Preview by Neil Robinson 04/08/2005
Having originally named an unchanged twelve for the second Test at Edgbaston, Englandís selectors soon sent for Durhamís Paul Collingwood after taking a first look at the pitch on Monday. The Birmingham area has seen a lot of rain in the last few weeks, and those who have seen the pitch say it is likely to be a slow, seaming type of surface, most suitable for skiddy bowlers such as Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones and Jason Gillespie. It might not have been suitable for much at all had the devastating tornado which hit the city last week have come closer than 800 yards from the ground. ďThat would have been it,Ē said head groundsman Steve Rowse, ďmatch abandoned.Ē
While England might have welcomed the intervention of traditional British summer weather on the last two days at Lordís, they would have preferred a prolonged spell of dry weather in the lead up to this match to save them wondering whether to omit the spin of Ashley Giles in favour of the in-form batting and back-up swing and seam of Collingwood. Giles has been a key figure in England performances over the last year or so, not just for the wickets he has taken and the runs he has scored down the order, but also for the control he imposes which allows Englandís pace attack to be rested and rotated.
Giles did not have a happy match at Lordís. He started this season in the form of his life, but the interruption of his hip injury has left him with little bowling under his belt. While his opposite number Shane Warne was turning his arm over at length for Hampshire, Giles was restricted to filling in with the odd over here and there during the one day series. And Giles was not the only one short of practice. Ian Bell went into the Lordís match having not had a first-class innings in over a month, as English cricket entered into its now customary mid-summer orgy of limited overs excess.
It is a sad fact that for all the big talk about Team England and the priority given to Test prospects, the domestic scene is now devoted to one matter above all others: making money. Just about every notable date in the cricket calendar is now set aside for the one day Ďbig occasion.í First-class cricket is restricted to the working week, one day cricket gets all the peak hours, then they point to the attendance figures and say, ďlook, people just donít want to watch the longer game.Ē Well duh!
The end result is that while Australia were re-acclimatising themselves to the longer form of the game with a three-day match at Leicester, Englandís stars had the choice of net practice or showing the punters a bit of thigh in the Totesport League and Twenty20 Cup. Little wonder, then, that those who are not such naturals at the shorter form of the game, notably Vaughan and Bell, looked some way off the pace at Lordís.
It is not a subject I have heard raised often in the past, but I have lost count of how many people have said to me in the last few days that between Tests England really ought to play practice matches against the counties, or England A, or even, Lord help us!, Bangladesh A. The argument against this would probably be that while Englandís batsmen could do with time in the middle, the likes of Harmison and Flintoff do not need their workload adding to. Fair enough, but why would it need to be a full strength side? There are enough quality cricketers in England to make up the numbers for those who would need resting during such a match.
The whole point about central contracts was supposed to be that the England management would be able to pull players out of county matches when necessary. Their point becomes less clear if there are no four-day games to pull them out of in the first place.
The clogging of the fixture list with excessive one-day competitions is an old bone of contention for me. For decades now English cricketers have played far more one-day matches than their counterparts overseas. The commercial value of these matches may be an important element, but other arguments have been trotted out in their defence, such as the patently absurd one that they help players prepare for One Day Internationals. If that were the case England would have won every World Cup for the last 30 years!
Delete the pointless Totesport League and you radically reduce the burden of playing and travelling which has afflicted generations of cricketers in this country. You still retain the cash cow of Twenty20, and the traditional knockout final at Lordís, but you can also gain sufficient flexibility in your schedule to give out of form Test players adequate practice between Tests by playing Championship matches from Friday to Monday. And having a midweek schedule for the one-day matches would guarantee that these vital money-spinners do not clash with the Tests.
But before this match preview goes too far off message, back to Edgbaston. England will be hoping that a couple of dry days at the start of this week will make conditions more friendly to the spin of Giles, to help them keep a settled side and show faith in the players who have achieved so much in the last two years. It may seem strange that England might prefer conditions which would also benefit Shane Warne, but in truth the conditions will make little difference to a bowler of Warne's calibre, who could turn it anywhere, whereas a green pitch could negate Giles completely and leave England over reliant on pace.
Aggressive pace bowling is still a must for England here, even if the conditions are less favourable than at Lordís, but above all else they will be hoping for improved form from their batsmen. A one-day century for Yorkshire may have given Vaughan's confidence a vital boost, another solid opening partnership from Trescothick and Strauss as in the second innings at Lordís would help him no end. The brilliant Kevin Pietersen would have a greater chance of turning defiant fifties into match-winning hundreds batting at four rather than five, where Ian Bell will need to use his feet and trust his instincts against Warne. Andrew Flintoff will need to marry aggression with a solid forward technique and, well, perhaps that's enough to be asking for one match. Apart from fewer dropped catches that is.
With Australia looking ever more settled and confident, can England do it? I believe they can, but the nature of their team is such that only by attacking and trying to throw the Aussies off their game can they succeed. McGrath needs to be forced out of his metronomic mode, Warne must not be allowed to bowl at the same batsman ball after ball, their batsmen must be bruised and made to realise that victory over England comes at a price.
It is a tough task, one that will require self-belief of Australian proportions. And it wasn't helped in practice on Tuesday when the first batsman to get bruised turned out to be England captain Michael Vaughan, struck on the elbow by Chris Tremlett. The blow was a painful one causing severe bruising, however he has since been cleared to play and will take his place in the team. To lose their captain on the eve of this crucial game, and see a return of the injury jinx which has followed England through all recent Ashes series, would surely have put paid to their hopes once and for all.
Late update: It is expected Ashley Giles will take his place in the 12 ahead of Paul Collingwood.