Pendulum of fortune swings Australia's way

Whatever the result of the Oval Test, this has been an Ashes series of high drama—if rarely of the highest quality.

Two flawed teams have tussled for domination, with the pendulum of fortune now swinging back to the Australian camp.

The portents for England may be ominous, but all is not lost.
The reality is that at the start of the series most English supporters and players would have gladly settled for a drawn series with a match to play—particularly after the narrowest of scrapes in Cardiff.

For a side that must win—a draw leaves the Ashes in Australian hands—a major concern for England is the flatness of the Oval wicket. The last four county games have failed to produce a result, and in the most recent, between Surrey and Leicestershire, two double hundreds were amassed.

Surrey groundsman Bill Gordon will be under immense pressure to avoid producing what Steve Harmison has acidly referred to as an “executive director’s pitch” and ensure England have pace, bounce and turn to work with.

England’s selection quandaries have prompted wild media speculation, and the whiff of panic will have delighted Ricky Ponting.

The replacement of the floundering Ravi Bopara by former South African under-19 player Jonathan Trott brings yet another player into the side whose game and character were moulded on foreign shores.

England have a long and undistinguished history of trawling its former colonies for prospective talent, and Trott’s inclusion is a damning indictment of a system that fails to produce home-grown batting talent with regularity.

The county game has long been derided for producing mentally flabby cricketers, and England have struggled to produce sides capable of consistent excellence, rather than isolated cameos.

Former Test opener Justin Langer’s recently leaked memo to the Australian team offers a telling insight into the deficiencies of the English game, its players and mindset, including a love of “being comfortable” and a tendency to be “flat and lazy” when the going gets tough. The ECB would do well to take note.

For all the talk of Australian decline in the post-Warne years the impression is of a strong team in embryo—but also of a general levelling of the top four Test nations: Australia, South Africa, India and England.

Australia’s batsmen have produced seven centuries in this series, and have only really been troubled when the ball has swung or against Andrew Flintoff in top gear, as in the second innings at Lord’s.

Marcus North and Michael Clarke have been the twin thorns in English sides, cementing their places in the middle order, probably for many years to come.

Less convincing is the makeshift opening pairing of Shane Watson and Michael Katich—surely no more than a stop-gap until Phillip Hughes returns to form and favour.

The inexperienced Australian bowling attack has stuttered at times and still has an air of vulnerability, but Ben Hilfenhaus has been a revelation and Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle are returning to form.

Stuart Clarke’s control and accuracy remain undiminished, but his brutal flaying by Stuart Broad and Graham Swann in the second innings at Headingly leaves him vulnerable to the axe.

Conditions on the day will dictate selection, but the Oval wicket’s assistance to spin means that Nathan Hauritz will be the likely benefactor.

England’s future seems less straightforward, with the retirement of Flintoff leaving a gaping hole in the bowling department. Stuart Broad is a cricketer of some promise, and despite some occasionally toothless bowling, the selectors should continue to groom him as the long-term heir to the all-rounder’s berth.

What has become increasingly clear in this series is that without assistance in the air or off the pitch, England’s pace attack is about as threatening as the Teletubbies.

This is particularly problematic given the growing world trend towards batsman-friendly wickets, and makes Flintoff’s departure all the more troublesome.

Graham Onions gives depth to the bowling, but the emerging England attack must find more variety if it is to threaten in all conditions.

Some question the future of Test cricket, but the latest episode in this oldest of cricketing rivalries shows that the game in England and Australia at least, is as healthy and vibrant as ever. The winner-takes-all scenario holds out the hope of a closely fought finale to an intriguing series.

In particular, the stage is set to perfection for Flintoff’s swansong, with only a resurgent Australia standing in the way of public adoration and cricketing immortality.

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