlers, in particular spearhead James Anderson, is beginning to take its toll. The other members of the bowling attack have all been afforded rest through injury, while Anderson has been allowed to sit out precious few fixtures. Weariness and fatigue is a large part of the international game, with schedules packed to bursting. It seems England are wise to the burden, including Tremlett and Onions in the squad for the fourth test. With the Ashes secure, it may be the right time to use them.
The Australians must be asking themselves what more they need to do to win. Their batsmen finally came to the party after an incredibly lean stretch, their pace attack dwarfed England in skill and application and despite baffling decisions regarding selection and batting order, had the English on the ropes. The answer is that they don’t need to do anything other than keep up the same level of performance over a drier five days. Although, apart from Swann, the English bowling attack was not at its best, the Australian batsmen seem to have adapted to the plans that the English implement. It seems that way, but simply looking at history indicates that whenever Clarke scores big runs he usually inspires others to put together useful totals. When Clarke fails, the team generally fails. They will however, look at the positives. Chris Rogers finally looked comfortable and played a sparkling innings while Smith and Haddin shouldered responsibility later on. Mitchell Starc once again proved that he should never be left out of the team, as his lower-order runs can be just as valuable as his penetrating left-arm spells. The team that Australia fields and the order in which they will bat is still a mystery. But what we will see is an Australian team free from the fear of losing.
Chester-le-Street is young in terms of a test ground, having only hosted four tests since 2003 and never one in an Ashes series. It has been a happy hunting ground for England, winning all four fixtures. However, these have all been against minor opposition (Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, West Indies). At this early stage, there is a chance of rain on the opening morning as well as all through the test, but how much of it actually falls remains to be seen.
BEST: Top England 1st Innings Batsman, Alastair Cook 4/1
The England captain has not had the best of Ashes so far, but I feel that free from the worry of retaining the urn, he could well flourish. He scored 160 at the ground against the West Indies four years ago and his overall record speaks for itself. It won’t be long before Cook is back to his best and the 4/1 on offer looks to be a steal.
VERDICT: England 1/1
This is a tough one to call. While I don’t see England being quite as poor as they were in Manchester, I didn’t foresee Australia being as strong as they were last week. I see this as being a tight match, with every session being important. Clarke is back to scoring some runs which should bolster Australia. However, I feel that they may have played their best hand already. Even money is a good price. Back the hosts based on consistency.
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