Friday, July 19, 2013

The taming of the Aussies: How do they fail, let me count the ways

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Capitulation at Lord's

Australia are bundle out for 128 as 16 wickets fall on the second day of the second Test at Lord's.

The British department of health has announced that the current heat wave has contributed to more than 700 fatalities. Australian batting was not listed among them, but the Ashes, as a contest, headed into the weekend on a morphine drip.

A batting collapse such as Australia's on Friday was one of the few things about this series that was anticipated. Its precedents go back not just to India, but reach deep into the Ponting years. The roll call reads like the carved frieze in a war memorial. Perth, 2012. Hobart, 2011. Cape Town, 2011. Melbourne, 2010. Headingley, 2010. They go back to the one that most resembles this, which was at the Oval Test match in the Ashes series of 2009, when the entire rubber was decided between lunch and tea on the second day.

A conga line of failure: Michael Clarke leads the Australian team of the field.

A conga line of failure: Michael Clarke leads the Australian team from the field. Photo: Getty Images

The pattern is of Australia not being able to capitalise on a good bowling effort. Success with the ball seems to produce in this team, rather than a bristling killer instinct, a severe attack of nerves.


On Friday at Lord's, that fragility was purified down to its basic essence.

The pitch was offering up freebies as willingly as a Red Bull promotions girl. The weather was sublime. James Anderson was sub-par, and the ball was not swinging. Faults in the umpiring, and misuse of the DRS, were a red herring.

Graeme Swann of England.

Easy come: Graeme Swann accepts the applause for his five-wicket haul. Photo: Getty Images

Australia's wickets were each the fault of the individual batsmen. Not even England's bowlers can be credited with too much more than simple gratitude for what came their way. Graeme Swann lifted his ball in acknowledgement of his five wickets with an air of slight embarrassment, as if the moment should be shared with the men in green helmets who had so generously helped him out.

Everyone would like to know why, but let's start with the how. Shane Watson started patiently, belted a string of pearly boundaries, shoved his front pad down the wicket and was lbw. This is so familiar it can be cut and pasted. It is Watson's whole career. He chose to review the decision, which was symbolic in a way, not for its usual selfishness so much as for the role Hawk-Eye has played in his life as a batsman. When Watson learnt to bat, you could take guard a metre outside your crease, plonk your left leg forward, and be confident that an umpire would have too many doubts to give you out lbw. But Watson has come into Test cricket in an era when that is no longer possible.

Hawk-Eye and DRS have taken that soft front-foot option away from batsmen (and rightly so). The question is why, after a decade as an international player, Watson has failed to adapt his technique.

Hawk-Eye didn't get Watson out any more than the scorer did. His error was worth double to England, as by sucking out half the DRS allowance, he facilitated the next wicket, when Chris Rogers was hit in the box by a Swann donkey-drop so rank it should have next met the ground somewhere near the foot of the Old Father Time clock. Rogers was given out, his partner Usman Khawaja offered no help, and the review suddenly seemed to scarce a resource to dare using, when a replay would have shown the ball to be missing the stumps. It was an embarrassing moment on any number of levels, but primarily because Rogers played such an abominable stroke.

Khawaja went next. Given a life by a fumble-fingered Jonathan Trott, Khawaja backed himself and played his shots, just as he had been told to do. He butted up against the limitations of his own skill, scooping a lame catch to mid-off. Phillip Hughes attempted what appeared, to the naked eye, though this cannot be true, to be a stomach-height cover drive off the eighth delivery he faced. And then he gave up the other half of the unsuccessful reviews. To say it

couldn't get any worse is to forget that Australia were still only four wickets down.

Michael Clarke batted in a way to suggest that even if he has not contributed the 500 or 600 runs his team have so far needed from him, he is not out of form. Like Watson, he hit the ball crisply and powerfully. Like Watson, he was lbw to a straight one. If, like Watson, he had had a chance to review the decision, he might have wasted another one.

This time, not even the estimable batting-bowlers could save their teammates' blushes. England's batsmen did, however, go out in sympathy, producing a late-afternoon display every bit as poor as Australia's. Test cricket batting may have known worse days, but it's hard to think of many that cannot be credited to bowlers or blamed on pitches.

It was one of those days when everyone seems to have a theory, but no one has an answer. On Australia's side, there has been no lack of planning for this juncture. They knew that compiling first-innings scores was the key to regaining the Ashes. Defensive technique was the centrepiece of their preparation. For three months they have practised with red balls to dispel the white-ball mentality. The much-lauded coach switch was designed to free their minds. Every effort has been made to improve team unity. That leaves nothing, by way of disguise or excuse or mitigation, nothing at all, except the players' own mortification. It's a shame it happened so early in the series. On the upside, it left them with half a summer to make amends.

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