OK, cards on the table, England were royally hammered by Australia at Headingley Carnegie in the fourth Ashes test. The Swagmen, handed an early advantage by England’s profligate batting against the swinging new ball, dominated every facet of the match to win in two and a half days, levelling the series with one test to play.
A number of commentators, bloggers and prognosticators view Australia’s win as a critical turning point in the series. After all, the men in baggy green caps now have all the momentum, have the three leading wicket takers and have made seven centuries to England’s one. The hosts, riddled by injuries and self-doubt, are certain to fall to another defeat at the Oval in the fifth and final test. Right? RIGHT??
Believe it or not, despite all the negative press hysteria, it is still possible for England to win this Ashes series. Or at least I think it’s still possible. Here’s how:
Add experience and character
England’s extensive back room staff have taken responsibility away from the players for their mistakes. Obsessed with “taking the positives” out of each abysmal effort, players like Ian Bell have become cricketing automatons, unable to think their way around problems they face on the field. Shane Warne recently made the point that Monty Panesar hadn’t played 35 tests because he’d played the same test match 35 times. This comment cuts to the core of problems in the England camp. Experience, the sort gained in the heat of battle in a tight game, is sorely lacking. England must drop Bell for Robert Key, a man who was sledged mercilessly by the Aussies in 2002/3 but came through it to earn their respect, promote the resourceful Kent skipper to number three and bolster the ailing middle order.
Let Flintoff play regardless of his injuries
The importance of some things can’t be measured by statistics. Whether he’s 100% fit or hobbling on one leg, the presence of Andrew Flintoff will provide England with a massive boost at the Oval. The talismanic all-rounder simply has to play. In addition to his excellent bowling, Freddie galvanises the England dressing room and his presence alone should be enough to coax better performances from the likes of Jimmy Anderson. In what will be his final test match, the big man is guaranteed to give England a titanic performance.
Win the toss and bat and bat and bat
Last week, I watched Mark Ramprakash cruise to 274 for Surrey against Leicestershire. While the 39-year-old batsman doesn’t deserve an England call-up, his exploits at the Oval gave a timely preview as to what both teams can expect from the Kennington pitch. The Oval is a batman’s paradise and England must exploit it to the full. The best way to do this is win the toss, bat for two days, put the Aussies under scoreboard pressure and use the spin of Swann (and possibly Panesar) and Fred’s reverse swing to win the game on a wearing fifth day pitch.
Don’t buy into Aussie superiority
Forget the stories of Australia’s bowlers taking four games to acclimatise to English conditions and now being at the top of their games. Siddle, Clark and Hilfenhaus looked superior at Headingley because Australia were so far ahead of the game that they were able to bully England’s timid batsmen. But that was one game with conditions in their favour and England faltering under pressure. Remember Lord’s, where the Aussie bowlers were flayed to all parts of the ground by rampant England batsmen. In that situation, they were the ones under pressure, looking ordinary and unable to respond. It happened again when Broad and Swann got on top of them at Headingley. I’d argue that we haven’t seen both teams at their best simultaneously in any session in this series so far. It would be special if both teams clicked into prime form at the Oval.
Don’t rip the team to shreds
England’s selectors should take a good look at the treatment of Mitchell Johnson before taking the hatchet to their team. Short of form, Johnson eventually benefited from the faith shown in him by Ricky Ponting and bowled Australia to victory at Headingley. He now has a more than respectable 16 wickets for the series.
England should not make more than one batting change for the Oval test. As I’ve already said, I’d drop Bell for Key to add some guts to the middle order. What I wouldn’t do is drop Ravi Bopara or Paul Collingwood for debutant Jonathan Trott or veteran Mark Ramprakash. Play Key at three, Colly at four and Bopara at five with Prior, Flintoff and Broad adding firepower at six, seven and eight. Anderson and Swann retain their places with Panesar replacing Harmison only if the pitch is dry and spin-friendly as expected.