Any fan of science fiction will know that no matter how good and impenetrable the machines, robots or alien overlords, eventually the humans will find the weakness. Neo sees the matrix in code. Jeff Trent destroys Eros’ spaceship with a fight in Plan 9 from Outer Space. In Mars Attacks, Richie Norris blows up alien heads with Slim Whitman’s “Indian love call”. And God gives us the common cold in The War of the Worlds to poison the aliens.
It is a familiar narrative about no matter how stupid, fat, lazy and useless we are, as long as we retain our human endeavour, band together and keep on fighting, we’ll find a way.
Sport often gives the same sort of narrative.
No matter how perfect and robotic a team can be, flair and creativity will win. Detroit Pistons played hard, defensive, rough basketball, and won two straight NBA championships. Then Michael Jordan came in and defeated them with his floating-on-air, never-seen-before brilliance. But it took years before the Bulls were any good, and only after Phil Jackson teamed Michael Jordan with Scottie Pippen and a triangle offense.
Michael Jordan wasn’t Luke Skywalker, he didn’t use the force, or even have a background killing womp rats back home. The Bulls created a side, found an offensive plan, built some defence and used that to beat one of the toughest teams in basketball history.
It wasn’t the emergence of a special sporting disciple; it was a team working as one.
England’s batting plan is pretty simple. It’s not all that different to parts of Moneyball, or even rope-a-dope. They went to make the opposition tired. They want the opposition’s new ball bowlers to go into fourth and fifth spells. If that means that their batsmen play fewer shots than other top-orders around the world, that is ok. That is right. They will dull you, and then let their middle-order feed on the carcass.
Their bowling plans are more varied. They are not just a top-of-off-stump side. They have individual plans for each batsman. With Michael Clarke they want to be very full. With Shane Watson they are aiming at his front pad. With Chris Rogers they started trying to get him caught in the cordon, and ended with a slower ball at the stumps.
But when Ashton Agar came out to bat, England had few, if any, plans. He was a 19-year-old No. 11. They would have known that he could bat a bit. But they wouldn’t have had hours of footage on him. They wouldn’t have studied much analytical data. They wouldn’t have even been able to talk to many players they trusted about how to bowl to him.
They started bowling to him like a young tailender. Then they bowled to him like a tailender who could bat a bit. Then they tried to bounce him. Then they lost their plot.
And it was only just before he got out that they cottoned on to the fact he would often play shots based on field movements. That you could play with his mind a bit by moving a fielder, telling him about it, and then he would often think about it as he faced the next ball.
By then, with a bit of luck from grainy crease footage, he had scored 98 and made England look like they didn’t have a single thought between them that hadn’t be pre-programmed earlier.
Agar might make runs again, but England know about him now. They will have plans. They will have data. If they’re beaten by him again, it’s because he’s special, and not because he’s unknown.
Phillip Hughes was given caught behind off Tim Bresnan, England v Australia, 2nd Investec Ashes Test, Lord’s, 2nd day, July 19, 2013
In the 2010-11 Ashes, England started off by using DRS like it was something to get rid of. They showed almost no knowledge of the system, how it can be best used to gain maximum effect and seemed confused as how to tame it. Australia used it randomly.
By the end of that series, England had worked it out. They’d improved. Australia had not.
In the Lord’s Test, a flash behind from England was appealed like they knew they had taken the wicket. It was the sort of appeal that you can’t back down from. They simply had to review it because of how certain they were.
But instead of rushing to a review, they talked about it. Everyone from first slip to the bowler seemed very positive that this was worth reviewing. Everyone, except Matt Prior, who had not appealed as much as everyone else. They talked about it, took emotion out of it, and Prior convinced them not to review. It was not out.
According to Brad Haddin, Australia go on feel for DRS. Just as they did at the start of the Ashes series three years ago.
When Alastair Cook first fielded in the slips, it seemed like it was a recurring in-joke perpetrated by the England management. Obviously, Andy Flower has never joked, so what they were really doing was trying to force Cook into becoming a slip fielder. It was, for a couple of years, like trying to force an entire rhinoceros into a Happy Meal container.
Cook’s main job seemed to be stopping the ball from going to the rope. His hands refused to be soft. His reactions were always late. He looked anxious and ill at ease. But he was eager, and he refused to allow himself to be rubbish. Many times he would be out on the ground doing drills on his own. He almost forced himself through hard work and will to be a good slipper.
Australia’s keeper and slip cordon is experienced, three men in their 30s. Haddin was brought back mostly for leadership, although there is no doubt he is also a better keeper than Matthew Wade. Clarke is an exceptional slip fielder. And Watson doesn’t miss many catches that come at him. In this series the ball has sailed through them. Not through their hands, but through the gaps between them.
Root was one of those missed. He was on 8 at the time. He was still there at stumps the following day.
Cook took three catches on the final morning in Trent Bridge while dropping one, almost completely reversing how his slip catching used to be. And he won a Test by doing it.
Part of Darren Lehmann’s strategy to improve Australia is to get the legends back on board. Before this Test, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne were hanging out with the boys, with Lehmann hoping their genius would rub off on his new team. Almost every time the West Indies struggle, a similar thing is mentioned. As if all Runako Morton or Daren Ganga ever needed was to share a rum with Viv Richards.
Australia do it often. They tend to feel more comfortable with famous friendly faces.
England don’t seem to care as much about their legends. Their coach is a Zimbabwean. Their bowling attack is coached by a Shield cricket journeyman. Their spin by a Pakistani leggie. And their fielding coach is Richard Halsall, someone who could be sitting beside you while you’re reading this piece and you’d never recognise him. Only in Graham Gooch, the batting coach, do they have a former England player in their set up.
Over the last couple of years Australia have employed Craig McDermott (former bowling coach) and Justin Langer (former batting and then assistant coach). It didn’t help. Their current spin bowling coach and fielding coach is a former Australia keeper, Steve Rixon.
When your default position is picking former players of your own team, you’re chasing a dream, an old feeling, a familiarity that you think will breed success. But that can’t change the instant reality. Neither could bringing Lehmann in. The English coaches have spent months preparing for this. Lehmann hasn’t. And special guest stars won’t change that.
In Clarke and Cook, you have two players who were both obvious choices as captain when their predecessors stood down.
When Andrew Strauss retired, despite it being improbable that anyone other than Alastair Cook would get the top job, Stuart Broad, Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan were also interviewed.
Now this might have been a proper interview where the players brought in PowerPoint displays and had pie charts. Or it could have been just a casual sit down and talk. The ECB didn’t say. But we know it made 100% sure before hiring Cook that they weren’t sitting on some unknown captaincy gold that could have been better.
Ricky Ponting stepped down one night and the next day, without even applying for the job, Clarke was told he was captain of Australia. This is the second most important job in the country according to some, and yet he didn’t need to talk, prove his worth, or even say he wanted it. It was just his.
For several years now, the Australia batting line up has had dramatic series-losing collapses. They’ve failed to score 100 a few times. They’ve failed to score an adequate amount more than a few times. They seem prone to go out to any ball that deviates off the straight, whether from spin or swing. This has been happening with three coaches, two captains, two chairmen of selectors, one high performance manager and one CEO.
In three 2013 Ashes innings they have had three collapses. All of them have meant giving up good positions – two were saved by great tail-end performances, one was not. In all their inconsistency over the last few years, their batting collapses have remained the constant.
England went to the UAE to play Pakistan as the No. 1 side. They struggled on the slow, low wickets. They tried to sweep. Their plan to dull the new ball and tire out the seam bowlers meant little on those pitches and they lost the series. In Sri Lanka, they lost the first Test: Rangana Herath and bad shots were the reason. But they won the next Test. And then they went to India and they beat India. In three series, they found a problem, they worked on a problem, they overcame a problem.
Three years ago, against Pakistan at Headingley, Australia were bowled out for 88 with a team that had Clarke, Watson and Steven Smith in it.
England do personality tests. They judge their players at all times. But when they select them, they don’t bother with surprises. Sure, they might pick one bowler over another in a manner that might confuse you. But they don’t pick two players from outside their squad. They don’t drop a consistent performer who has taken nine wickets in his last Test because they want to throw a teenager in.
It’s consistent, boring, English. When they selected Nick Compton it was against the grain. He was from outside the England set-up but they felt he had earned his chance. Then, after seeing a bit of him, they decided that although he was the sort of dour stayer they wanted, he was perhaps too dour, and not the perfect fit for their team. He failed the final part of their personality test. His county runs might never get him back.
Australia have now recalled Phillip Hughes three times. He has been dropped twice because of two separate technical problems the selectors believed he had. Steven Smith is on his second real chance, but his third if you count the fact that when he was first picked, it was as a bowler. Ashton Agar was picked on a hope and prayer. It worked once. It has not worked in his any of his bowling spells, or his three hits since.
It was Joe Root who replaced Nick Compton. England believe they know every single detail about Root from pretty much the second he was born. It was Root who repelled Australia’s last chance not to be embarrassed at Lord’s.
The appointment of Lehmann was seen as a masterstroke by ex-cricketers, cricket fans and the media.
Lehmann understands the ways of Australian cricket. He can bring people together. He has cricket in his blood. He will be bold. He will be different. He will make a difference.
There is no doubt this is a happier team than the one he took over, but what of the rest.
England are an experienced team with world-class players, a coach who took over as an interim and had his team bowled out for 51 but who two years later had them No. 1, and a support structure that does everything in its power to manage (and occasionally micro-manage) them to success.
Australia shocked England with random selection, persistent bowlers and team unity at Trent Bridge.
At Lord’s, they had no more mystery, England tired out their bowlers and their team unity couldn’t overcome their flaws.
They are relying on a sporting miracle to win from here.
At their worst, England can be pragmatic robots. But they have found a way to win. It isn’t pretty but they know it works, especially against inferior opposition, and they refuse to try something different unless they run into something truly special.
For Australia to win a Test, they need a carnivorous seven-wicket haul from Ryan Harris or a double-hundred from Clarke. They need Agar to discover he is Jim Laker. Or Shane Watson to dominate like he does in the IPL.
England just need to keep checking their boxes, playing as a unit, taking their chances, analysing their footage and staying focused.
“The coaches will not allow continuous errors. Their vigilance is necessary for perpetual success.”
One is a plan. The other is a dream.
In V for Vendetta, Detective Finch is asked a question about how the inspired masses will go against the angry military force of the government. Finch says, “What usually happens when people without guns stand up to people with guns?” In the film, V saves the day, and the masses take back their country.
Right now, Australia are a team without a hero.
I should go out for a beer with the boys. But I really just want to sit in my room and do nothing. This is important, Boof is trying to bond us. I don’t want Boof to think I’m not one. I’m just so tired.
“You comin’ out tonight, mate.”
“Yeah, I s’pose.”
“What, have you got better things to do?”
“No, course not, I’ll be down in five.”