Report by Neil Robinson 08/07/2005
As England and Australia head towards what might be the most closely fought Ashes contest in years, it seems inevitable that anyone making pronouncements on how the battle will go, or who may thrive or fall in it, is destined to come a cropper.
Hardly had the dust settled on the Fletcher-Buchanan verbal spat before the Australian coach’s words about his bowlers’ ability to exploit the weaknesses of England’s top order batsmen came back to haunt him. After another classy innings from Michael Hussey had allowed the tourists to post a more than respectable 219-7 in difficult conditions, England’s top three powered them to a convincing 9-wicket win, a commanding century from Marcus Trescothick, his first against Australia, being the highlight.
For all the great interest in the first ODI to feature tactical substitutions and flexible fielding restrictions (now given the appalling title of ‘powerplays’), it was the eternal influence of the English weather which had the greatest influence over the game. The new regulations aimed at making the game less predictable achieved nothing of the sort – both captains elected to keep the fielding restrictions in place for the first 20 overs, and circumstances in which they would choose to keep either 5-over slot for later in the game are likely to be rare. The likely scenario for powerplays coming in later in the innings is if the batsmen get off to a flyer and the fielding captain wants to put his fielders back after just 10 overs. Even then, it would be a risk, balancing containment now against the inability to contain later when, with the ball older and softer, the close catcher becomes largely redundant.
Both sides used their substitute. For England Simon Jones was predictably replaced once he had completed his 10 economical overs, by Vikram Solanki. The way the match progressed meant that Solanki didn’t do any more than he would have as a normal twelfth man. For Australia Brad Hogg came on when Shane Watson picked up an injury in his third over. Officially Hogg replaced Matthew Hayden, although Hayden stayed on the field as deputy for Watson, thus allowing Hogg to bowl the full 10 overs which were Hayden’s allocation rather than the 7 left to Watson.
But these were mere curiosities compared with the malign influence of the Yorkshire weather. Michael Vaughan won the toss under a heavy, grey sky which game him no option but to put the Australians in. Predictably, the ball zipped around and batting was never easy. By the time England’s turn to bat came the skies had cleared, the air was less heavy and the pitch less lively. England’s batsmen played extremely well, and some of Australia’s bowlers were decidedly below par, but the conditions certainly favoured the home side.
Not that they took full advantage of them when they bowled. Curiously, on a ground famous as the archetype of English conditions, recent years have seen a number of occasions when England have bowled particularly badly here. 2002, in the Test match against India, is a case in point. And here too England’s pace attack made the mistake of bowling too short. Countless times they beat the bat, but pitching short of a length the exaggerated movement took the ball comfortably past the edge. A fuller length would have given the ball less time to move away from the bat and made the edge more likely.
The home side’s much vaunted pace attack gained its wickets through a combination of luck – the leg side strangle by which Harmison disposed of Gilchrist – and poor batting – Ponting, normally so secure off the back foot, pulling carelessly to Pietersen at midwicket. The unlikely hero of England’s bowling effort was Paul Collingwood, who at his nippy medium pace kept a tight line and found the ideal length to make life difficult for the Aussies. The ball with which he bowled Michael Clarke was a beauty, full and nipping back sharply off the seam, although Clarke’s expansive drive made the job rather easier than it might have been.
Only Hussey ever really looked comfortable, and England will be mighty glad to see the back of him after the next two games. Gilchrist’s 42 was a slightly troubled affair punctuated by air-shots, while Damien Martyn’s 43 would have been much less had a fairly obvious edge off Simon Jones been spotted by Umpire Benson (an error later duplicated by Rudi Koertzen to Trescothick’s benefit when England replied.) But Hussey’s calm head and belligerent strokeplay saw Australia to what looked like a competitive total, especially after a dramatic penultimate over which brought 17 runs, 12 of them off the first three balls.
For a man who, only a few weeks ago, looked to be in the most sublime form of his life, Marcus Trescothick came out to bat under an unusual amount of pressure. Too often ‘bad form’ has been blamed for his inability to make runs against Australia, when in reality it was clear that Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie had isolated his principal weakness and exploited it ruthlessly. For those of a cynical turn of mind, it was hard to believe that Trescothick would ever prosper against these bowlers as long as they retained their powers, but while there was no noticeable technical difference to Trescothick’s play here, there was a greater decisiveness about his batting. Strauss too seemed determined not to repeat the mistakes of last week’s Lord’s final and show the new ball the respect it deserved.
The result was something like Test cricket. Strauss, watchful against the searing pace of Lee, staying back and playing with soft hands, looked a different player entirely. Despite the improved weather, there were still scares aplenty for the batsmen. Strauss was dropped by Gilchrist on 1, a curious looking chance off the shoulder of the bat which had the keeper wrong-footed. Trescothick was caught down at third man off a no-ball, the old flaw in Lee’s bowling haunting him still. But once these wobbles were over, and the fearsome new-ball pairing had been seen off, England’s progress became serene.
Apart from the grotesque end of Strauss, caught behind off Hogg trying a wholly unnecessary reverse-sweep, there was little sign of an England collapse. Vaughan came in and played with a freedom and panache rarely seen from him in this form of the game. Poor Jason Gillespie, still a shadow of his true self, was quite taken to the cleaners by him. The lofted drive over straight mid-off which Vaughan played off one Gillespie slower ball, will stick in the mind for some time.
It may not happen again this summer, but England fairly cruised to victory, as Australia, like England, bowled far too short and ball after ball was whipped to the square boundary. The target was reached with four overs to spare, leaving Australia with much to ponder as they head to London for the remaining two games in this series.
Earlier defeats on this tour could easily be written off as the product of acclimatisation and lack of practice. The longer the tour goes on the less convincing that argument sounds. There is time yet for Australia to regroup and dominate the real business of the tour, but their problems are still to be addressed. Most pressing are those of Gillespie, who is running in with no rhythm or confidence, and Hussey, whose excellent form will not benefit the Test side of which he is not part.
Despite Thursday’s terrorist attacks in central London, the two remaining games in this series, at Lord’s on Sunday and at The Oval next Tuesday, seem certain to go ahead as planned. Long may the game of cricket and all who play and watch it continue to put two fingers up at those whose only contributions to society are feeble and futile attempts to destroy it.
Australia 219-7 (50 overs) (Hussey 46*, Martyn 43, Gilchrist 42, Collingwood 4-34)
England 221-1 (46 overs) (Trescothick 104*, Vaughan 59*, Strauss 41)
England won by 9 wickets
Man of the Match