Ashes 2015: mediocrity on both sides making for a wildly unpredictable series

Stuart Broad

Throughout the early stages of this Ashes series it has been hard to escape the feeling that what we have on our hands is a pairing of mediocre Test sides bolstered by a pair of outright match-winners: Joe Root and the now-injured Jimmy Anderson for England, Steve Smith and hot-or-not Mitchell Johnson for Australia.

With respect to the metronomy of Alastair Cook and Chris Rogers, neither batting line-up appears capable of arresting any significant momentum change in favour of the bowlers so even sans Anderson, England remain just as capable of running a hot knife through Australia’s buttery middle order as they do of capitulating themselves.

Whichever side ends up winning this Ashes will probably have done so by virtue of collapse-avoidance more than anything else. From the players involved to date you could probably construct a composite top six that couldn’t honestly be backed to cobble together 100 between them, so further stump-splattering mayhem at Trent Bridge cannot be ruled out.

A common but weak explanation for these brittle displays is the infiltration of T20 thinking into Test batting; of the respective top fours at Edgbaston only David Warner and Steve Smith have played high volumes of the shortest format and they’re two of the better performing batsmen. The two captains are virtually strangers to it – the Pune Warriors team name listed alongside Australia and New South Wales on Michael Clarke’s Cricinfo profile page is now a historical oddity to rank with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s honorary membership of the Harlem Globetrotters.

What the rise of T20 cricket as the major focus of Australia’s domestic cricket summer does, though, is attach a greater premium on batsmen who often don’t have a hope of knuckling down and scoring big hundreds in red ball cricket, so doughty players of the Chris Rogers ilk – around whom winning Test sides have long been built – are pushed to the margins of a state cricket schedule geared towards the more lucrative short-form cricket.

Nowhere is that shifting focus given better numerical representation than in Rogers’ and David Warner’s respective crease occupation during this series; Rogers has absorbed 640 deliveries at an average of 106 per innings while Warner has lasted 354 at an average of 69, often flaming out early and in ways that obscure his blazing form. Familiar is the lament now that if Warner could hang around as long as Rogers Australia would never lose a Test, but then if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

It’d be perverse to point the finger at Warner right now – three of his colleagues in the top six have been missing in action while Warner himself has contributed three half-centuries for the series – but while his exemplary Test average of 46.66 could conceivably stay that high for half a decade, Australia will still often find themselves in the lurch and reliant on Steve Smith’s superhuman form unless Warner consistently finds a different gear or else Australia somehow develop more batsmen as steady, dependable and calming as Rogers.

In the absence of any specialist batsmen banging down the door, Mitchell Marsh might be allowed further chances to nail down his spot because broad-shouldered all-rounders are to Australian selectors what luxury sports cars are to other middle-aged men. Eleven years and 59 Tests’ worth of Watsonian frustration is ample proof of that yearning. Whisper it lest all known social media platforms spontaneously combust but even if it’s an unlikely turn of events, Watson’s claims for a short-term return aren’t totally unreasonable. That speaks of a patchwork Australian side.

Among the problems posed by the bat-dominant, younger Marsh right now is that a player of his type is a justifiable luxury within a firing middle order but looks a liability in a struggling one. Shuffling him to seven and shifting wicket-keeper Peter Nevill up to six would provide more questions than answers and the next in line if the listless Adam Voges gets the chop is Marsh’s older brother, Shaun, who showed promising form in the tour matches but even at the age of 32 can’t exactly call upon a wealth of experience in English conditions.

“[Shaun Marsh is] starting to work it out as you do when you get to that sort of age,” Australian coach Darren Lehmann said with supreme optimism on Monday, but the line-up change that best favours Australia’s batting efforts at Trent Bridge remains the disappearance of Jimmy Anderson.

Results so far should provide the greatest encouragement to Australia’s opening bowlers Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, who have achieved success in the wicket columns but failed to apply consistent pressure in both of Australia’s losses. Neither has achieved the break-out Ashes performance that has long been a rite of passage for Australian pacemen, something to rank alongside McGrath’s 8-38, Gillespie’s 7-37 or Massie’s 8-53.

To do so they’ll have to eradicate the stress-relieving boundary balls they offered England’s batsmen at Birmingham. That Mitchell Johnson was offering Clarke the most control of his pace trio means that consideration of Peter Siddle’s claims to a return is inevitable. The selectors would at least know what they’d be getting.

Australia entered this series the more renowned winner of Test matches and in possession of what seemed a more explosive, attacking and spirited line-up but after two major misfires they have to claw their way back.

Their hope, evidenced by England’s capitulation at Lord’s, is that the home side is also never far away from putting in a shocker. Just as quickly as the intimate and vocal English crowds can be whipped into frenzy, they can be silenced.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Russell Jackson, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 5th August 2015 07.24 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010