In going 3-0 down it struck me that this Australian team is actually pretty decent; taking England to the final session in 2 out of the 3 completed Tests and dominating the abandoned match. Rogers, Warner and Clarke are decent batsmen, Haddin seems to pluck an extra 10% when he plays England, and the pace bowlers are their best asset; fiery and penetrating. They lack back-up in their batting unit, and Lyon is nothing more than a useful option, but there are definitely some raw materials to work with there.
Now, losing captains are easy targets. When things looked rather grim for England with Australia on 155-2 Alastair Cook was being slaughtered by Shane Warne on the telebox commentary. Cook took off Graeme Swann to bring on Tim ‘he should not have played’ Bresnan; the much maligned Yorkshireman muscled up a key wicket and an inspired Stuart Broad spell later Cook is the captain who lies 3-0 up in the Ashes with one Test to play. If Cook can be criticised an hour before going 3-0 up in the series, his opposite number Michael Clarke ought to be scrutinised two hours after going 3-0 down.
Australia have done an excellent job of limiting England to below 400 in every innings they have played this series. However by the same token, they have allowed England to score more than 300 in at least one innings per Test, and the lowest score they have skittled England for is 215. This means that unless Australia can amass a huge total (like in the first innings at Old Trafford), they will struggle to put any pressure on England, and will always need a bare minimum of 500 runs to win a Test, which isn’t really something anyone can mitigate for when you’ve got to field unproven players like Khawaja and Smith in the middle order. A much more feasible plan given the resources Australia have is to try and bowl England out really cheaply twice for a combined match total of less than 400. Michael Clarke does not give his team the best chance to achieve this, though. Evidence:
– Shane Watson has seen off the shine of the wrong new ball. He obviously failed to do so with the bat, but why Clarke feels fit to chuck him an 8 over old cherry at first change every innings is beyond me. Watson is a stock bowler to bowl his two foot outside of off stump stuff if nothing else is happening. If I were a strike bowler given only an old ball to work with whilst Watto batters down the new Duke, I too would have a permanent grimace like Peter Siddle’s.
– Third man. Ian Bell’s pressure release shot since 2005 has been the dab down to Third Man. He has scored 42% of his runs in this series between Point and First Slip. Ok, that is a completely made up stat, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the figure was something absurdly high. If you can’t get Bell out, you can neutralise him by plugging the gap. Unfortunately Clarke is DESPERATE to be seen as an attacking captain, and attacking captains do NOT have Third Men. Ever.
– Poor shot selection compounding Australia’s middle order’s issues. What the hell was that shot in the first innings? If Steve Smith or Shane Watson had flayed outside off stump in that situation, they’d have been hung. It was the shot of a number 8; a Stuart Broad type dismissal. I’m not expecting Clarke to be perfect and score 180 every innings, but he could at least set the example of giving himself the best chance, like Chris Rogers does.
– DRS. The margins in the First Test were so fine that a more savvy use of DRS would have swung the series in Australia’s favour from the off. Between Clarke and Haddin the Australian’s DR-ing has improved in the Tests since, but that First Test was critical. On top of that, surely Clarke should take Shane Watson to one side and ban him from reviewing any LBW decision?
– Smiling. It is downright creepy to see an Australian captain so jovial in a press interview after another loss. You beat Ricky Ponting and you could tell he was seething inside, knowing that everything in life was unfair and it was only some gross bad luck, poor umpiring or even downright cheating which allowed someone else to win. Steve Waugh’s cat would undoubtedly be in for a kicking if Australia ever lost, and possibly his wife and kids too. Yet Michael Clarke is all hi-jinks and japes after a third loss in the series. Some have described his approach as modern, others call it metrosexual. Whatever. It’s weird.