Saturday, August 08, 2009

For England the game is already up at Headingley

Cricket historians might like to suggest when was the last time that the result of any Test match, let alone an Ashes Test match, could be predicted with absolute certainty after the first day. The bookmakers have Australia at 12/1 on and England at 9/1 against and that is about right. With the weather set fair there is no doubt that Australia will win the Headingley Test - I'll go further and say that they will win comfortably within three days. If you have tickets for Monday or Tuesday make other plans now!

Sport is played in the head far more than it is with the ball or the bat or the racquet or the club. From the first ball today (Strauss palpably lbw although not given out) it was clear that the Aussie heads were clear and their minds fully focused. England didn’t really seem as if they wanted to be there at all. They weren't not trying - absolutely not - in some respects they were trying too hard. But the essential connect between tactics, technique, temperament and self-belief was missing. Australia on the other hand had it in spades. They had a plan - bowl line and length and bat with confidence - and they executed it admirably. Ten decent cricketers and one great one combined into a formidable force- only one of the team (Watson) was not involved in at least one England wicket that fell. For England the sum of the parts of eleven decent cricketers managed, not for the first time, to be far less than what their individual talents should have delivered.

And so for England, at Headingley anyway, the game is up. Perhaps the writing was on the wall before the start with all the curfuffle over the fire alarm at their hotel and Prior's injury. With backroom staff to cover every requisite - in numbers that far exceed the number of players - wouldn't it have been ironic if there had been an unfulfilled need for a reserve wicket-keeper? Keepers can get injured just before play begins you know - it happened in the last Test match! But really none of this would have mattered had England's batsmen "relaxed and enjoyed themselves". The clich├ęs always say that no matter how big the occasion sportsmen should "play their natural game" and "go out and express themselves". England looked like they'd been invited to a party where the refreshment was grapefruit juice and there were going to be readings from Proust and music by Birtwistle.

Over much of this Ashes series Australia has played the better cricket. England won well at Lord's, inspired by Flintoff, but Australia was far from humiliated. At Headingley there has been no inspiration at all from an England side who look demoralised and dead in the water. Factor in a motivated and determined Australian team inspiringly led, from the front, by a Ricky Ponting who clearly wanted to answer the drunken, booing rabble in the stands in the best way possible. By performance. Well done Aussie.

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