It is fair to say that the margin of Australia’s defeat – by 169 runs, and England wrapping things up before the end of Day 4 – has surprised many of us who, at the beginning of this ongoing Ashes series, felt that the home side would have to play out of their skin to even compete against a very good Australian side.
The visitors boast of a high-quality bowling attack comprising of Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson and Josh Hazlewood, that has been in very good form since India’s Tour of Australia late last year.
This English batting lineup is not the most impressive one, with Ian Bell searching for good form coming into the Ashes, and beyond Joe Root at No.5, the Poms do not have a proper Test batsman, even though Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Mooen Ali are more than efficient with the bat in hand. Therefore, Australia’s bowling against England’s batting was one tussle you knew the Kangaroos were favorites to win.
The next tussle was going to be that of Australia’s batting against English’. Steve Smith has been Australia’s top run-scorer in the last couple of series – 769 runs against India in the 2014/15 Border Gavaskar Trophy, and 283 runs against West Indies in the 2-match series last month – when David Warner and Chris Rogers, too, have been in good form. Australia’s middle and lower-middle order in the first Test was, in many ways, akin to England’s, with Adam Voges making his Test debut only last month in the series against West Indies and Shane Watson making it to the playing XI only because of his all-rounder skills, meaning Australia didn’t have depth in their batting as they have been used to over the years. This duel between the two sides’ batting lineups, going into the 1st Test in Cardiff, was going to be fascinating to watch, given that there were two good bowling attacks on display, as well.
So, from Australia’s point of view, where did it all go wrong? How much credit do England deserve for such a clinical performance?
Answers to follow…
Starting off on the first morning of the Cardiff Test, Alastair Cook won the toss and chose to bat first, and his decision was a no brainer given the kind of surface that was on offer: flat, slow and devoid of grass. Despite the favorable conditions to bat on, England made the worst possible start, by losing 3 wickets in the first session and handing over the initiative to the visitors.
However, going back to the wicket on offer, I think England took full advantage of being the home side and thereby, dished out a wicket that was always going to test the Aussie seamers. England’s new hero, Root, scored a coruscating 134(166) and his fast-paced hundred, along with three crucial half-centuries from Gary Ballance, Stokes and Ali, ensured that the home side got past 400 – 430, exactly – and did so at more than 4 runs per over.
The nature of the pitch didn’t change much when Australia came out to bat, and though there was swing in the air, English bowlers, like their counterparts, could not bother Rogers and Smith – who, during their partnership of 77 for the second wicket, garnered runs at a fair clip and kept the home side honest. But things changed soon after Rogers was dismissed for 95(133), with his side’s total at 180. Mind you, Australia reached 258-5 at stumps on Day 2, and it wasn’t a bad position to be in but, like England did with Ali and Stokes scoring half-centuries, they needed their lower-order to exude solidity and score a few runs, after the top order failed to play to potential.
Losing 8-128 in the first innings and folding up for 308, saw Australia hand over a significant advantage of 122 runs to the home side, and eventually, going onto lose the game. Now, England scoring 430 in the 1st innings wasn’t a match-winning/saving score by any means, though Brad Haddin dropped Root in the second ball he faced, and a wicket then could have given a whole new complexion to the game. In hindsight, however, Australia would not have been too worried about the hosts finishing up with the total they did. They came out to bat, and like I said, were going well until Rogers was dismissed with his side’s score at 2/180. Going into the second Test in Lord’s, Australia need to have a good, hard look at their batting order; the one they had in the first Test, simply isn’t going to do them any goods.
Having got a lead of 122 runs, it was England’s game to lose. The wicket kept getting slow, and shot-making, as much as getting wickets, became harder. Australia picked up two quick wickets of Cook and Ballance, but just as Root did in the first innings, Bell played a counterattacking knock of 60(89) and his partnerships with Adam Lyth and Root, were crucial to England stemming the flow of wickets first and then harnessing the advantage they had at the start of their 2nd innings. Australia, after they got the wicket of Bell with England at 170/4, picked up the next 4 wickets for 75 runs, but didn’t capitalize on the home side’s recklessness, and Mark Wood’s 32(18) took hosts’ lead beyond 400, which, as they say, gave them a psychological advantage over the visitors.
Chasing 412 for victory in the 4th innings of the Test match, it was Australia’s top and middle-order batting that let them down, again, as David Warner was the only batsman in Australia’s top seven, to score 50 or more. English bowlers, though, led by Stuart Broad, were on the money consistently, and played on the temperament of the Australian batsmen, many of whom got out playing sloppy shots.
So, where do Australia go from here?
Their batting is a major concern, even though Starc’s ankle injury, from their bowling’s perspective, simply cannot bode well for the visitors’ chances of clawing their way back into the series.
England bowled well for a majority of the 1st Test in Cardiff, but Australian batsmen, barring a few, have to blame themselves for the way they got out in both the innings, and contributed massively to their side going down by 169 runs.
Yes, they lost by 169 runs, but there were moments – Haddin dropping Root on the first morning, for instance – in the first Test, that Australia didn’t make the most of while England, just as their bitter rivals did in the last Ashes series Down Under in 2013/14, won those key moments, which eventually proved decisive in the overall context of the game.
It will be rather interesting to see how their bowling shapes up, especially if the wickets continue to be of the same nature as it was in the first Test. Even in dry conditions, Starc got it to swing prodigiously – Stokes’ wicket in the first innings being a prime example – and if he plays in Lord’s, the nature of the pitch isn’t going to faze him too much; for Johnson, though, he needs the wicket to have a bit of bounce and pace – both of them – to have an impact. Hazlewood bowls good lines and lengths consistently but, if there isn’t going to be much swing on offer, he is a candidate to get driven easily.
England, what about them?
England, despite being the home side, were not under any pressure, going into the first Test, as Australia were billed as the outright favorites to retain the Ashes, which they may still do.
Root’s innings on the first morning of the Test match was mind-blowing, and it was fitting that he got the man-of-the-match award for his comprehensive performances with the bat and ball.
England’s batting looks penetrable, too, and it is an area that Australia could target in the second Test at Lord’s and this time, exploit it better than they did in the first innings of the Cardiff Test, which saw Stokes and Ali score indispensable half-centuries, helping their side get past that 400-run mark.
Overall, England played well and the margin of their victory, though surprising, was a true reflection of the kind of performance they put in. It remains to be seen if they can replicate such performances in the next 4 Test matches; remember, this is a long, 5-match Test series, which always gives the side that lost the 1st Test more than a decent chance of coming back, so beware England!
From a neutral’s point of view, this is the best possible thing that could have happened: England winning the first Test, and laying down a challenge to Australia to come back and alter their rhythm.
From Australia’s perspective, as aforementioned, their batting is a serious worry, and if England keeping getting Smith out cheaply, they will pose serious problems for the visitors.
England have gone 1-0 up and done so by playing extremely well, however, they will have to keep working hard to regain the Ashes; Australia will make them give sweat and blood for it.