A deserved win

2009-08-25 00:00

ENGLAND deserved to win the Ashes. Figures can be misleading. That Australia provided five of the six highest scorers and the three leading wicket-takers, and still lost, is merely a quirk. Cricket is not to be put in a statistical box. It is a hot-blooded game, a contest to be won and lost.

Plain and simple, England produced the three most incisive spells of bowling in the series — Andrew Flintoff’s thunder at Lords, Jimmy Anderson’s waspish swingers in Birmingham and Stuart Broad’s irresistible intervention at The Oval. And bowlers win matches. Australia produced three low first innings totals and paid the penalty. Inescapably a combination of wobbly middle orde­r batting and inspired bowling stints undid the visitors. In three out of five matches the visitors lost heavily on first innings. The rest is talk.

Although it is not wise to dwell upon matters of fortune, because they can so easily become props, it is legitimate to point out that England did enjoy the rub of the green. On balance the umpiring errors favoured the home side. Andrew Strauss won four out of five tosses, the last of them crucial­.

Australia were unlucky, too, with the rain that interrupted their innings at The Oval. The shower came quickly and freshened the pitch before the covers could be put on. Broad’s burst came straight after the resumption. And Australia’s magnificent resistance on the fourth day came unstuck because their two main batsmen were found an inch shy of their crease.

But this is all part and parcel of the game. Australian cricket is too strong-minded to seek the convenient cover of mischance. Had the team played well enough for long enough, Dame Fortune herself could not have stopped them.

More pertinently, England had the better-balanced side. Not so long ago, a series down under used to examine every part of a team’s make-up. Pace, seam, swing, spin and so forth all had their days in the sun. Of late, Austra­lian pitches have become almost indistinguishable. And they do not change much from the first to last. Steve Harmisson, a long-suffering bowler (a palpable tautology), has called them “chief executive tracks”.

Contrastingly, this Ashes series provided a wide range of surfaces calculated to test a side’s resources. England are solid as opposed to daunting opponents, but Strauss had at his disposal, a spinner, five bowlers, swingers and pitch thumpers. Hardly any overs were bowled by part-timers.

Contrastingly, Australia relied on occasional trundlers for hours upon end, even in the denouement in Cardiff. Clear errors of judgement were made in the make-up of the side. Presumably the selectors were responsible. Cricket Australia needs to clarify the lines of authority over the selec­tion of teams on tour. If Andre­w Hilditch and Jamie Cox, the selectors on the spot, are to be held responsible then they need to make the final decision. If, in practice, it’s left to the captain and coach, then that needs to be convey­ed.

Was Ponting once denied? If not he deserves his share of the blame.

Accountability is critical. But the problems started before the team even arrived, with an unbalanced squad lacking backup in vital areas. That sits squarely on the shoulders of the selectors.

Hereafter Australia need to consider playing five bowlers. England have been blessed to find several lower order men able to score handy runs, notably Broad and Graeme Swann. The Australians need to work harder in that area.

Both captains emerged as strong leaders and patchy tacticians. Throughout Strauss batted with skill and composure and remained unflustered. His response to defeat in Leeds renewed the possibility of victory in London. Without ever losing their rag, his team played proud and passionate cricket.

Success devoured Michael Vaughan and company. Strauss is going to stay the course. He has a young and ambitious side at his disposal, a side unhindered by the emotional and egocentric complications of recent years. And he has a tough, intelligent and constant manager.

Ponting’s first and last innings of the series count among the finest he has played. He was cruelly cut short at The Oval. Till then he had seemed capable of constructing one of the truly great innings the game has known.

Clearly he was not broken by his load. Praise has been heaped upon him and much of it was justified. From the moment he was given his own team to direct, his captaincy began to grow. Certainly his position is not under threat. Overal­l he deserves commendation not censure. Moreover his team represented the country with impressive dignity. Australian cricket returned with its reputation enhanced.

But he cannot be given a completely clean sheet. At times his judgement was found wanting and he lacked tactical acumen. Amidst all the commiserations it’s worth remembering that Australia lost 2-1 to the fifth-ranked side in the world. And the unacknowledged folly of Nagpur is not yet a year old.

Although his stocks are rising, there is room for improvement. Both his captaincy and his team are works in progress. Australia do not need to change so much as improve. Apparently Ponting yearns for another crack at the Poms. On current form he deserves it. Whether the selection panel can remain intact that long is another matter.

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