You would have to be very biased to deny that Australia were much the better side at Old Trafford, and were devilishly unlucky to be denied victory by the arrival of the rain.
Take Australia first. They have admittedly only one top-class batsman, the captain Michael Clarke, and it was his excellent and beautiful 187 which put them in a position from which they might have won the game. Then Chris Rogers, their opening batsman, is a very good player. One English commentator described him the other day as “a journeyman”. That’s harsh. At the age of 35, Rogers has played only a handful of Tests; not surprising since when he was in his 20s he was kept out of the team by Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer. But he has scored more than 20,000 first-class runs with 60 centuries. That’s no journeyman. Otherwise Australia have young inexperienced batsmen, still finding their feet at this level. David Warner, Usman Khawaja, and Steve Smith, all look as if they will do so; Phillip Hughes too, perhaps. Warner by the way is no One-Day T20 slogger, but a fast-footed player with a wide range of genuine strokes.
The Australian pace attack is very good, better perhaps than England’s. Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle have been excellent, bowling to a plan and to the constricting fields Clarke has given them. They have consistently bowled a good length, on or outside off-stump, content to wait for the batsman to make a mistake. In contrast, England’s pacemen, perhaps corrupted by one-day cricket, have shown a lack of patience and been far too ready to attempt variations.
Anderson bowled beautifully at Trent Bridge, very well at Lord’s, not so well at Old Trafford. Siddle, in contrast, has been consistently hard to score off. Stuart Broad keeps trying to make things happen and, as a result, has been wayward. He has taken only six wickets to date; on the credit side, three of these wickets have been Clarke’s.
England, however, have Graeme Swann, while Australia’s spin attack has been poor. The English spinners have taken 22 wickets (Swann 19, Joe Root three) while Australia’s (Ashton Agar, Steve Smith, and Nathan Lyon) have only seven between them. Three of these were taken by the leg-spinner Smith towards the end of the first day at Lord’s. No Australian spinner has bowled a significant spell. Swann has been the difference between the two sides.
Neither team has batted well. Only two players, Clarke and Ian Bell, are averaging over 40. Bell (average 75) has been outstanding, with two centuries and two 50s in five innings; his 60 at Old Trafford was a purist‘s delight. Root hit that beautiful 180 at Lord’s, but at Old Trafford found it difficult to get the ball off the square. That said, his strokeless defiance on Monday morning, as England waited for the rain to come to save them, was worthy of Geoffrey Boycott. Kevin Pietersen’s 100 last Saturday, vital in the context of the match, was one of his best because, paradoxically, it was one of his worst. Except when hitting Lyon out of the attack, his timing was all astray. I have rarely seen him mis-hit so many shots. He had his moment of luck, when Clarke chose not to review the umpire’s decision on a lbw appeal when he was mistakenly given not out .
Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior have all been in rotten form, which is why England haven’t achieved the dominance that many expected. In a total of 17 innings, they have made 339 runs between them: Ian Bell has scored 381. In five of his six innings Bell has come in a crisis, with three wickets down for less than 40. Some criticism has been directed at young Jonny Bairstow and, admittedly, he has sometimes looked unconvincing. But he has scored more runs, 161, in an innings fewer than Cook or Trott, and in each Test he has played a useful part in an important partnership. A No 6 batsman is entitled to hope he will occasionally come in with the score something like 300 for four. This hasn’t been Bairstow’s experience. If he has had a difficult start to his Ashes career, it’s partly because of the failure of the men at the top of the order.
The scheduling of the series – and of the English season – is deplorable. Back-to-back Tests are too hard for the pace bowlers, while the compressed series, and the lack of opportunity to play at least one county match between Tests, denies an out-of -form batsman the opportunity to get his game in order and restore his confidence in a less demanding setting. But, sadly, this is how it is now; the calendar is skewed in favour of the one-day game and T20, entertaining matches often enough, but games that nobody remembers a few days later.
So to Durham on Friday. England should win if their pace bowlers are up for it, and if the men at the top of the order find some form again. Otherwise a resurgent Australia, emboldened by what they did at Old Trafford, and justifiably aggrieved to have been deprived of victory by the Manchester rain, may well give them a bloody nose.