Ashes 2013-14: How England Can Salvage the Final Two Tests

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Ashes 2013-14: How England Can Salvage the Final Two Tests
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The Ashes urn may be safely tucked away in Australian captain Michael Clarke's back pocket, but there is still plenty for England to play for in the final two Tests.

With Matt Prior, Graeme Swann and even Kevin Pietersen fighting for their international futures, there is more than just pride at stake in Melbourne and Sydney. Why has this tour turned into such a calamity, and what can the tourists do to prevent a whitewash?

 

Batting

Surprisingly, all of England's top order have passed 50 at least once this series, which suggests that a lack of technique against pace bowling isn't the only reason for a succession of low totals.

The tempo of England's batting has rarely seemed in sync, lurching from the frenetic to the pedestrian with little in between. As well as Nathan Lyon has bowled, he's no Saeed Ajmal, let alone a Murali, and he can't be allowed to bowl dot ball after dot ball.

The same can be said of Shane Watson, whose metronomic line and length allow the Australians to build up pressure and give the quicks a rest. A potential solution, and one strongly advocated by Shane Warne, would be to move Ian Bell up the order.

The England management's hope of a solid platform at the top of the order has failed to materialise with Alastair Cook and Michael Carberry passing 50 just once this series. In four out of five previous Ashes series, Cook has failed to average more than 27.70 (the exception was 2010-11 where he averaged exactly 100 more). The skipper needs to lead from the front.

Nobody can question Carberry's courage in the face of Mitchell Johnson's 95-mph onslaught, and the Hampshire opener certainly hasn't looked out of depth in the Test arena. He really needs a big score to accompany the style points, though.

The same can be said of Joe Root. Yo-yoing up and down the order isn't usually a recipe for healthy run gathering, and so it has proved for the Yorkshireman. The limitations of the DRS haven't helped either, but the 22-year-old has shown stomach for the fight and should be a feature of the England order for years to come.

Kevin Pietersen's aim of scoring 10,000 Test runs seems a long way off given some of the crazy ways he has got himself out this winter. If he really wants to quiet, if not silence, his legions of critics, a century at Melbourne would be a handy place to start.

If the selectors had more faith in Johnny Bairstow, it's likely that Matt Prior would have been dropped already. Coach Andy Flower has hinted that the axe could fall in Melbourne. Whoever is behind the stumps will need to re-energise a fielding team that has often looked unusually flat.

If the top order aren't making runs, it's tough to expect the lower order to contribute much. England might not be revisiting the glory days of a Mullally, Tufnell, Giddins tail, but at the moment, it's a case of six out, all out. If they're going to go down, they may as well play some shots in the process.

The one bright spot has been Ben Stokes. A solid defence, a positive approach, judicious shot selection combined with a little bit of luck showed just what is possible against a good but not great Aussie attack.

In short: better tempo, fewer gifted wickets, turn starts into centuries, some lower order spark.

 

Bowling

A combination of the Kookaburra ball, extremely hot weather and lush outfields has neutered England's swing-heavy attack. You can't fault the effort of Broad, Anderson, Tremlett, Bresnan and Stokes, but only the former has consistently caused problems for the Australian batsmen on a succession of flat pitches.

In each of the first three Test matches, England have been in a decent position on the opening day but haven't found a way to finish off the innings. In Brisbane, 132 for 6 became 295, in Adelaide 174 for 4 became 570 for 9 and in Perth 143 for 5 developed into 385.

England's attack has to be able to see off the tail, starting with Brad Haddin, who is becoming as much of an irritant to England followers as Ian Healy.

Broad's injury opens the door for Steve Finn or Boyd Rankin to stake a claim. The knock on Finn is that he's expensive, operating at 3.65 runs per over. He does have a happy knack of taking wickets, though, and his Test strike rate of 48 is far superior to that of Anderson, Broad or Bresnan.

A crucial ingredient in England's recent success has been Graeme Swann's ability to take key wickets and offer control at one end. The summer's leading bowler has failed on both counts in this series. A lack of scoreboard pressure hasn't helped Swann's cause, but he really needs to find his mojo.

In short: hope the drop-in Melbourne pitch offers the seamers some assistance, try and rough up the tail.

 

In the Field

If fielding is a barometer of the morale of a side, then England have been stuck in a trough of low pressure. Dropped catches, missed stumpings and taking wickets with no-balls are emblematic of a side low on confidence.

England seem to have been shocked by the intensity of Australia. Not just from the team, but also the crowds and media, which have been about as balanced as North Korean state TV.

Alastair Cook is saying all the right things in the run up to Melbourne. He now needs to show it in the middle.

In short: It's obvious, but hold on to the chances. Don't let heads drop in the field as things start badly.

 

Third in a Two-Horse Race

As Matt Prior put it in his Daily Telegraph column earlier this week, England have so far come “third in a two horse race”. Even if the visitors don't manage to win in Melbourne, supporters will hope that the tourists will at least be challenging heading into the final furlong; otherwise, some big names could be taking a trip to the metaphorical glue factory.

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