Andrew McGlashan in ESPNcricinfo, 12 June 2023, with this title: “What does Australia’s WTC win mean for the Ashes?” ….
Smith’s ominous form, Boland’s metronomic accuracy augur well for the side as they dust off the cobwebs in style.
Australia’s victory in the World Test Championship [WTC] final was a landmark on its own, capping an impressive two years and securing the only title that had yet to feature in their trophy cabinet. However, this was not a tour with a one-off match; it’s only just started. The men’s Ashes begins on Friday at Edgbaston, so while the players spend a day or so celebrating, let’s examine what Australia’s performance at The Oval could mean against England.
Even a pair at The Oval was unlikely to have stopped Warner from featuring at Edgbaston, although it would have turned up the pressure a good few notches. Instead, he goes into the Ashes having played well in the first innings, battling through a difficult first hour before flourishing by putting the pressure back on India’s attack. The around-the-wicket line got him again, although this time a feathered pull down the leg side didn’t quite add to the narrative. In the second innings, he drove flat-footed at Mohammed Siraj for 1. We might have a clearer idea of Warner’s chances of making his Sydney farewell by the time the Ashes reaches the end of the Lord’s Test.
Smith’s biggest problem was falling into the deep guard marked by Warner. He compiled a classy hundred in the first innings to lay down an early marker as he looks to go somewhere near repeating the prolific returns of 2019, where he made 774 runs in just four Tests having missed one with a concussion. Such is Smith’s skill that he has flicked techniques again, deciding that the more extreme back-and-across movement he used in 2019 was worth returning to after his first two county matches for Sussex, which may fuel the views of those who thought he shouldn’t have been signed. In reality, Smith would have worked things out anyway. It is likely his final Ashes tour. Only a brave, or foolish person would expect anything other than plenty of runs.
Don’t wait too long to go short
Travis Head has been one of the stars of this WTC triumph. He started it with a blazing hundred against England at the Gabba and set up the mace-sealing victory with a blistering 163 at The Oval. But India missed a trick, with bowling coach Paras Mhambrey admitting as much. They did not go for a sustained short-pitched approach early enough. Head eventually gloved down the leg side on the second day and did not look entirely comfortable in the second innings. Expect England to test him out early, particularly if they have Mark Wood in the attack. However, they will need to get it right. Anything off line and Head will throw his hand into it, either slashing over point or carving towards deep third. Do not be surprised to see England post deep fielders as catchers for those shots.
Does much more need to be said here? An average of 14.57 from eight Tests, six times taking two or more wickets in an over. Australia have won seven of those matches. Perhaps the only question is whether his metronomic accuracy could play into the hands of England’s ultra-aggressive batters who may try and line him up. But he is a shrewd operator able to nip the ball both ways.
Shaking off the cobwebs
It wasn’t a warm-up match. It certainly wasn’t, but the miles in the legs won’t have hurt Australia’s bowlers and, barring Usman Khawaja, all the batters had a good time in the middle. Pat Cummins was able to spread the load among his quicks with Boland’s 36 overs the most sent down. After the third day, Mitchell Starc conceded that despite feeling good coming into the match, the quicks had lacked game rhythm. Cummins’ nine no-balls stood out, but he wasn’t concerned. “I wasn’t doing my best with the front foot this game,” he said. “Rhythm felt really good, just kept overstepping, which I don’t normally do so I’m not overly worried.” The overall performance on the final morning was very polished to suggest the rust was coming off.
Australia still like a review
They didn’t prove costly in this match, but it wasn’t Australia’s best game with the DRS. In India’s first innings, they reviewed for an edge against Shardul Thakur moments after Cummins had a wicket scrubbed off by a no-ball. In the second, Marnus Labuschagne convinced them to go upstairs for a non-edge against Virat Kohli (although he nicked Boland to slip two balls later) then they reviewed an lbw against Ajinkya Rahane that never looked out. There doesn’t need to be much reminding of how it came back to bite them in Win toss, bat first? Not necessarily, say Australia
Australia have shown an indication to bowl, while England, too, love a run chase. Could we be in for a bowl-first Ashes?
It did not look good for Rohit Sharma when Australia finished the opening day of the World Test Championship final on 327 for 3 having been put in to bat. But he had been badly let down by his bowlers, as Pat Cummins confirmed he would have done the same and bowled first.
In fact, Australia head coach Andrew McDonald called The Oval surface “a clear bowl-first wicket” given the covering of grass and cloudy skies, although that had burned off by early after when Travis Head and Steven Smith took charge.
There is a quote attributed to WG Grace about bowling first: “When you win the toss, bat. If you are in doubt, think about it, then bat. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague, then bat.”
Clearly the game has moved on since Grace’s time, but by and large Test cricket has remained led by the bat-first mantra unless conditions are hugely persuasive the other way. One notable exception came at The Oval in 1998 when Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga, knowing that Muthiah Muralidaran was his trump card and not wanting the prospect of the follow-on which wouldn’t have allowed Muralidaran a break, stuck England in. They made 445. Sri Lanka made 591 and Muralidaran bowled them to victory.
On the flip side, a year earlier in 1997, Mark Taylor made what is regarded as one of his best calls at a toss when he batted first on a damp Old Trafford pitch knowing it would help Shane Warne later on. Steve Waugh made twin hundreds. Warne bowled Australia to victory.
Waugh’s great side of the 1999-2001 era went through a period of bowling first reasonably regularly including four times in 2001 which all brought victories. Of course the game is littered with times it hasn’t worked. One of Australia’s most famous occasions when it went wrong was 2005 at Edgbaston, the venue for the first Test on Friday, when Ricky Ponting said “we’ll bowl” after Glenn McGrath rolled his ankle. England rollicked to 407 in 79 overs (there’s a word for that) and it changed the Ashes.
To bring things back to the current time there is a chance we could be in for a bowl-first Ashes this year. Ben Stokes loves a run chase, already stating when the coin goes up that’s the way he wants to shape the game. Meanwhile, Australia have shown an inclination to bowl in recent times, doing it on three occasions in the last WTC cycle including in consecutive Tests last season against South Africa in Brisbane and Melbourne. Had the coin fallen Cummins’ way at The Oval, it would have been four.
“We’ve been more prepared to bowl in recent times and don’t think that is going to change,” McDonald said. Whereas Stokes might fancy a chase, McDonald said the key factor is wicket-taking. “Think you consider how difficult 10 wickets will be in the fourth innings verses what happens up front.”
Cummins, a rare fast-bowling captain, believes the view around putting the opposition in has changed. “If there’s a bit in it on day one and you feel like you’re going to take 10 wickets, you just go for it,” he said. “I think the stigma around bowling first and not bowling them out [cheaply] has gone a bit as opposed to in the past.”
However, something always in Australia’s mind, and an area they are clearly better stocked than England for the Ashes, is the strength of their spinner.
“Is the wicket going to deteriorate, will reverse swing come into it, will spin come into? That’s the other thing to recognise,” McDonald said. “We’ve got an all-time great spinner in Nathan Lyon and the fourth innings is when he gets the work and conditions are in his favour.”
Regardless, though, of what stage the Australians are bowling, they are prepared for England’s batters to come after them and that may require a shift in attitude.
Against India, Australia conceded 3.97 runs per over across the game, equalling the rate Sri Lanka scored against them at Galle in the first Test last year as the most expensive they have been since 2016. It was a likely a taste of what is to come, although England will try to add a run-an-over to that.
“We felt that both batting groups did an incredible job to prosper on the wicket that had enough in it for the bowling units,” McDonald said. “But every time you missed it was a boundary so one thing that we’ve got to factor into England is how we deny them those boundaries. There’s a couple of things that we can potentially tidy up and take from this game into the next one.
“Most of our bowlers went at above what they’d usually go, and we’ve just got to get our heads around that the tempo will be slightly different. We’re a team that usually goes at that high two runs per over, here we’ve got to get our heads around the fact that we could go at four runs an over.”
Another element that Australia have been putting a lot of work into is their field placements and it may be those, rather than specific bowling plans, where the most obvious changes are noticed in the Ashes.
“Their batters hit balls in different areas so our planning and prep will take that into consideration,” McDonald said. “You saw even today [Sunday against India], some people may have been critiquing our sweepers out, [but] we wanted to control the tempo of the game. Think in England that’s something most teams do. Think England will employ similar tactics when wickets are flat, and we’ll do the same.”
Thuppahi's Blog · This web site presents the interventions of MICHAEL ROBERTS in the public realm with reference to Sri Lankan political affairs. It will embrace the politics of cricket as well. ROBERTS was educated at St. Aloysius College in Galle and the universities of Peradeniya and Oxford. He taught History at Peradeniya University and Anthropology at Adelaide university. He is now retired and lives in Adelaide.