x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Bell tolls for Australian cricket to get consistent before the Ashes returns

Unlike batsman who led the way for England, visitors paid for too many changes in batting order and fitness of bowlers, says Dileep Premachandran.

Ian Bell was the only batsman who averaged more than 40 for England for his 562 runs. Glyn Kirk / AFP
Ian Bell was the only batsman who averaged more than 40 for England for his 562 runs. Glyn Kirk / AFP

It ended at dusk, with a match on the line, light meters out and a captain asking an umpire not to touch him. The farcical climax should not obscure the fact that England won 3-0, pulling clear whenever they had to and making the most of their good fortune at Old Trafford.

Many of the tabloid headlines over the coming days may focus on England's "relieved" celebrations, but let us look at some numbers instead. This marked the first time Australia had not won a Test in England since 1977. A trio of English Ashes wins. Their fourth in five series. Ian Bell's 562 runs. Graeme Swann, James Anderson and Stuart Broad taking 70 wickets between them.

Other figures suggest that Australia were competitive. Three of their top-order batsmen averaged more than 40. Only Bell did likewise for England. Ryan Harris was the best and most consistent bowler on either side.

Those are the crumbs of consolation. Harsh reality will tell you that Australia crumbled at the key moments. They couldn't build on the astonishing Ashton Agar-Phillip Hughes partnership at Trent Bridge and the collapse in Durham was a bit like watching an Associate nation all at sea.

Even at Lord's, where they were thrashed by a distance, they had England three down for next to nothing in both innings. They were unfortunate with the weather at Old Trafford, but the 3-0 score is indicative of how each team responded to pressure.

For a team that won 3-0, England faced plenty of criticism, some of it justified, for tactics that weren't exactly swashbuckling. Encouraging performances in the second half of the series aside, it shouldn't be forgotten that Australia's challenge was swept aside without a major contribution from several stalwarts.

Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott averaged less than 30, and had a highest score of 62 between them. Matt Prior, lauded as the world's best keeper-batsman before the series, finished it with just 133 runs.

Kevin Pietersen averaged only 38.8, while Swann took 26 wickets without bowling anything like as well as he has in the past. You couldn't escape the feeling that England had plenty in reserve.

Australia tinkered so much with the line-up that Claudio Ranieri would have been envious. Players moved up and down the order like stocks in a volatile market. Nathan Lyon, the only decent quality spinner in the squad, didn't play till the third Test. Hughes was surplus to requirements three innings after the 81 not out at Trent Bridge.

In the early part of the series, Australia played like a side with no clue of what their best XI was. It showed in the results as well. The current top five - Rogers, Warner, Watson, Clarke and Smith, who did duty at The Oval - is serviceable and Australia must build around them in the return series. They only need to look at Bell, the man of the series, to see the value of investing in people.

In a recent column in an Australian newspaper, Peter Brukner, the doctor who travels with the team, said: "History tells us that bowlers under the age of 24 are at increased risk of developing lumbar stress fractures, presumably because their bones have not fully matured and lack the necessary strength to withstand the high loads imparted on them by bowling at 140km/h."

With James Pattinson ruled out two Tests into the Ashes, and Pat Cummins now likely to miss another full season, Australia have learned that the hard way.

Before the first Test in Brisbane in November, they need to take stock of the next men in line, and whether they're robust enough to withstand the rigours of the five-day game. If fit, the superb Harris and the tireless Peter Siddle will surely start.

After that, it's a bit of a lottery. Jackson Bird was no more than steady in Durham, while Mitchell Starc is worrisome and inconsistent. Gurinder Sandhu needs more first-class experience. The wild-card pick would be Nathan Coulter-Nile, who Rahul Dravid was eager to sign for the Rajasthan Royals before IPL VI.

For England, the challenge is to find a consistent No 6 - Jonny Bairstow has a few technical issues to address - and also a second spinner if Monty Panesar's mind is elsewhere. Simon Kerrigan looked nowhere near ready at The Oval.

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