How I Won The Ashes, 6th Newsletter 22nd January 2010



The Ashes

22 January 2010

Hello and welcome back to How I Won The Ashes

How I actually won the Ashes will be told at some point in the future, but I hope you are curious, because it’s quite a bold claim!

You can view this and previous postings by visiting

I’m sorry that you didn’t get anything last week, but I thought it would make sense to wait until the dust had settled after the end of the Test series in South Africa.  I can now reflect on all the events of the last six weeks and assess what the England team need to do to kick on from here.  There is much to be optimistic about, but this England team is nowhere near the finished article.  I’ve got some thoughts on this, on the South African team and on the Review System which attracted so much comment.

Here’s what I will be covering this week:

Click meSouth Africa v England, 4th Test, Johannesburg

Click meSelection issues

Click meSouth African grit and Graeme Smith

Click meThe Review System

Click meBangladesh

See?South Africa v England, 4th Test, Johannesburg

Very little went right for England, from the very first ball of the match, after Andrew Strauss had won the toss.  It seemed a good one to win. The pitch, which was clearly prepared to produce a result, was unlikely to become any easier to bat on and there would always be something in it for the bowlers; so, provided a competitive score of around 300 could be achieved in the 1st innings, it would be possible to set a challenging  target in the 4th innings.  On that basis, batting first made sense.

However, from that point on, it was downhill all the way. The selection of Sidebottom for Onions made little sense.  There were no injury issues and Onions had earned a little bit of cult status by batting out not once but twice for draws that enabled England to go into the last match unable to lose the series.  Selection should not be based on such emotional issues, but there’s no doubt that Onions himself would have been buoyed up by his batting heroics; and he would have been determined to see the job through by bowling his heart out on a pitch which was always likely to suit him better than any other in the series. He would have been quite a handful. Maybe England were deceived by the forecast of damp and cloudy conditions into thinking that the ball would swing around a lot and that Sidebottom offered a different option and one to which the South African batsmen were less accustomed. Whatever, the thinking was flawed on both psychological and practical grounds; and on the basis that you do what your opponents least would like, it played into South Africa’s hands.

The shot that Strauss played  into Hashim Amla’s right hand off the first ball of the match was nothing short of miraculous.  Apparently, the last time an English batsman was out to the first ball of a match was way back in 1936. My first thought as Dale Steyn bowled a gentle leg stump loosener was: nice way for Strauss to start, clipping it away to get off the mark immediately.  It was with utter disbelief that, in a millisecond, I saw short leg flinging the ball skywards in delight.  That put South Africa on a high, where they remained for the entire match. There was only one point – early on the 3rd day – when England had the slightest whiff of a chance, which was when they had South Africa 5 down with a lead of only 55.  Had they managed to break through again and keep the lead inside 100, they might conceivably have been able to set an awkward target. This, though, would have still required England to score at least 250 in their second innings. Given the way they batted generally throughout the series, with the exception of Durban, and given the increasingly menacing and effective combination of Steyn and Morkel, that would have been unlikely. 

Indeed, Johannesburg showed up all the issues that characterised the series as a whole: England’s chronic inability to post competitive totals, despite having an extra batsman; South Africa’s strong and deep batting, made stronger by England’s lack of an extra bowler; their ability to seize vital moments; their general grit, determination and competitiveness; and, of course, the review system. Nobody could doubt that if England had won the series, it would have been, if not a travesty, certainly a misleading reflection of the two sides’ abilities and performances over the series as a

See?Selection issues

Any side with a player who can be relied upon both to score runs batting at No. 6 and to be a frontline bowler immediately has more attacking options in the field, assuming its wicket-keeper is also proficient with the bat. At their peak, both Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff filled this space, to England’s great advantage and success.

It is one of cricket’s great ironies that Australia, usually the strongest cricketing nation, have never had a truly world class all rounder to compare with the likes of Sobers, Botham, Flintoff, Kapil Dev or Imran Khan. Some have come close: one thinks of Alan Davidson or Gary Gilmour as bowlers who would get runs; or, in their early years, Steve Waugh or Greg Chappell, great batsmen who could take more than the occasional wicket.  But none of these could be selected as a proper all rounder.  On the other hand, when you have bowlers of the calibre of Warne, McGrath and Lillee, three of the greatest in the game’s history, plus wicket-keepers like Marsh, Healey and Gilchrist, you don’t really need one.

South Africa, of course, have been well served in this regard by Jacques Kallis, who is now probably more a batsman who bowls a bit.  But he still gives his captain options and the side balance, he still takes wickets and he gets through enough overs to let the other bowlers have a rest.  They will find him very hard to replace.  For England, on this tour, it has been the continuing conundrum.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but having the extra batsman in the side did them no favours, apart from at Durban when Ian Bell scored an excellent century from No. 6; even then, though, he came in when England were already close to parity on the first innings. In the other matches, the extra batsman made no difference. All it did was put extra pressure on the bowling attack. One of the reasons cited for Graham Onions being dropped for the final test was that he had no gas left in his tank, which was effectively an admission that England should have had five front line bowlers the whole way through the series.

If you analyse it a bit closer, this was also the case for South Africa, since they, too, picked six batsmen.  The difference was that one of them was a proper bowler (although it was actually the part time off spinner Duminy that precipitated the last hour panic at Cape Town.) However, most of South Africa’s runs in the series were scored by three frontline batsmen – Smith, Amla and Kallis – and by the reliable Boucher at No. 7. Prince and Duminy were conspicuous failures; and if South Africa had had the extra bowler, it might have got them the two extra wickets at Pretoria and Cape Town that would have given them a 3-1 series win.

England’s ability to stop South Africa completely dominating with the bat was mainly down to Graeme Swann, who bowled with both control and penetration and partially disguised England’s bowling deficiencies. That he occasionally also disguised the batting deficiencies coming in at No. 9 offered a clue as to how England should have considered the make-up of the team for the forthcoming series against Bangladesh and Pakistan.  This would have been the ideal time to play Broad, Swann and one from either Luke Wright, Liam Plunkett or Adil Rashid at Nos. 7, 8 and 9. If they could start to be relied on to contribute 100 runs between them each innings, it would provide the balance the side so desperately needs for next winter’s Ashes. In the absence of a proper all- rounder, that has to be the next best option.  Alas, the selectors don’t see it that way.

They are hampered in this by Stuart Broad not yet training on as a batsman.  At the moment, he only seems to score when England are either already in a very strong position or when the cause is completely hopeless, such as at Headingley last summer. It could instead be Swann who eventually makes the step up to No. 7.  As for Rashid, he seems to have fallen out of favour.  It’s tough being on tour and not playing and it may be that his attitude was wrong. It’s a shame that they have been so quick to discard him, because any leg-spinner is a one in a million in English cricket and one who can also bat is priceless. He should be nurtured and encouraged.  Bangladesh would have been the ideal time to give him a chance, but he has obviously said or done something to rule himself out.  His only consolation is that the last young spinner to tour South Africa, play no part and quickly fall out of favour for a bad attitude was none other than Graeme Swann, who has now become an automatic pick and a talisman.  Let us hope for his sake and the sake of the England team’s balance that Rashid presents an unanswerable case for his return sooner than it took

See?South African grit and Graeme Smith

I previously expressed doubts that South Africa were worthy of the title of the No.1 side in the world, but this series has done much to dispel them.  They were consistently able to put together partnerships and bat as a unit.  Apart from their one blow-out at Durban, their lowest score in the series was 291.  They were also able to seize moments and initiative.  Both the drawn matches were close to the point when the captain of the fielding side would have said “Right, that’s it, let’s call it off, we’re not taking these wickets.” Not South Africa.  At both Pretoria and Cape Town, they stuck at it and made breakthroughs, which led to enthralling finishes, yet more advertisement for test cricket.  England would do well by learning from their example with both bat and ball.  If they do not, they are in for another disappointing time in Australia.

Graeme Smith has become a giant of the game.  His batting performances against England, ever since he scored consecutive double hundreds in his first two test matches against us in 2003, have been conspicuously excellent.  Like truly great players, he is at his best when the pressure is at its most intense.  His 154 not out at Edgbaston in 2008 to win both the match and the series was an awesome innings; his hundreds at Cape Town and Johannesburg, if not quite under such intense pressure, were further demonstrations of grit and determination. None of the current English batting line up can match this, with the exception of Paul Collingwood.

Yet I still find Graeme Smith unattractively accustomed to getting his own way.  On the pitch, this is fine.  A strong will is required to play long innings and win matches, and even the most passionate opponent will not begrudge him that.  Smith, though, has previous form in behaviour that crosses the line between legitimate competitiveness and unsportsmanlike conduct.  Three examples stand out. 

The first was at Johannesburg in 2005.  England were batting late in the second day, with a lot of time lost to rain.  But they had passed 400, and Michael Vaughan and Steve Harmison, of all people, were smashing the South African bowlers everywhere.  The light was gloomy, but playable, and Vaughan, anxious to score as many as possible because of the lost time, was not about to go off, even if he were offered the opportunity by the umpires. It was Graeme Smith who stepped in and forced the umpires to curtail play, in an effort to put a brake on England’s free scoring.  It was the only example in my experience of a FIELDING side successfully appealing against bad light.  Not even Moin Khan managed this in Karachi in 2000, when the mullahs were already calling the muslim worshippers to prayer at sunset as the England batsmen chased down an unlikely and historic victory.  Smith should not have been allowed to do this; yet he got away with it.

To add insult to injury, he then gave evidence against Vaughan in a disciplinary hearing held because of comments the England captain had made publicly about wishing the umpires could be consistent when it came to decisions about light.  Smith had no business being there and it seemed obvious he was doing his damnednest to get Vaughan fined, or banned, or both.  It was beyond the bounds of what is acceptable in the pursuit of victory.  At least Vaughan had the last laugh, because England ended up winning the match, and the series.

Unfortunately, Smith had the final victory in his long running feud with Vaughan three years later.  His aforementioned 154 not out won the series and caused Vaughan to resign the captaincy and retire from test cricket.  But in the previous match at Headingley, England, bowled out for 203, had South Africa in slight trouble at 76 for 3 late on the first day, with Smith and Kallis both dismissed cheaply.  It should have been 76 for 4 when Hashim Amla chipped a ball to mid off and Vaughan, diving forward, took the catch, scooping it up inches from the turf.  Everyone celebrated and Amla walked off.  There was no suggestion that it was anything other than a legitimate catch. 

However, he was sent back by Smith, gesticulating furiously from the balcony, urging him to seek a review, having seen a replay.  Amla was virtually on the edge of the pitch when he turned around and walked back to the middle.  Doubt descended and the umpires sought clarification from replays that the ball had not hit the ground before Vaughan made the catch.  Everyone knows  –  not least Smith in that situation  –  that when a catch like that is reviewed, it is virtually impossible to tell for sure that the ball definitely did not touch the ground and that the batsman will almost inevitably get the benefit of that doubt.  So Amla stayed and helped South Africa to go through the rest of a tricky session without losing another wicket, from where they ended up posting a giant score and winning by an innings. It was another example of Smith’s preparedness to do whatever it takes to win.  Again, he went beyond the boundary of cricketing

See?The Review System

Much has been written about the review system, so I don’t propose to spend too much time on it. Some key arguments emerge.  To start with, England are hopelessly inept with it.  They have always been hostile towards the whole concept of a review system.  Ironically, this probably cost them the match at Edgbaston on 2008 when Smith hit his match-winning century.  They had refused to allow the review system to be used in the series.  Yet how much must they have regretted that when Smith was stone dead lbw to Panesar relatively early in his innings. His wicket was clearly the fulcrum of the result and a reverse of the not out decision might have changed everything.

But now, having played under the review system, England tend to treat it as a fifth bowler that they keep refusing to pick.  They use it at a time when they are desperate for a wicket, i.e. when they are crying out for a fifth bowler.  The difference is that a fifth bowler can give you 15 overs in a day and maybe take a wicket or two; the review system is only worth two balls and once they have gone, for no gain, even the most blatant mistake by an umpire later in the innings, possibly when it matters even more, will go uncorrected.

The point of the review system is that it is supposed to eradicate obvious misjudgements that the human eye cannot detect, such as nicks onto the pad or catches that have clearly hit or missed the bat.  The original concept was designed to ensure that run outs and stumpings were correctly adjudicated. Once it became clear that it was possible for an umpire inside the pavilion to check the replay and quickly decide whether the batsman was in or out of the crease when the bails were removed, it seemed entirely sensible to give the on-field umpires this protection. It is now a totally accepted part of the game when there are TV cameras to supply the necessary evidence.

Technology has now progressed so as to give a third umpire reviewing an lbw decision the ability to assess, quickly and with reasonable certainty, whether the ball hit the bat before the pad, or, if it did not, where the ball pitched and whether it struck in line.  Where it is less satisfactory is in the predictive element, i.e. in establishing what the ball would have done after it hit the batsman’s pad.  There is still some debate about whether this is right.  The compromise seems to be to allow the on-field decision to stand unless the hawkeye technology clearly shows the ball missing or hitting the stumps, as the case may be.

Where the system is completely unsatisfactory is where not all the technology is being used to provide the third umpire with all the evidence to allow a miscarriage of justice to be quickly overturned.  It’s stupid, but I suppose inevitable, and true to the incompetence and greed that runs through the game’s administration, that this comes down to money; and it was deeply irritating that a dispute over funding prevented hotspot or snickometer from being available to the umpires in South Africa to judge whether or not, or when, ball struck bat.

However, one could not legislate for a third umpire having technology at his disposal and failing to make use of it. Darryl Harper made this mistake at Johannesburg when he forgot to turn a volume control that would have proved to him, beyond reasonable doubt, that the ball brushed Graeme Smith’s bat (it’s always him, isn’t it?) One should not blame Smith for standing his ground.  Batsmen do not walk in test matches, the game has become too hard nosed for that; and since Smith’s nose is harder than teak or diamond, one should not be surprised, either.  The ultimate insult was when AB de Villiers, another tough competitor, blatantly edged a ball to Matt Prior.  Replays showed that it was 100 per cent. out, even without hotspot or snickometer, yet it was not given.  The smug grin on AB de Villiers’ face said it all, because he knew England were out of reviews and could do nothing about it.

I will leave the last word to Michael Vaughan, a font of common sense and knowledge.  He argues that the system will only work if all the technology is made available to the third umpire. You know when you are batting if you have hit the ball, no matter how faintly.  So if you know that you are going to be found out by the third umpire, there’s no point hanging around if the on-field umpire hasn’t triggered you, you may as well walk.  If technology encourages walking, that can only be a good thing for the


Two things struck me about the selection of the England team to tour Bangladesh.  The first was the omission of Rashid, which I mentioned earlier.  The second was the absence of Strauss, to allow him to recharge his batteries ahead of a full year culminating in a winter Ashes tour.  I was horrified at the chorus of disapproval from former England captains, safe in their well paid ivory towers of punditry. It’s vital that Strauss isn’t burned out by next November and I think he and the selectors have done exactly the right thing.  It’s all very well for Botham, Hussain and Atherton to mutter about the England captain’s job not being one you can give up and take back.  But they should consider two things: first, Strauss has played a ridiculous amount of cricket in the last year, forced on him by the ECB’s gargantuan appetite for money, which exceeds that of even the most aggressive investment bankers. He needs a rest.

Second, he has been royally messed around by the selectors and the ECB, who gave the captaincy first to Flintoff and then Pietersen, with disastrous results.  Yet Strauss just got on with his role of opening batsman, without a word of complaint, even though he’d performed well as captain against Pakistan in 2006.  He has won the Ashes and come away from South Africa with a drawn series in not much more than six months.  He scored the first Ashes century by an Englishman at Lords for 20 years, an innings which set up England’s first test victory against Australia at the home of cricket since 1934. He has earned the right to that rest.  As usual, the only one speaking sense on this has been Michael Vaughan, who is probably one of the best captains England have ever had.  Alone of that group, he agreed with the decision to give Strauss a break.

Last time around, we went back to 1973 when Pakistan managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  The great Australian batsman who took five wickets in Pakistan’s first innings for the only time in his career was Greg Chappell; and the Australian bowler who destroyed Pakistan in the second innings was Max Walker, he of the ludicrous but highly effective action.

I haven’t been able to find a suitable match that happened on this day in the past, so there’s no trivia for you today.  I hope you all have a very good weekend and I look forward to hearing all your

Delenda est ECB.


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