Ashes 2013/14: Key Points from Day 1 at the SCG
Today was Groundhog Day for England at the Sydney Cricket Ground as they reduced Australia's top-order to rubble before Brad Haddin and Steven Smith sauntered in and rebuilt the fortress.
They were dismissed for 326 on a good bowling pitch after Alastair Cook finally won the toss earlier in the day.
England closed on 8-1, with Michael Carberry the man out.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to assess any given day of this series as a singular day of cricket, such is the disparity in returns between England’s batsmen and England’s bowlers and the nature of Australia's rather weirdly bottom heavy-batting.
Every day, disproportionately great things are required of the bowlers in an effort to preserve the chances of victory despite the form of the batsmen. And every day England do okay with the ball, but because most of the runs come in the second half of the day, it doesn't feel like that.
Essentially today, although not a great day for England, was again not nearly as bad as is being made out when you consider it in isolation.
England, with Boyd Rankin injured for most of the day, and Scott Borthwick struggling on debut, bowled Australia out for 326 on a first day pitch. Stuart Broad and James Anderson were excellent, especially early on, while Ben Stokes, although expensive, yet again proved his wicket-taking capabilities.
The Unlikely (Now Likely) Lads
The day was going exceedingly well for England with Australia at 97-5, but then, not for the first time in this series they ran into Brad "Bloody" Haddin and his partner in crime Steven Smith.
Indeed, Australia have been five down for less than 150 in four out of their five first innings in this series, but time and time again they have seized such moments of importance and fought back.
Today it was Haddin who led the charge bludgeoning England’s bowlers with typical belligerence and a nuggety smile, while Smith played a more secondary role.
It was in this innings that Haddin’s series transformed from a group of crucial contributions to something more historically meaningful. Haddin’s Ashes record is now nine runs short of Adam Gilchrist’s, while the 36-year-old now exceeds Gilchrist in terms of hundreds and fifties; the spectre of an Ashes legend is growing.
Smith went on to record his second hundred of the series and third in his last six Tests after Haddin’s dismissal; he really has matured into the player his talent had suggested him capable of.
Furthermore, his commitment to the Test format should be commended when you consider the myriad of options that surely presented themselves after he successfully led the Sydney Sixers to Champions League glory in 2012 while still finding himself on the outskirts of the Test side.
However much it will pain England to admit it, Australia’s resistance was in part their own doing as they again let a position of strength slip.
Admittedly, they were bitterly unfortunate with the injury of Rankin, which reduced Alastair Cook’s options significantly, as well as underlying the value of Stokes as a fifth bowler, but there was a discernible sense of England losing control of the situation not long after Haddin joined Smith at the crease.
England had been a touch short in length all morning and that was seized on by two players in tremendous form. Boundaries started to flow, and Cook, unsure whether to attack or defend with his field at the best of times suddenly looked lost.
A couple of quick haphazard bowling changes were made but to no avail. One minute things were fine, the next you looked up and suddenly they weren’t.
The partnership between Smith and Haddin wrestled the briefly-lost Australian momentum back and English heads quickly dropped.
Ultimately 326 all out is not terrible, but it could’ve been so much better.
A particularly telling statistic is that this Test match is only the third time ever that Australia have gone five consecutive Tests with an unchanged side, and the first time since 2006 that England have handed out three debuts in the same match.
Of the three changes England made, Joe Root out, Gary Ballance in; Monty Panesar out, Scott Borthwick in; and Tim Bresnan out, Boyd Rankin in—none of them were unequivocally justifiable.
While the merits and demerits of which of Michael Carberry or Root should’ve been dropped were debated, few considered the idea that neither should’ve been.
Both have been doing similarly badly, not only to each other but to the rest of the batting order. Whether Ballance, with very little recent first-class cricket behind him will fare much better is doubtful.
Anyhow, Root is a talented cricketer, and being dropped can sometimes be the best thing to happen to a young player—he will almost certainly play Test cricket again.
If a batsmen had to go, which the media has engendered there need be, as the Telegraph's Derek Pringle wrote, Root was the right man. But No Man would’ve been preferable.
Meanwhile, handing a debut to a leg-spinner is a precarious business at the best of times, but doing so in the fifth Ashes Test of a series totally dominated by the opposition is one of even greater risk.
While playing Borthwick may be viewed in the short-term as a decision in which England are hastening the arrival of their new generation, in the long-term it is a decision that could cause irreversible damage to a precocious talent, and as it was, the signs are not good, with Borthwick being afforded just seven expensive, boundary-ridden overs.
The risk of playing Borthwick was only increased by the selection of Rankin, who, with no first-class cricket since the beginning of December, was a speculative pick, not only in that England could not know quite how he’d bowl, but nor how his body would hold up. As it was, injury fatefully struck, England’s attack was depleted, and Cook couldn’t even turn to his spinner to hold up an end.
Picking James Tredwell, retaining Tim Bresnan, or even just picking the entire same team from the last Test would’ve been a safer option.
It's the Hope (& Johnson) That Kills You
This day of two halves was capped by Mitchell Johnson’s ferocious spell at the end of the evening session which snared Carberry’s wicket and saw Anderson thrown to the dogs as nightwatchman.
Every time England have gone out to bat in this series you’ve wondered whether it would be the time that they get it together, whether it would be that time that Australia’s attack didn’t fire, and every time, just as it was today, you’ve chastised yourself for the folly of ever thinking so unrealistically.
Tomorrow morning though, England fans will hope again. They’re weird like that.