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Iain Fletcher: History beckons for Michael Clarke

Harsh lesson: England debutant Gary Ballance is struck on the head off the bowling of Mitchell Johnson. Photograph: Getty

Harsh lesson: England debutant Gary Ballance is struck on the head off the bowling of Mitchell Johnson. Photograph: Getty

  • by IAIN FLETCHER
 

MICHAEL Clarke and his Australian team stand on the brink of cricketing history. Only two captains have previously led Australia to a whitewash of England.

But, such has been the dominance demonstrated throughout this series that Clarke will surely join Ricky Ponting and Warwick Armstrong as skippers to have led a side to the most crushing of Ashes victories.

And to borrow some Australian vernacular: “Good on ’em.”

Australia have played a thrilling brand of cricket and have deserved every advantage they have earned.

What has been most impressive is their willingness to attack and, when that fails, to regroup and find another way to get on the front foot.

England’s success in recent years has been based on strangling the opposition, almost stultifying them into submission – with the occasional burst of brilliance. It has been attritional cricket.

Australia, however, under the excellent leadership of Clarke, below right, and coach Darren Lehmann have gone on the offensive.

Consider the opening partnerships with both ball and bat. 
Australia have Mitchell Johnson bowling thunderbolts first up with Ryan Harris’ deliveries only slightly slower. It is easy to think of Harris as more pedestrian and a man who works a good line and length but he is hostile. During this series they have been excellent and would have severely tested any batting line-up in the world.

First up with the bat, the Aussies have the pugnacious and aggressive David Warner alongside the more sedate Chris Rogers.

Whether with bat or ball, Australia have been able to move the game forward and put pressure on England, who have failed to adjust to this aggressive intent.

And, with such momentum, it has been easy for the other players to contribute. Steve Smith has two centuries in the series – both when the scoreboard was looking poorly and England were in the ascendancy. Brad Haddin has counter-attacked and dragged England into a street fight for which they are ill-suited, while change bowlers Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon have picked off the England stragglers.

Nothing has shown the difference between the sides better than the fielding in this match in Sydney. Australia have swarmed all over the field and nearly every time an England batter has fended the ball off or played a false shot, he has found a fielder. Sometimes it seemed the Australians had 15 on the field.

England, on the other hand, have dived over the ball, dropped catches and generally looked lethargic. The fight has been knocked out of them.

It would have made for a better finale to the series, though, if the pitch at Sydney had been of a suitable standard for professional cricket. It looks to have been tailor-made for the Australian quicks, with plenty of live, green grass left on.

There is nothing wrong with that. Batting should be a test and there are too many bland shirtfronts around the globe that negate the efforts of the best bowlers. However, what is unacceptable is the uneven bounce. A batsman should only have to consider uneven bounce once a pitch has started to break up and that is usually once it has been sun-baked and played on for more than 300 overs.

On the first morning of an iconic Test match at the SCG, the Australian batters were guessing the bounce. That is a sign of a poor pitch and does little service to either side or the spectators, both in the ground and around the globe.

So what now for England? They have gone into panic mode as they selected three debutants for this match, alongside Ben Stokes – playing only his fourth Test match.

Gary Ballance endured a fierce reception and ended up wearing a superb bouncer on the grille of his helmet. Boyd Rankin has a twinge in his hamstring and Scott Borthwick bowled too loosely.

These players are not the issue, though. Captain Alastair Cook has suffered all tour as the pressure of leading a losing side has worn him down. Being in charge of a bad side is a lot harder than skippering a good one, when decisions tend to be much more formulaic.

There is a willingness to protect Cook within the England hierarchy but the truth is he is a poor tactician.

The problem is, who would replace him? Ian Bell perhaps. He is a quiet man who does not exude authority and looks, more than most, desperate for a couple of months’ break from the game.

Kevin Pietersen? It would re-engage him with the Test format but it would be an extraordinary turnaround for both he and the ECB to trust each other enough for that.

It seems that Cook is the only man for the job but he needs some help from his coterie of senior players and, more specifically, the batsmen.

They have only passed 200 four times in the first nine innings of this series.

That is not just a concern, it is appalling. It is almost as bad as the tour to West Indies in 1985/86 when the opposition bowling line-up was Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Patrick Patterson with Michael Holding coming on as second change. That is as fearsome a quartet as has ever graced a cricket field and their modus operandi was to bowl at the body to hurt.

In comparison, this England team has actually had it much easier and have been shown to be a much lesser side than previously believed.

 

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