Category Archives: poms

The tired and skilful Jimmy Anderson

At the top of his mark at Trent Bridge, there was a broken man. Jimmy Anderson had bowled and bowled and bowled, and somehow Australia still hadn’t lost. There seemed to be a limp, but maybe you just expected one. Australia failed to pass 300, but he bowled more than 50 overs in the match. As Haddin and Pattinson inched Australia to victory, he was brought back.

His physical demeanor was more like a man who had just completed 10 straight Tests, not someone in the first of ten. He took the wicket of Haddin, and won the game. It was his tenth wicket of the game. He beat Australia on his own.

Since then, he’s taken 19 wickets at 47. Since then, across both series, England are 3-2 down.

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The ball at the WACA is a on a length outside offstump. George Bailey leans back and slices it past a diving slip to the third man boundary. Australia are 480 ahead.

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Jimmy Anderson is no Dale Steyn. Dale Steyn fans will tell you about this for hours on end. As if Anderson should be ashamed of any good press he gets that isn’t lavished on Steyn. Dale Steyn is a god, a myth, created from a tree struck by lightning and found in a crater in small town America. Anderson is a skilful, smart bowler. There have few men ever in the entire history of our planet as good as Dale Steyn; Anderson is not one of them.

Anderson is, however, a supreme mover of the cricket ball.

Pictures of his wrist position should be X-rated. When he gets the ball to swing, it moves as if operated by a remote control. And he can bowl a ball so good that only the off stump can stop it.

The ball goes where he wants it, and when he is at his absolute best, he can move the batsmen around the crease as well. When Robin Peterson was sent out at No 3 for South Africa in the Champions Trophy semi-final, Jimmy Anderson put on a clinic of swing bowling.

Coming around the wicket to the left-handed Peterson, he bowled four straight outswingers to him. A fair skill in itself. But each was gloriously out of reach. All within a few inches of each other. The length and movement meant Peterson could only leave them. Peterson edged towards each ball, so while he started batting on leg stump, he ended up on off stump. The moment he was in front of the stumps, from around the wicket the wicket Anderson swung the ball the other way, Peterson was out lbw.

That’s not good swing bowling, that’s a supervillain.

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The ball is full and lovely. George Bailey smashes it back over long off, past the rope, boundary and into the sightscreen area. Australia are 486 ahead.

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Anderson had to fight his way in. He’s not built like a fast bowler. He’s built like a greyhound. He’s not massively tall, he doesn’t have the fast bowler’s big behind, and his shoulders are like that of any mortal.

His action is also unconventional. He doesn’t actually watch the ball. His head almost disappears. He’s partly front on, not fully front on or fully side on. His front foot goes off on a random angle like it is ignoring the delivery. He shouldn’t really work.

But he was fast, and had an outswinger. So he made it to the top level. That is enough to take some wickets, but pace isn’t always enough unless you’re scarily quick. And top batsmen can handle consistent outswing, and sometimes the ball doesn’t swing.

It was Troy Cooley who tried to fix Jimmy Anderson. The man who helped turn the ’05 bowling attack into a machine. But Cooley’s ways go in both directions. Mitchell Johnson produced his best deliveries under Cooley, but also lost his way. Kabir Ali never made it under Cooley despite blatantly obvious natural talent. And for Jimmy Anderson, his time with Cooley went very wrong.

With Anderson, any bowling coach could see the flaws. Some will try and fix them, some will suggest he’s doing well even with them. Cooley tried to fix them. They were afraid Anderson would end up with stress fractures in his back. They changed his action – and Anderson ended with stress fractures in his back.

It’s not that surprising that the scientific method didn’t work for him. Even now, Anderson’s run up is not done with a tape measure. It’s the same run up he has had since he was a 15 year old back in Burnley. When marking it, he starts midway between the crease and then leaps his first step, walks his next 13, and then leaps his last one. It’s about as unscientific as anything in Team England, it’s the opposite of eating kale or psychological tests.

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The ball is full at leg stump. George Bailey moves his front leg and flicks it to deep backward square and scrambles back for two. Australia are 488 ahead.

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At home, Anderson can monster teams. Swing bowlers from other countries drool when they think about England; Anderson had the good fortune to be born there. Whatever it is about the climate that makes the ball swing, it’s certainly helped him.

He was pretty good when he had an outswinger, but a few years in he had a killer inswinger as well. Around this time he also mastered the art of hitting the seam when he needed too. That makes you a pretty good bowler on bowler-friendly wickets.

But in recent years he’s been as good in the UAE and India. A series England lost, and one they won from behind. For a swing bowler to succeed in India or the UAE, that’s not about seam up and get it in the right areas, that’s bowling intelligence. The ability to learn new tricks, and things that will work on unresponsive pitches, is how Anderson helped England get to number one.

Anderson has even learnt from other bowlers who aren’t as good as Dale Steyn. From Stuart Clark and Mohammad Asif, he learnt the wobble ball. A ball that misbehaves because even the bowler is not sure what it is going to do. Perfect for flat pitches and boring interludes. The sort of ball that bad bowlers deliver by mistake.

From Zaheer Khan, he has learnt that sometimes on flat pitches you need to bowl faster, not slower. The modern wisdom is to bowl within yourself, with the occasional quicker ball. But Zaheer was the master of sometimes bowling as fast as his body would allow just to make something happen. For both of them, it often does.

Zaheer also bowled reverse swing. Anderson spent time watching him doing that as well. Then he learned the art himself, even adding the hide-the-ball style that Zaheer and many sub-continental masters had used before. It means that the outswing bowler can wobble one off a flat pitch, or reverse one to cause damage. He has come a long way from the young kid who just swing it away for a few overs.

When he was called the most skilful fast bowler on earth, the Steyn fans took great fun in comparing the records of him and Anderson. But Steyn is the best fast bowler on earth, by a distance. Anderson is the most skilful. One is superman, and is enhanced by the earth’s yellow sun. The other is Batman, flawed but really clever with endless resources that he uses to shield himself from the fact he’s not an alien with endless power.

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The ball is a leg-stump length ball. George Bailey drop kicks it to deep backward square for a boundary. Australia are 492 ahead.

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There is a theory that in Anderson can’t bowl in Australia. Reputations are hard to change. And the Ashes of 2006-7 left lasting impressions for many Australians. That was a series where Anderson found five wickets at over 80 apiece. Somehow it seemed worse than those figures suggest. They next time he stepped on a plane headed for Australia he must have paused a bit himself.

In 2010-11, he took 24 wickets at 26. There were no five-wicket hauls, although with Australian wickets falling so fast, it was hard for him to collect them all. He just spearheaded an attack, that was mostly without Broad, into completely and utterly smashing Australia consistently.

The series was 0-0 on that morning of Adelaide. The run out of Simon Katich was annoying, but it shouldn’t have meant the end of all happiness for Australia. Jimmy Anderson did. He dragged Ponting into playing the wrong shot at the wrong ball. He tempted Clarke into playing a stupid shot at a beautiful swinging ball. And he allowed Watson to find gully with a normal Watson drive. He only took one more wicket that innings, and two more in the second innings, but that start to the game was something Australia could not recover from.

In Melbourne, after England’s shock loss in Perth, he took four wickets in Australia’s series-losing 98 on Boxing Day. The wickets of Clarke, Hussey, Smith and Johnson: not a tail-ender between them. Any chance of a comeback, or even a less than embarrassing total, was gone with one Anderson spell.

But that was by far Anderson’s best against Australia, home or away. During 2009 his bowling was mute, only 12 wickets. His last Ashes had the glorious start at Trent Bridge, but England won the series with him contributing only an occasional really good spell. And this one, well, it’s been better than 2006-7, but that’s about it.

The Australians and Anderson don’t like each other. Anderson has enjoyed the good times over the Aussies, and his hand-over-mouth sledging technique gets to them. The ‘broken f*cken arm’ comment shouldn’t be looked at as a one-time thing. There is almost no time when Anderson is out on the ground when he isn’t having words with someone.

The Australians probably enjoy it; they just enjoy it more when they’re winning. As Anderson does.

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The ball is very full and very straight. George Bailey slogs it into the first few rows of the crowd with a slap. Australia are 498 ahead.

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If Anderson were to retire now, which is unlikely given his age of 31, he would retire with a bowling average of 30. It seems very high for a bowler who at times has beheaded Michael Clarke’s off stumps with balls that were as deadly as anything ever bowled.

Like his team, he is a player with a decent record which does not really convey how good he could be at his best. Like his team, he’s a bit flawed, but gets through it through bloody-mindedness and determination. Like his team, he was skilful and smart.

Like his team, he looks tired.

It would be stupid to write off England and Anderson right now. With South Africa having a great team, and India a team of greats, England still rose to the top of the world. They did it with a spearhead with an average average, a splayed front foot and a head that yanks the wrong way. They did it when no one really expected England to be as good as they were, and no one really expected Anderson to do as much as he has.

James Anderson has more Test wickets than every English cricketer other than Ian Botham. From the same amount of Tests, he has more than Willis. That skinny frame and dodgy action has got him there. There is something special about him. Even if he did have the misfortune to be more mortal than Botham or Steyn.

Anderson, and England, can come back. If not now, then one day.

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The ball tails in at very nearly yorker length. George Bailey hits it onto the sightscreen covered seats with ease. Australia are 504 ahead.

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Anderson bowled a quality delivery to Chris Rogers that went off the edge towards Prior and Cook. Prior never moved. Cook jumped violently but couldn’t hold on. Anderson went back to his mark as the catch was trickling slowly behind them. Australia already had a big lead for no wickets, Broad was off the ground, the birds were gathering above England’s heads waiting for them to fall over.

Anderson should have just kept walking past his mark and into the member’s bar.

Instead he kept bowling, 19 overs in all. His first 18 went for 77. His 19th conceded 28.

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After Bailey’s 28th run, Michael Clarke holds his hand up. He doesn’t call the team in with the familiar captaincy gesture where you gesture for them to come in. He just holds his hand up like a police officer stopping traffic. Stop. You’ve done enough.

It was quite clear, for now at least, Anderson and England were done.

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Clarke and Cook: Glamorous white stallions and dour sheep

Alastair Cook tweeting about his surprise wedding and putting up a picture of him leading his new bride on a white stallion would seem odd. As would a picture of Michael Clarke dressed in military fatigues or with a dead deer at his feet. Cook isn’t about to make much of his body a canvas or become an underwear model. Clarke isn’t likely to wear gumboots and tend to his livestock before dawn. Clarke and Cook are two very different human beings.

A Google image search of Michael Clarke will come back with a man who has posed for as many cameras as any wannabe starlet. Red carpets, underwear shots, shoots for GQ, he has done them all. If you’re an Australian cricket fan under 20, you could be forgiven for thinking Michael Clarke has spent your entire life staring back at you in a sultry way or with a painted on smile.

Cook’s image search is mostly made up on him looking stern or pensive. Generally on the field, or at a press conference. There are very few shots of him doing anything fun (painting nude girls and holding up a cricket bat in a naked shoot are the exceptions, not the rule). On the occasion he does pose, you often get a look at his hypnotising eyes, eyes that seem to trap you, and which would be better used by a dystopian dictator looking to instill fear into the population.

Clarke’s image and game has been sharpened and pushed by a series of well-meaning people. Some who have made much money and great reputations from a stylish batsman. Like many working-class kids who find money and fame early on, he made the most of it. He bought showy cars, lived in the flashy part of town, ate at the cafes where the paparazzi hung out, and dated a C-grade celebrity.

Slowly he grew out of that. At its worst, his hometown paper called him a tosser, he felt the need to tweet an apology for not walking, and he was booed at the SCG in his first Test as captain.

Cook’s life has always been a bit more straightforward. He went to Bedford, a school with Nobel Laureates, Olympians and the school attended by Sir George Arthur Harwin Branson, Richard Branson’s grandfather. He was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral School. Two-and-a half years into his international career he had his first book out. In it he tried hard to distance himself from his middle class background, but a few paragraphs later talked of how his family often skied.

He is barely seen off the cricket field, isn’t the face of many products and almost unbelievably for a professional sportsman of his age, isn’t on twitter. Cook left his wedding in a tractor.

The off-field images of them are also pretty accurate of the way they play.

Cook looks after himself, does what he has to do, isn’t always stylish or pretty, but is damn effective. Leads from the front at No. 1. Takes few chances. It has been written that if he had to, Alastair Cook would give birth. It wouldn’t be pretty, but he would get it done. Robotic and efficient, at his best he makes massive scores without a bead of sweat. The sort of leader his country has always respected.

Clarke is stylish on and off the field (I’m sure that line has been used in the thousands of lifestyle pieces on him). When he started he was brash and aggressive, now he is smooth and reliable. Bats down the order, in part, to shield himself from the swinging ball. Willing to gamble, but never as much as people say. A nervous starter with pretty feet who once set, especially in his home country, is almost impossible to dislodge. A new leader for a changing country.

But Cook and Clarke have had amazingly similar cricket careers. They even both married women they knew before they could realistically be presumed to be future Test captains.

Clarke started in Bangalore with a blazing hundred. Baggy green on his head, he was the symbol for Australia winning their final frontier in India. Cook started in Nagpur, holding England’s top order together with a half century in the first innings. Then making a hundred in the second dig to push the game beyond India’s reach.

Both had major obstacles to overcome once they had been in the side for a few years. Cook’s technique had never been textbook, but with a stagnating career average (it was roughly 42 for 30 Tests), and a sudden angled bat that kept nicking off, Cook had to do something just to get on the tour to Australia in 10/11. In the second innings of a game Pakistan were dominating, Cook made 110. Two Tests later he would play Australia at the Gabba.

Clarke was the golden boy of Australian cricket. He had won in India. Taken on the English bowlers. And seemed indestructible. But he got trapped in a vicious cycle as the boy who didn’t want to be dropped. The worse his form got, the more the press talked about this once in a generation boy not being the missing link. It seemed like he could think of little else. Eventually he was dropped. But thanks to a gift that has happened to many Australian batsmen (a Shane Watson injury) Clarke was brought back, cleaned up his game, kept the ball on the ground and made lots of runs.

They both know what it’s like to play in one of their countries’ most successful teams. Clarke came into the team in 2004, has won a World Cup, and enjoyed everything that goes with being the number one Test team in the world. Cook was a major part of England becoming number one, and producing a new, if albeit brief, golden era for English cricket.

Both were also the apprentices for the top job well before they got it. Despite much psychological testing, a thorough interview process and England’s endeavour to do things by the book, Alastair Cook was only not getting the job if he shot Giles Clarke in a hunting accident.

In the modern era no new Australian captain has been as hated as Michael Clarke was. Yet, there simply was not another option when Ricky Ponting stepped down. Strauss and Cook would appear far more similar than Ponting and Clarke, but the “break your arm” comment would suggest that both men learn from their seniors.

As captains, both men have averaged more than their career average. Cook even managing to do so without the very constant daddy hundreds he made under Strauss. His overall average should still be higher, but despite this he will retire England’s highest-ever scoring Test batsman, unless a giant anvil lands on him within the next two years. Clarke is averaging a staggering 63 as captain despite the fact he took over after one of the worst summers of his career. In the summer of 2010/11 Clarke averaged 17 in seven Tests. Suddenly being called a tosser and booed wasn’t his biggest problem.

They both changed their careers, and public perceptions, with Everest runs. Before Cook’s innings at the Gabba last Ashes, he was seen as a one-dimensional plodder who could score handy runs but wasn’t a game or series changer. That one innings, followed up with Adelaide, changed how everyone saw him. In two series against India he did it again. And suddenly the plodder became a batting monolith.

Clarke had taken over as full-time captain for tours to Sri Lanka and South Africa. As is often the way, Australian tours, Ashes aside, are not really poured over the same way. Instead of 20 to 40 press in the box, it’s two to four. Instead of free to air, it’s cable. So, even though Clarke played one of his greatest innings in South Africa and drew an away series with a heavyweight, few noticed.

They did notice when Australia managed only to draw a home series against New Zealand. So in his next series, against a rapidly declining India, he had to win, and win grand. The winning took care of itself when at Sydney he changed his public perception (probably forever) with a triple century whilst wearing the baggy green. Tosser pretty boy was gone; true Australian hero was born.

As captains, both men lead much as they play. Clarke is attacking and stylish, yet still flawed. He’s not the tactical genius he gets credit for, nor the terrible man manager everyone assumed. He has survived two coaches being sacked, stood down from his selectorial duties and is currently running a team much in his own image. Not for the first time Australian cricket looks like it could be getting something right, but it’s fallen hard on its face in recent times after good series. Whether they are playing well or not, Australia still seems one massive collapse from a disaster, something Clarke’s batting will try to hold together.

Cook’s captaincy is well thought out, predictable and safe. He took over a machine that had just started to show some wear and tear. Strauss, Hugh Morris and Geoff Miller are all gone or going, Andy Flower is the only one who remains from England’s amazing two years. When Cook took over, he fixed the broken Pietersen situation, defeated India from behind and then won the Ashes. He was on a roll.

Now his team has run into Mitchell Johnson, every flaw they had has been opened up. His team currently look a bit like him, out of answers, and unable to capture the magic they had previously. But they are still the team that made it to number one, with most of the original playing parts still here. Cook and his team can still turn this around.

Somehow these two men with similar cricket histories and vastly different personalities have ended up playing their 100th Tests together. Thanks to Mitchell Johnson, the news is not really about them. And with Sachin clocking up 200, and many other players passing 150, 100 Tests is no longer the number played by the only the iron men of cricket. Clarke has brought his up in under 10 years, Cook in under eight.

You could argue who is greater and who has achieved more, but such conversations are mostly useless and should be kept in bars or 2am twitter fights where they belong. They’re both pretty damn good. And they both have interesting futures as leaders.

Clarke will hope this isn’t a fluke and Australia is finally back. Cook will be trying to work out what has caused this decline, and what to do next.

Before this series Clarke had the Ashes loss and Ricky Ponting’s book to contend with. People had openly started questioning whether he was the right man to lead Australia forward. Mike Hussey’s book brought back the Clarke/Katich rift, and even the Hussey/Clarke rift, even if in both cases Hussey was trying to be nice. Alastair Cook just tended to his sheep and gave the occasional positive press conference.

There are still many photos to be taken of them in their careers, or even in this series. Clarke’s current twitter avatar is one of him looking disappointed in the rain of Old Trafford. The promotional photos for the Ashes before the series have Cook with an easy smile on his face, next to a stern Michael Clarke. Right now, those photos could be reversed.

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This Joe Root is your Joe Root

Some, often not those at the ground, have been suggesting that the England batsmen have been backing away from Mitchell Johnson in fear of losing some handy organ. For those people, Joe Root should become a folk hero: the boy who wouldn’t back down. Root wouldn’t fall.

Root didn’t just stand his ground, he giggled at Johnson. As if Johnson was some boy who had told him his mum smelt of peanut butter in the schoolyard.

This was the same Johnson who went through England like they were a soda can and he was one of those supernatural knifes you see advertised on late-night TV. This was the Johnson who had bruised, bullied and battered an entire batting order three innings straight. He was howling at Root, each play and miss made him even more furious, and he rarely missed a chance to snort aggressively or tell Root about it.

Root just continued to giggle.

Jonathan Agnew said on Twitter that Root gave Johnson an angelic smile. The fact he looks young shouldn’t fool anyone. Root is obviously far harder and way too cheeky to ever be that angelic. When Root was confirmed as the person swung at by David Warner in a bar on Australia’s tour of England, no one who knew him was that surprised. He’s known as a pest by many. His face still looks nice because he is young and unburdened by the life of failure and hard work that crushes fresh faces. Even Ricky Ponting once looked like a lovely young boy.

Root wasn’t giggling nervously at Mitch, he genuinely thought it was funny and liked that Johnson was going after him verbally. This wasn’t a small, frail boy up against a category five Kaiju, this was a Test batsman with real skill taking on a snarling wild beast. And Root won.

Kevin Pietersen helped during their partnership but generally let Root hold his own, even in the sledging periods. The only time Pietersen felt the need to get involved was when Watson came in to add to the noise of Johnson’s heavy breathing. One of the many times umpire Kumar Dharmasena got involved in the day (since he doesn’t give no balls any more, he has more time on his hands) was to stop the chat between Pietersen and Watson.

On the whole Pietersen was subdued. Balls that could have been gloriously flamingoed in the air through the two waiting catchers at short midwicket were actually pushed safely along the ground to cover. Except for the balls that needed to be dispatched violently from Steven Smith (to keep such filth on the ground KP would have to work against muscle memory), it was a very disciplined innings from him. But yet again, he got trapped nowhere in a spell from Peter Siddle.

No one trapped Root. He beat the subtle variations of Siddle and Ryan Harris. He handled the stifling frugality of Watson, the odd good delivery from Nathan Lyon. He even managed to not smack the ball to a fielder when Smith bowled long hops.

It was the innings that England fans needed to see. Jonny Bairstow has not shown enough. James Taylor is not in the squad. Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan are pigeonholed for other formats. Nick Compton has disappeared. Jonathan Trott has gone home. England needed to see that one of their new men had passed more than just psychological tests off the field. He needed to stand up to one on it.

It was only Root’s second half-century since his hundred at Lord’s during the previous series. And despite that hundred being a daddy (180), this 87 was probably the best Root has batted in Test cricket. He did it in a situation that has prolonged his side’s misery but maybe given them hope that not all is lost in the future.

Root even took them past 180, which might not seem like much, but when you’re looking up from the gutter, 180 is a long way away.

It’s not overly surprising that Root played Johnson better than most. His reflexes should be pretty much at their best, he is a natural back-foot player and he seems to like fast bowling. The only real time in the innings he looked like he had any trouble was when late on the front foot trying to drive length balls through the off side. Every play and miss made more smoke come from Johnson’s nostrils, but Root seemed less fazed.

The fact he played the shot more than once shows his patience and technique can still be tested but not many Test cricketers of his age would have stood up to the Australia attack under these circumstances for so long. Many a young man has wafted aimlessly outside off stump before that gets beaten out of them through failure.

Root looked so well set that his wicket seemed like a surprise. Unlucky too, as an inside edge on to the thigh pad won’t often end up back with the keeper. His trudge from the crease was very young-boy like, he could barely lift his head up and, when the crowd stood to cheer him, he just flopped his bat up for a millisecond. It showed how much it meant to him, the hundred, the match, the series. But he shouldn’t be ashamed of how he batted today, not ever.

This innings might give England hope that, even if they haven’t found a certain No. 3, they at least have found a quality player who can perform when the others can’t. His innings either gave England a chance at rain on the final day, or kept them on the rack a little longer. It was the innings of a folk hero. Not an actual hero. Not yet.

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The death of the daddy hundred and England’s fading legacy

The 2011 series between India and England was supposed to be a heavyweight contest for the No. 1 Test ranking. But had England played Ravi Shastri on his own holding a microphone, they would have got stiffer opposition. England won 4-0. England were No. 1.

Until today, England were unbeaten in their ten Tests this year. It is not a record to be mocked. A closer look does show that five of those were draws, four against teams with far worse recent records and low rankings.

It would be foolish and idiotic to say this England team is shot because they have lost this one Test. First Tests are not England’s speciality; they outlast and win over teams in the long haul. That might still happen; they could come back in Adelaide and win this series. But despite that fact, England have certainly not been at their best since they demolished India at home. Something is not quite right with this team.

Jonathan Trott’s second innings shot might be the one people remember, but the sight of a well-set Alastair Cook nicking Nathan Lyon behind might be the real story of the last two years of English cricket. A lack of daddy hundreds.

In 2009, Andy Flower picked Graham Gooch from commentary duties and got him to look after his batsmen. It started as part-time but soon became a full-time position. In 2010, Alastair Cook was an edgy, flawed mess at the crease. A year later he was a batting like a lizard God.

Gooch may have fixed, tweaked and encouraged better results, but what the world heard was “daddy hundreds”. A hundred was okay, but a score of 150 and over was a daddy. Gooch wanted Gooch-style hundreds, he wanted England players to approach the 333s, he wanted them to control the game, grind the bowlers into the ground and cash in when they were on top.

It was almost as if anything under 150 was seen by Gooch as flirting. An inconsequential occupation of the crease. The hundreds he wanted were the ones that bat companies use on the stickers of their bats. The kind that you tell your friends you were at. The ones that win series and kill bowlers.

England responded by scoring many of these hundreds. They ground bowlers into the turf, they won series after series, they became the best side in the world. The daddy hundred was their foundation.

The idea was simple enough; England wanted to bat for the longest time, blunting the new ball, setting up the game for their batsmen to tire out the bowlers for this Test, and the next, ensuring that their bowlers were fully rested between innings. Opposition batsmen would look at scores of 500, 600 or 700 and be mentally defeated.

It’s not a radical plan, although it was different to the more attacking smash-the-opposition-bowlers-around-the-head-and-mentally-beat-them style of Australia and West Indies. Most importantly, like a team of well-programmed robots, England did it almost perfectly.

They lost to West Indies at the start of 2009. They were bowled out for 51. It was a low point. Andrew Strauss was the new captain, Flower interim coach. But in their next nine Test series, they won eight and drew one. And considering the one they drew was in South Africa, it was a pretty great time to be an England player. In that period they played 31 Tests and they scored 16 daddy hundreds. When their players got in, they didn’t leave until the opposition bowlers were completely defeated.

By the time India arrived in England, they were entering a machine of efficiency that they couldn’t compete with. They handed their No. 1 crown straight over.

England blew past them and started talking legacy. Being No. 1 was nice, but this was a team that wanted to be the sort of side that people talked about for generations to come. With only Strauss nearing retirement, No. 1 was a step on the way to cricket’s next dynasty.

You had to be at the Gabba in 2010 to know how complete Cook, Strauss and Trott’s domination of Australia was. England had stuttered in the first innings. They’d very nearly broken Australia with the ball, before being smashed by Haddin and Hussey. All the hope and expectation that England had coming into the series had already started to evaporate for all but their most fanatical fans. Then came 517 for 1.

Strauss made a normal hundred. Trott was on the way to a daddy. Cook made a daddy. It was solid, clinical and sweatless. Mitchell Johnson was embarrassed. Ben Hilfenhaus was milked. Neither would play in the next Test. If Steve Harmison’s first ball was a symbol of how weak and ill-equipped England were for the Ashes in 2006-07, then 517 for 1 in this series was a statement they were absolutely ready.

It was only a draw. But that innings changed the dynamic of the two teams. England weren’t afraid, they weren’t useless, and once they got in, they weren’t moving.

A week later, in Adelaide, Cook made 148, practically a daddy. Pietersen made 227. Dougie Bollinger, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris bowled 88 overs. From that moment onwards, even with the freak win in Perth, Australia were never going to win that Test series.

The series after beating India, England lost their first series in ten attempts. They went to play Pakistan in the UAE with a clear plan to sweep. Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehmann tormented them. England’s bowlers did very well and did everything they could to keep them in the game but their batsmen couldn’t find any runs, and Pakistan struck down the No. 1 Test side.

Soon after, England went to Galle and lost to Rangana Herath. In Colombo, in the second and final Test against Sri Lanka, Kevin Pietersen made a daddy hundred. England drew the series. It was a good end to a horror winter.

Perhaps it was a hangover from becoming No. 1, maybe just a blip, or even a weakness against spin. But England had rightly been favoured to win both series and won neither. They bounced back by beating West Indies, and Tino Best’s innings aside, they were okay.

Then South Africa arrived and there was something not quite right about England. The South Africa batsmen were playing the way England used to, and the English batsmen had become cavalier. Strauss was in a funk that would end his career. Cook started nicking off at balls he wouldn’t previously have given the time of day. Trott was loose. Ian Bell never got going. Matt Prior was good but couldn’t make a ton. Only Pietersen, who played one of the great innings, and caused off-field carnage, looked anything like his best.

For South Africa, three daddy hundreds were made. Amla’s (a family patriarch 311) was the one that set up the whole series. It was only three Tests, a woeful playoff for world No. 1, but England never looked like the better team. They almost stole the Test at Headingley, they were close enough not to get embarrassed at Lord’s, but South Africa were just better.

Coming off a loss to South Africa, with an ordinary result against Sri Lanka, and a beating by Pakistan in their minds, England were hammered in Ahmedabad. Almost no sides would have come back from that. And they might not have, had it not been for Cook, the new captain.

Much like at the Gabba, they were massively behind in the game, and looking shaky, when Cook batted for 556 minutes and made his daddy 176. England were still humiliated by nine wickets. But Cook had shown them that they could score in India, and when they did, they could do it for a very long time.

The next Test, Cook made a normal hundred, Pietersen made a daddy, England won by 10 wickets. The third Test Cook made 190. England won by seven wickets. The fourth was drawn, largely because of Trott’s 143.

England had won in India for the first time since 1984-85, coming from one Test down. After losing their No. 1 crown and the ast series against South Africa, it was an amazing effort and a historical win. Perhaps the other series were a temporary blip.

Graeme Swann missed the trip to New Zealand, Pietersen came home during it, both with old-man wear-and-tear injuries. A New Zealand team missing a few players as well shouldn’t have been a real challenge for the recent No. 1 and conquerors of India. It turned out that the best England could do in the series was hold on to a draw, with Prior and Monty Panesar holding on to lifeboats. They only just managed to lose a series they should never have been in a position to lose. But they atoned back in the UK with an easy win over a now-hapless New Zealand.

Against Australia earlier this year, they were never at their best. They went very close to losing the first Test, smashed Australia in the second, were in a very dangerous position when the rain came in the third, founded an inspirational Stuart Broad to win the fourth, and almost stole the fifth before bad light spoiled the party.

For the batsmen, Bell was outstanding, but no one else was. Pietersen was good, Root had one amazing innings, but without Bell, the entire series might have looked different. The Australian bowlers were never pushed into the ground. The Australian batsmen were never kept waiting for hours on end. England just won almost every important moment in the series.

In their eight series since becoming No. 1, England had won four, drawn two, and lost two. It was hardly a collapse, but it was a long way from 517 for 1.

The early Flower years had 16 daddy hundreds. The last two years had only five from five fewer Tests, three of which were in their amazing win over India. Back in the old days, even Broad was making daddy hundreds.

In the last two years all their regular batsmen are averaging below their career averages. Cook is minus five, Prior minus four, even Bell minus eight despite his magical Ashes. Trott is down eight runs, along with Pietersen, even though he has made two of the best Test hundreds ever in that time. The story has been one of deterioration.

In the two years before that, Cook averaged 12 runs above his career total (17 more than in the previous two-year period), Prior 1 more (an increase of five), Bell 26 more (an increase of 34), Pietersen 1 more (nine ahead), and Trott 11 more (19 runs better). That was a whole lot of improvement.

But with poorer individual numbers have come lower totals. England have not passed 400 in the last 18 attempts. And it’s hard to grind the opposition down when you don’t pass 400.

None of the other batsmen have fared much better. Strauss retired. Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara are now perceived as limited-overs specialists. Samit Patel was a horse for a course in Sri Lanka. James Taylor and Nick Compton are out of favour; one might come back, the other probably never will. Jonny Bairstow never really got going but should be back. Root oozes talent, and has a decent record so far, but he needs to find his position and be trusted for a while. Other than Strauss, none of the above average over 40 in Test cricket.

Anderson, Swann and Broad haven’t had the same drop-off. They are all the same or better than their career averages in both periods. Even without the rest and the psychological advantage that their batsmen used to provide, they are still players who have been constantly winning matches for England, or keeping them in them.

The only weakness in England’s bowling in that time has been the fourth man in the attack. Tim Bresnan, once presented as a novelty good-luck charm, was actually averaging 23 with the ball in that period, and often bowled the hard spells to rest the strike bowlers. He had the ability to keep the run rate down or take the wickets.

Then Bresnan picked up an elbow injury. Because it was Bresnan, and everything about him is so low key, it was barely talked about. But from that point on, Bresnan never looked like the same bowler. In the last two years, he has averaged 45 with the ball. Some of that was on Asian pitches but his average at home is also 40. Currently Bresnan is out of the team, his recovery from a stress fracture not yet proven.

The other fourth bowlers have not been much better. Chris Tremlett was brought back much on the form of three years ago and looks like a bad artist’s impression of the Tremlett from then. Steve Finn is deemed too expensive and cannot consistently stay in the team. Graham Onions dominates county cricket but couldn’t get in the squad for this tour, let alone the team.

England’s newer options haven’t looked great. Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan were average and poor respectively at The Oval, but they at least have youth and, in Woakes’ case, batting on their side. Panesar will be back, possibly as soon as Adelaide, but his form in county cricket won’t have Australia scared. A long-term answer for the fourth bowling spot is not that apparent, unless Finn learns the discipline Flower craves.

That England could not win or save the Test at the Gabba was always inevitable. None of their batsmen stepped up, none of them ever looked remotely unmovable, and at no time did two men get together and become the rocks that at least would bring England some respect. There was no fight, no runs, and no hundreds, let alone a daddy.

The key men are changing. Strauss is gone. Geoff Miller has announced his intention to stand down as chairman of selectors. Flower might be next. The core of the team is still almost all there – because you don’t fluke repeated double-centuries and totals of over 500 – but will this lot of quality players be able to lift England to those heights again?

The legacy they were trying to build is now secondary to just trying to regain their best form, and chasing South Africa as the best team on earth. There was a time when a missed run-out of Cook would have almost certainly cost you a daddy hundred, and any chance of winning a game. This time it cost Australia 65 runs and an earlier finish.

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Australia’s futile chase (beep, beep)

Wile E. Coyote spent his entire cartoon life thinking he would catch the roadrunner. On so many occasions he thought he had his dinner, only to end up falling off a cliff, getting caught in his own trap, being outsmarted or just blowing himself up.

Australia put England in an innings-long chokehold to gain the momentum. And then give it away with a bad collapse in their innings. Snap. Australia take three quick wickets to take charge of the match. And then can’t stop Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell. Beep, beep. Australia take Bell and Matt Prior in two balls to keep the total chasable. And then England’s tail mock them. Thud. Australia start their innings like the total of 299 is easy. And then they lose one wicket. Bam.

Australia put England in an innings-long chokehold to gain the momentum. And then give it away with a bad collapse in their innings. Snap. Australia take three quick wickets to take charge of the match. And then can’t stop Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell. Beep, beep. Australia take Bell and Matt Prior in two balls to keep the total chasable. And then England’s tail mock them. Thud. Australia start their innings like the total of 299 is easy. And then they lose one wicket. Bam.

Other than routinely giving away good positions, Australia have done nothing consistently. Even their two collapses in this Test weren’t consistent. One was half hearted after trying very hard to get a lead. The other was whole and complete. They stepped into the doom entirely, even before the clouds came over.

There are things they cannot be blamed for. Bell is better than them. Stuart Broad has those Tests. England are more professional. England have better players. England have a coach they’re used to. England are playing at home. England are the better side.

But Australia are now 3-0 down from four Tests. In three of those Tests they have had chances. One was denied by weather, and KP. The other two they combined their worst with some of England’s best. As far as losers go, they’ve been good ones. But losers just the same.

Ryan Harris probably doesn’t deserve to be thought of as a loser. When in two years time he can’t walk without wincing, it’ll be because of days like today when he had to do the entirety of the world. As Tim Bresnan slogged him you could hear the fluid in his knee joints boil.

Peter Siddle was the batsman who offered the final catch as the dark clouds hovered above Lumley castle. In Ashes cricket he’s taken hat tricks, large hauls, and put every single vital organ on the line Test after Test. For his trouble he’s lost three Ashes series. Nathan Lyon, the spinner that nobody wanted, took seven wickets. Shane Watson came in at No. 6, a position he would have found unpalatable a few weeks ago, and played his best Test innings since he was at the Wanderers in 2011.

Even the accidental opening partnership did well. A player that Australia ignored because they always assumed they could find someone better, and the other who almost missed the entire tour for being an idiot. They batted in such a way that Australia believed they could finally catch England. David Warner proved again that when his head is still, and he wants to use it, he can score runs at important times. Chris Rogers hang on to the side of the boat for both innings, but no matter how many times England tried to force him off, he clung on.

But that’s all Australia have been this Test, this series and of recent times, a team that can cling onto the edge and wait for the other team to break their fingers so they fall off. And when Australia fall, they fall. Today they fell so quickly it was impossible to distinguish each body from the next.

Had they been beaten by a truly great team, or even a team playing at their very best, they could draw something from that. This is not the case. England can only get better. Australia are two injuries to Harris and Clarke away from being a club side with grand ambitions. If Tony Hill and Aleem Dar could see Australia’s future, they’d take them off the field for being too dark.

They will continue to fight, win the odd moral battle, have some great individual performances, and even steal the odd Test.

They can see the roadrunner, but he’s just better than them, and despite the odd good sign, they might not catch it for a long time.

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Andy Flower smiles at beauty not numbers

Back in 1997, Andy Flower smiled. No one else was there. He was alone in his room after a match-drawing innings against Matabeleland. It was just him, some pieces of paper and an oil lamp. The paper was scorecards from Tests and first-class matches the world over. Andy had spent a lifetime collecting them, he had file cabinets built to accommodate them. Trusted colleagues would send them to him. When he was not fastidiously combing over VHS tapes of his technique or being fitter than a sheep dog, Flower was looking for something in all these numbers – he didn’t know what it was, but he knew it would give him an edge over someone else, and that is he wanted.

The smile came from an epiphany Flower had. Early wickets truly were the key.

The evidence was obvious. By keeping your top order out there for as along as possible, you made bowlers go into fourth, fifth and sixth spells. That would mean when the middle order came in, they could capitalise on a tired attack, a deflated field and scoreboard pressure. All that blood sweat and paperwork was worth it.

It is almost possible that the above is made up, and it was actually years of playing professional cricket around the world that taught Andy Flower valuable lessons that he formulated into team plans and regulations. At their best, the England team executed these plans in a brilliantly unthinking way. Alastair Cook refused to sweat or play a poor shot. Andrew Strauss stayed calm and did his job. Jonathan Trott refused to blink or attack. England won quite a bit of cricket.

There were other factors, players and tactics that they used, but it was their foundation. When it fails, they do too. The two most recent series England have lost were against South Africa and Pakistan and in both instances the top three averaged less than 30. That trend goes back to 2008 against South Africa, which was before Flower was coach. The last time England’s top three averaged below 30 and they won a Test series was against Sri Lanka in 2001. When Flower was still a Zimbabwe batsman.

It was always important always – no one ever says, let’s throw wickets away at the top so our middle order can save us. But England built a gameplan around it. And not just a gameplan, but an Andy Flower gameplan; it might as well be typed on gold paper and laminated.

This series England are averaging 29.21 for their top three. Yet, they are 2-0 up. So far, in order of occurrence, they’ve been 102 for 3, 121 for 3, 28 for 3, 30 for 3, 64 for 3, 27 for 3 and 149 for 3. It’s no 517 for 1. At the start of their second innings here, they were 49 for 3, which was 17 for 3 in the state of the game. Australia were on top. Ryan Harris looked like an immense Anime monster, Peter Siddle had not even come on yet. Yet by the close of play England had travelled comfortably to a 202-run lead.

Australia’s bowling attack is pretty good. They have five decent options and a part-time wristspinner. Their bowlers can hit the right lengths for long periods, they can build pressure, their lines have been very good and their captain can, on occasion, be very forward thinking. Against a top order not in perfect mechanical order, they’ve been good.

Cook has helped Australia, like he has helped many sides since the headier days of 2011. Back then it looked as if the only way to get Cook out was to send 200,000 protesters to Leicester Square and start a social media campaign. Now you just wait for him to play a bad shot. This year he is averaging 36. He has made no hundreds this series.

The praise that Joe Root gets at times suggest he is the Candyman, Johnny Cash and Jesus Christ rolled into one. Yet his back-foot technique is getting a working over by the Australians, who try not to let him use it. Root’s 180 at Lord’s was so good you hoped he didn’t have a flaw but if Australia had a fully functioning cordon and he had been caught on 8, he’d be averaging 12 in this series.

Something weird has happened to Trott of late. The Trott of legend, and Twitter infamy, was the much-scratching, overly defensive player. Now he’s been replaced by someone Steve McQueen could play in a film. He’s playing shots, and looking super cool doing it. He isn’t making runs, though. In this series he averages 24.25 with one fifty. His strike rate of 60 is higher than any other England batsman, including Kevin Pietersen.

Pietersen is not in great form but his hundred at Old Trafford saved the game for England. At Trent Bridge his 64 helped set up a winning total. And his partnership with Ian Bell on Sunday was what ended Australia’s hopes of having a good day. Australia have tried to play against his ego, and they’ve done well at times. But when he is in full form, he’s untouchable to them. At Old Trafford they tried to sledge him and he laughed at them while saying something along the lines of “Do you think I worry about going out? I don’t worry about that at all. Not at all.”

Then there is Bell. If the Avengers came up against Ian Bell right now, they would lose. Bell is supernatural. If Elvis ever found form like this, they would have renamed earth in his honour. The only way to slow his scoring down is with a third man, everything else is meaningless. Australia couldn’t get him to leave the wicket with a bulldozer and, in the form of Harris, they sort of have one. Bell can be weak against Saeed Ajmal’s doosra and his own mind. Australia have no doosras, and they can’t penetrate his mind. Ian Ronald Bell will stop dominating once he is good and ready.

Jonny Bairstow is a worry for England, and Matt Prior is in bad form. But by the time Australia get to them, they’re so far behind that it has rarely mattered.

It may not be England’s grand plan and they not be executing their skills in the way Flower would want, but they are better than Australia. Today, as Ian Bell floated around the crease, Andy Flower might have smiled again. It wasn’t a plan coming together; it was something prettier and more perfect than that.

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