POOR James Pattinson. One of the brightest young bowling talents in world cricket left the increasingly shambolic Australian tour party last week with a stress fracture to his back.
It was a sad end for a wholehearted trier and it robbed this series of one of its entertainers. He endured difficulties at Lord’s with the slope but he was compelling to watch. He is quick, possessed of the mean streak that all fast bowlers need and never ever gave up.
A good old-fashioned Australian competitor, nasty to batsmen, cussed with the bat and not shy of letting opponents know their various shortcomings during the game. Off the field charming, engaging and surprisingly quiet.
And yet his tearful departure bemoaning the fact that his body suffered because it only had three hours’ rest between innings at Lord’s was as sad a lament in cricket as has been heard for a long time.
He was distraught and the batsmen whose ineptitude had caused the problem at Lord’s should have hung their heads in shame.
A warrior was going home and they were still here.
How bad have they been? Allan Border, the architect of Australia’s dominance in the late 90s and noughties, described the tail-end three as better than the top three.
From most this would be a glib comment designed to highlight an area of concern via exaggeration. From the usually taciturn Border it is devastating.
Sadly for the batsmen it is backed up by the statistics of the series as well.
Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Ashton Agar and Ryan Harris have proved resilient at the crease, facing more deliveries than the so-called specialists.
And that is after they have worked hard at their own disciplines. Remember, England’s batting has not dominated this series. Trent Bridge was a thriller won by 14 runs and Lord’s should have been very different as Joe Root, the anchor of the second innings with a mammoth 180, was dropped on eight, a simple edge that slipped between wicket-keeper Brad Haddin and first slip. Take that catch on the second evening and England were wobbling.
The bowlers have been fine for Australia. They are exhausted but ever willing and unless fatigue really does set in – and with the third and fourth Tests being back-to-back it is a concern – are likely to continue to trouble England enough to keep Australia in the next three Test matches. Whether they take advantage of that is down to the batsmen and that is where England are truly dominant.
Consider the top six. Shane Watson crashes to a quick 30 and then is dismissed, probably LBW as he has been three times from four, or caught. Whenever the umpire’s finger goes up he is likely to review, probably unsuccessfully, and then start a weary trudge to the pavilion. Incidentally the slow trudge back is exactly the same walk he uses in the field between overs or during general play.
Not once has he looked animated or fired with competitive zeal. His body language is more “couldn’t care less, this is nothing to do with me” than “buzzing, let me at them”.
Chris Rogers, his partner, is trying to be an immovable block but, for all his experience from playing a long time in England and scoring 20,000 first-class runs, he looks a bit short on class. Not surprisingly, he has been dismissed twice each by James Anderson and Graeme Swann, England’s two main threats.
Usman Khawaja at first drop looks skittish. He did register a half-century at Lord’s in the second innings but it was confusing to watch him play Swann. The off-spinner was fizzing the ball from round the wicket into giant footholds outside Khawaja’s off-stump. Time after time Khawaja offered a limp bat as defence and edges came too easily. Why not simply plant the pad in the way of the ball and kick it? The ball was spinning prodigiously and always away from the stumps. No umpire would give LBW and it would have forced Swann to bowl straighter which would have meant the ball would land on the pitch rather than a foothold crater and be much easier to play.
Somehow Australia have to find some stability at the top of the order and make the England bowlers work for wickets.
That is why reserve wicket-keeper Matthew Wade has stated he is keen to get in the side as a specialist batsman. Why not? He is a good player, has scored a Test century this year against Sri Lanka in January and, quite frankly, could not do worse than the so-called batsmen who have been selected so far.
It would be a leap of faith to select him as he scored a duck against Sussex on Friday but what else can Australia do? They are in such disarray and all semblance of coherence in selection has gone: they are probably better off picking the best characters and supporting them for a few matches, or indeed months.
And that means getting David Warner back. He has finally scored runs, 193 of them to be exact, on his naughty boy deployment to Zimbabwe and South Africa with Australia A after punching Joe Root in Birmingham’s Walkabout bar before the Test series started, so he has had a good hit, should be chastised and is desperately needed at Old Trafford.
How parlous the state of Australian cricket, though, if an SOS is sent to Warner as the cure of their ills. In 19 Test matches he has scored only three hundreds and seven half-centuries. Is that particularly impressive? No. Is he needed by Australia? Yes.
As are centuries. Even against Sussex, the top order failed to convert starts into three figures. Steve Smith may do as he was 98 not out but the scores of the rest of the top six were 66, 84, 40, 0 and 48.
That does not dominate Test matches.
England have few concerns. They are cruising along like a well-oiled machine. Tinkering is happening, tactics are being reviewed and plans made for the short, mid and long-term future.
The Ashes could be won this week at Old Trafford. That is the immediate plan and all that matters for now.