Disciplined England wear down Australia

Ronan O'Connell Columnist

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    Australia are relying on frequent scapegoat Shaun Marsh to haul them out of peril in the first Ashes Test after the hosts were confounded by some wonderful bowling by England yesterday.

    It was an admirably disciplined and organised effort in the field from the tourists, who had clear plans for each Australian batsman, setting some innovative fields and bowling well to these strategies.

    While Bancroft’s dismissal, caught behind, was a regulation one for a Test opener, England seized upon quirks in the techniques of each of Usman Khawaja, David Warner and Peter Handscomb.

    Khawaja is famously inept against spin, and England had first-hand knowledge of this frailty, having watched him lose his wicket to tweakers six times in his previous eight Ashes knocks. The left hander’s key issue against spin is his preference to plonk his front foot down the pitch, forcing him to play around his leading pad.

    Better players of spin instead keep their front pad clear and play with their bat out in front, as demonstrated later in the day by Marsh and Steve Smith. Khawaja’s front pad all too often becomes a juicy target for spinners, and Moeen skidded one on straight and trapped him in front.

    Then England made the most of Warner’s habit of playing an unusual scoop-pull off his hip, a shot which relies far more on timing than power. When Warner gets the timing wrong the ball tends to lob from his blade into the leg side, most often just behind square leg. On this occasion a delivery from Jake Ball held up in the pitch and Warner bunted the ball straight to midwicket for the most nonchalant of dismissals.

    (Image: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

    That brought to the crease Peter Handscomb, the 26-year-old who had made a wonderful start to his Test career, averaging 53 from ten Tests. Handscomb is unique in how deep he plays from within the crease, something which I predicted last year would be tested by canny quicks.

    ‘Canny quick’ is an apt description for English spearhead James Anderson, a bowler who doesn’t possess great pace or bounce but compensates for that with generous skill and intelligence. Anderson clearly fancied Handscomb as an LBW candidate and ran his fingers down the side of the ball to get it to seam back in past the inside edge of the Australian.

    That LBW dismissal left captain Steve Smith as Australia’s key figure once again. England had all sorts of plans for Smith, too, only that none of them worked. First they surrounded him with close fielders to the bowling of Moeen Ali.

    Against the quicks England placed a short, straight mid-on near where the non-striker would normally stand. Then they moved on to a leg-side theory, using a short midwicket and a leg slip as Anderson targeted Smith’s stumps.

    It showed that England were thinking deeply about how to dismiss Smith. It also showed that no-one in world cricket actually knows how to trouble the world’s best Test batsman.

    Smith has encountered these kinds of tactics numerous times before and has kept hoarding runs regardless. Yesterday he received a keen ally in Marsh, the most maligned cricketer in Australia since the international retirement of Shane Watson.

    (Image: AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Marsh’s weakness is his tendency to push at the ball with hard hands early in his innings, feeding the slips cordon. So England stacked the cordon and Anderson probed away. It was a mistake by England, however, to bring Moeen on at the other end as Marsh is a brilliant player of spin in Australian conditions and would have far less preferred to start his innings against two quicks.

    Patience had been the feature of England’s batting over the first four sessions, and Marsh and Smith were similarly circumspect as they tried to rescue Australia from 4-76. Their first ten overs together reaped only ten runs. England were bowling very well and the Australian pair showed them due respect.

    This patience was rewarded as the game opened up for Marsh and Smith, who scored 65 from the following 18 overs. Then, as stumps approached, that experienced pair reined themselves in once more and ground to the close.

    At 4-165 and pursuing England’s total of 302 Australia are behind in the Test, but so dominant is Smith in Australia, where he now averages an incredible 70 in Tests, that the hosts could easily build a decent lead if others can hold up an end.

    Earlier Australia had managed to finish off the England innings quite swiftly due in part to some loose batting by the visitors. Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow and Chris Woakes all gifted their wickets with needlessly aggressive shots. Malan batted nicely in making 56 from 130 balls on Ashes debut, but a rash hook shot ended his innings and started a collapse after England had been 4-246 looking at a potential total of 400-plus.

    That middle-to-late-order subsidence could come back to torment England. Or it could be forgotten completely if Australia’s top order collapse propels them to an unexpected loss.

    Ronan O
    Ronan O'Connell

    Ronan O'Connell has been a journalist for well over 13 years, including nine at daily newspapers in WA. He now traverses the world as a travel photojournalist, contributing words and photography to more than 30 magazines and newspapers including CNN, BBC, The Toronto Star, The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, The Irish Examiner and The Australian Financial Review. Check out his work and follow him on Twitter @ronanoco