English face curse of Lord's

It is a remarkable fact that since Headley Verity took 14 wickets in 1934, an England side has never won an Ashes Test at Lord’s.

If Australia’s all-too-familiar grip is to be loosened, the home team will have to improve vastly on every aspect of their game.

For Australia, it’s a case of business as usual. For England, new heroes need to be found and historical precedent placed firmly behind them.

Praise for England’s remarkable survival at Cardiff should be tempered by the knowledge that they were comprehensively outplayed for most of the match.
They were left clinging on desperately in a game that should have been a tame draw from ball one.

The pitch was largely benign, but in all disciplines Australia showed superior diligence, technique and application, exposing England’s languid pre-Test preparation match against Warwickshire and leaving them woefully undercooked for the rigours of Test cricket.

The cavalier and, in some cases, technically deficient manner in which the England top order surrendered their wickets in Cardiff calls into question the impact of the shortened forms of the game.

Australia’s main focus is the Test arena, with Twenty20 cricket viewed as no more than a minor distraction during an Ashes year.

They looked in their element in Wales; calm, methodical and unrelenting, when England appeared impatient with both bat and ball. For the home team to compete at Lord’s, they desperately need to rethink their approach.

Australia’s powerful batting display at Cardiff means they remain unchanged for Lord’s. Opener Simon Katich underlined his value with an unobtrusive but wonderfully effective 100, complemented perfectly by Ponting’s chanceless 150.

Of the Australian top six, only Phil Hughes has failed to score a century on this tour and the batting line-up is already looking a good deal more dangerous than it did in South Africa a few months ago.

No longer able to rely on the brilliance of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, the Australian bowling attack has reverted to the more mundane principles of discipline and pressure, with each bowler having a clearly defined role.

Perhaps the only real concern can be Mitchell Johnson’s curiously erratic performance. Ponting will be hoping for a return to form at Lord’s, where the wicket should be more conducive to both pace and swing.

In sharp contrast the toothless and ill-disciplined England bowling display in Cardiff has raised major questions about whether England have the firepower to knock down the opposition batting twice in a match.

Deeply troubling to the selectors must be the underperformance of the vaunted English spin attack, supposedly the department where they have a clear edge over the Australians. Graham Swann and Monty Panesar jointly managed just 276-1 in Australia’s mammoth first innings, and whereas Panesar was arguably the better half of a disappointing duo, Lord’s is unlikely to give him much assistance, wheras Swann will add more depth to England’s potentially brittle batting.

The exclusion of a spinner gives England the opportunity to beef up its pace attack and the predictable fitness concerns over Andrew Flintoff, who is retiring from Test cricket after the Ashes, bring the enigmatic paceman Steve Harmison back into the selection mix.

Question marks hang over Harmison’s consistency and commitment, but when he’s on form he is arguably England’s best bowler.

Wickets for his county, Durham, and success against the Australians in the England A warm-up match, where he knocked over both openers and Ponting, will enhance his selection credentials.

The more conservative pace option is relative newcomer Graham Onions, who troubled an admittedly weak West Indian batting line in the England series.

If selected, the challenge of bowling to an Australian batting line-up now full of confidence will be a truer test of his abilities. But the selectors face a gamble, whichever way they lean.

Australia clearly have fewer quandaries, but there will be some concern that they failed to show the killer instinct to finish off a team on the ropes.

The howls of indignation from the Australian media over England’s time-wasting tactics should not disguise the fact that Ponting’s bowlers failed to take the final wicket in an 11-over spell. The England hierarchy will not have been displeased by the prickly manner in which the Australian captain discussed Andrew Strauss’s ‘ordinary” tactics at the post-match presser.

As the focus shifts back to the home of cricket, the battle between the leadership of Strauss and Ponting goes under the microscope once again. Strauss will be feeling the pressure to make amends for his failures with the bat at Cardiff, and he will be hoping to build on his excellent record at Lord’s to solidify England’s shaky top order.

Ponting’s captaincy may come under regular scrutiny, but his skills with the bat are beyond question. His batting display at Cardiff suggests a return to form that could seriously damage England’s chances of regaining the Ashes.

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