Iain Fletcher: Ruthless Australia learn from Cardiff

Alastair Cook feels the strain as England began to stare defeat in the face in the second Test. Picture: Getty
Alastair Cook feels the strain as England began to stare defeat in the face in the second Test. Picture: Getty
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Michael Clarke, the Australian captain promised his team would come back ‘hard’ after the defeat in Cardiff and his team have delivered on his words.

They have been magnificent since the first ball on Thursday and are now poised to win this match and level the series at one apiece. Such is Australia’s dominance in both performance and on the scoreboard that if England escape with a draw it will be one of the most famous rearguard actions in the history of the game. Could they bat five or more sessions on a wearing pitch? Maybe, but the likelihood is a win for the visitors and one based on a dominant first innings and the scoreboard pressure that creates.

Steve Smith and Chris Rogers scored 215 and 173 respectively as Australia amassed 566. That is a total that heaps pressure on the opposing batsmen, especially as they are tired and jaded after the best part of two days in the field in the heat.

It is a tried and tested method of forcing victories, batting first, scoring loads and then unleashing a rested bowling attack on tired batters. That is why England on Friday evening stuttered to 85-4 and yesterday, despite spirited early resistance form Ben Stokes and Alastair Cook, England failed to pass the follow-on target of 367.

Wickets were always likely to fall and with the dry pitch offering increasingly indifferent bounce they were likely to fall in clusters.

Both Stokes and Cook were bowled, chopping on undone by the low bounce. It is a concern because the pitch will only get worse and more capricious and Clarke did not enforce the follow-on knowing batting on the fourth evening and fifth day would be mightily hard.

Clarke’s decision to bat again also offered his bowlers much needed rest. They spent all of Thursday and most of Friday resting as their batters enjoyed the best of the pitch and England’s first innings only lasted 90 overs. That is a normal day’s work so being able to rest up for the final session yesterday and some of today will help them greatly.

In contrast, England’s bowlers will be exhausted having toiled, mostly unsuccessfully, for what will be in excess of 200 overs.

There is nine days between this match and the third Test at Edgbaston but still this will have been a dispiriting few days for the England bowlers, particularly the seamers. So how have Australia turned it around so dramatically from Cardiff?

Firstly they picked a better side. Partly this was forced upon them, Peter Nevill coming in for Brad Haddin as wicketkeeper as the latter has withdrawn for personal reasons, and partly better selection, the young thruster all-rounder Mitchell Marsh replacing the veteran Shane Watson. This pair has injected a more youthful enthusiasm into the side, made them look sharper. It is always the way with wicketkeepers. Teams get addicted to the tried and trusted and the incumbent usually plays a series or two too many while the fresh face is ready and eager for the battle.

Marsh did his job by taking two vital wickets, those of Stokes and Cook. As the fifth bowler he is there to support the main cast but if he can contribute scalps of such magnitude as that pair he will soon become invaluable.

Beyond that Clarke won the toss and trusted his batters to bat a long time. Rogers settled into a familiar routine of accumulation on a ground he knows intimately as he has played for Middlesex. And Smith displayed exactly why he is the top ranked batsman in Test match cricket in the world. His double century was the first overseas for Australia since Jason Gillespie in Bangladesh in 2006. It was a beautiful innings and his ability to score at a good rate with little fuss was a hallmark of it.

The worry for England is others are also finding form. David Warner reached 50 last night and when he scores quickly everyone notices, Nathan Lyon bowled better than in Cardiff and Josh Hazlewood looked a very good seamer, despite his relative inexperience.

If the two teams were calibrated on a graph the Australian one would be ascending quite steeply while the England one would be flat-lining at best. That is the beauty of a five match series. Players and teams have the time to experience peaks and troughs. Form is a fickle mistress and players can move from good to bad during two months cricket.

The Australians have started to expose some obvious fault-lines in the England line up. Gary Ballance at three is a liability and being followed by the out of form Ian Bell means wickets fall quickly. So once Clarke declares tomorrow the fight is on. The Australian seamers will attack the stumps and the minds of Adam Lyth, Ballance and Bell while Lyon will pester with men around the bat ready to snaffle any edge from the turn that is starting to happen.

It just makes this Ashes all the more enticing. Both sides have frailties and could be exposed in any match. Cardiff was England’s all over, Lord’s has been Australia’s.