2nd Test, Day 4: The worrying thing is they knew what to expect but could do almost nothing about it
Lots of questions. Very few answers. That is the predicament England are in. Three of England’s top four look like sitting targets. Adam Lyth is tense and jumpy, Gary Ballance camped on the back foot and reduced to a series of nervy pokes and fends and Ian Bell – averaging 10.63 in 6 tests since Antigua – bereft of confidence. The result is England are perpetually 30-3 and constantly playing catch up. Jos Buttler’s batting looks unexpectedly fragile too.
Of course handling the sort of searing fast bowling purveyed by Mitchell Johnson or Mitchell Starc is tough. When Johnson especially gets on a pitch like this where the bounce is not high, his slingy short balls are actually even harder to play. The lack of bounce means ducking is difficult, yet they skate off the surface at your body and are tricky to fend off or hook. Skiddy bouncers are sometimes worse than steep ones.
The worrying thing is that England knew what to expect. They have all seen and most have experienced what Johnson has to offer. There is even a bowling machine at Lord’s with Johnson’s approaching image superimposed on the front and which then projects real Johnson deliveries – a wonderful (or alarming) opportunity to rehearse facing him. Yet no one, apart from Alastair Cook and Ben Stokes, inspire much confidence against him.
Changes will have to be made. Not of personel, that would be disastrous. But of approach and batting order. Lyth made a test century two tests ago. They must stick with him. But he has been caught behind or in the slips seven out of eight times. The delivery he was out to yesterday was an absolute snorter, but he must improve his discipline outside his off-stump, and play tighter to his body.
Ballance scored 4 centuries in his first 15 test innings. He hasn’t suddenly become a bad player. He still averages 47. But he looks inert and apprehensive at number three – invariably in early. He is a bit of a sacrificial lamb. He would be better suited to number five where he used to bat for Yorkshire until last year.
That means moving Root and Bell up a place each. Bell may be in slow decline, but he still commands respect. He made his career best score for England (235) batting at number three v India. To get the most out of him at this point in his career he needs even more trust and backing. If given more responsibility on his home ground he might respond with more authority.
It might seem destabilizing to move Root from his contented position at five, but he is brimming with confidence and emerged relatively unscathed from an attempted roasting by Johnson. At number four he would be the central pillar of the batting order. He can control the situation from there. Five feels too low, and, as with yesterday, is too late to dilute the bowlers’ superiority if they are running amok.
But one stat stands out from the match, and it is not a batting one. James Anderson’s combined figures for the two Australian innings were 33-4-137-0. England’s all-time leading wicket-taker, and the man with the most test wickets at Lord’s (75) so neutered by the conditions that he couldn’t get a single pole.
England have asked for slow, dead pitches (with no turn) to nullify Australian pace. But they are shooting themselves in the foot. Australian batsmen struggle when the ball moves sideways, yet the England bowlers have not been given the scope to exploit it (Cardiff offered some uneven bounce from a full length but not much lateral deviation.)
England’s bowlers are more disciplined than Australia’s and must be given the opportunity to prove it. A decent covering of live grass is required. Australia’s quicks will get movement too but England’s will be precisely applied. The Edgbaston groundsman should be told to apply baby bio to the test pitch post haste.