NOT only did the ball swing in sultry Birmingham last week but so did the momentum in the series. England are now 2-1 ahead and, after an abject defeat at Lord’s, recovered so well that they completely emasculated an Australian side that was starting to show worrying signs of dominance.
Well, they still will when the ball refuses to move and the powerful batters can just hit hard through the line of the ball, but if it moves their techniques have been exposed as not good enough. And did James Anderson make the ball move last week? His first innings as Australia struggled to pass 100 was a master-class in swing bowling. Only Chris Rodgers found an answer and it was the same answer it has been for the past century – watch the ball like a hawk, leave as much as you can and when it is necessary to play do so as late as possible.
Australia will be thankful that Anderson is hors de combat for the next Test at Trent Bridge and possibly for the final Test at the Oval as well. Anderson has been one of the fittest seam bowlers the game has seen and has not missed a game through an ailment in over three years but when he pulled up on Thursday clutching his side and wincing there was a subtle shift for both sides. Quite simply Anderson could have completed the job at Trent Bridge and England won the Ashes 3-1 with one to play.
Since the erection of new stands in the early years of the last decade, the ball has swung consistently at Trent Bridge and Anderson has proved himself the master of the ground. He has two ten-wicket match hauls, both in Nottingham, and has taken 53 wickets at an average of 19.
No one really knows why the ball moves so much since the building work was completed but the evidence is that a sort of micro climate for swing bowling has been created, and happily for England it coincided with the emergence of England’s best exponent of swing since Ian Botham’s early international career.
With him gone, England are seriously depleted, and if Alastair Cook is to lead England to victory it will be the first time he has done so without Anderson in the team.
His replacement is likely to be Mark Wood, himself returning from injury, while the left-arm quickie from Derbyshire, Mark Footitt, could be selected as further cover.
That is the bad news going forward, the good is the return to form and international cricket of Steven Finn. What Anderson did in the first innings at Edgbaston, Finn did in the second.
He attacked the crease, kept tall in his action and probed an awkward length around off-stump. It was the kind of bowling Glenn McGrath used to deliver but with an extra few miles per hour.
This was the Finn everyone believed in 2011 would dominate the England attack for years to come. His return could not have been timed better and now, with Anderson absent, his role becomes increasingly important.
There are other concerns for England, though, and the foremost of those is Adam Lyth as Cook’s opening partner. He just does not look secure, particularly around off-stump. He neither attacks aggressively like David Warner, trusting his belligerence to dominate the game, nor leaves like Cook, forcing the bowlers to adjust their line. Mitchell Starc looks like dismissing him every over.
Ian Bell was more forceful at first drop, and looked better for it, but then there is the threat of Mitchell Johnson to the middle and lower orders. His two bouncers to dismiss Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes were absolute rippers. Fast, accurate and to this generation of cricketers that has not grown up with a diet or fast bowling, nigh on unplayable.
Australia have plenty of worries themselves, though. If the ball moves, their batsmen are rather leaden footed and allow their hands to do too much work. Once the hands are dragged away from the body to a swinging ball the bowler is in charge. Only Warner learned that from the first innings and his second-innings half century was a model of restraint for such an attacking batsman. He is proving himself a more intelligent cricketer than a simple bang-it-and-bash-it and because he now combines the two skill sets he is a real threat.
Michael Clarke looks a little out of sorts, which is disrupting the team, and Mitchell Marsh displayed a youthful naivety for the conditions.
They should not be considered easy prey yet though. They were woeful in Cardiff and brilliant at Lord’s. They are moving between extremes in performance but so are England.
Win, lose, win, lose and so on has been the story of the past seven Test matches for England and they need to break that sequence at Trent Bridge because the Oval should suit the visitors more. There, Nathan Lyon, a high-quality off-spinner, could bowl England out. He will have a dry pitch and plenty of rough to bowl his left-arm quickies into against England’s plethora of left-handed batters.
That is why Trent Bridge next week is vital. England have won five of their last six Test matches at Trent Bridge and Anderson was involved in all, including taking ten in the match in 2013 against Australia. Can they win there without him? The Ashes could depend upon it.