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Australia in England 2010: More questions than answers.


Despite revenge for the Ashes loss by throttling England 6-1 in the subsequent ODI series followed by a thrilling unbeaten home summer and near victory in the T20 tournament in the Caribbean, Australia have just completed what may have been their worst tour of England since the 1980s. It took place just a year after their previous venture to the country, because of Cricket Australia's refusal to send their players to Pakistan, and included all three forms of cricket against three different international opponents.

It all started in Dublin in June, where the Irish played hard and nearly pulled off an historic victory. Fortunately, red faces were prevented when James Hopes took five wickets for only fourteen, giving Australia a victory of only 39 runs. Personally, I would have welcomed more ODIs against the Irish and less against the English, if only because I felt five matches against the old enemy would be too many once Australia put the first three away with ease. I don't deny it.

I also don't deny that I got a rude shock when, after a tour match in which Aussie legend and personal favourite, Adam Gilchrist, captained Middlesex against his own country, the ODI series began.

The first match saw the long awaited return, in a batting sense not a physical one, of Michael Clarke but was easily dominated by England's plundered Irishman, Eoin Morgan who took his adopted side to a four wicket victory. The second ODI was a little less of a routing. It was Cameron White's turn to shine with the bat but, as with the first match, only one batsman really made an impact for Australia. England were in a similar boat, but Australia's total of 239 was not a difficult one to chase down and England did it with nearly five overs to spare.

ODI number three saw Australia's bowlers, led by new arrival Shaun Tait and the unpredictable Doug Bollinger, up the ante to defend their appalling 212. The old Aussie confidence emerged, from wherever it had been hiding since Dublin, to frighten England into near loss. It was not successful. England still won, but only by a hair this time. England managed to pull in the victory with only one wicket left and five balls to spare.

The confidence of the current one-day leaders continued to rear its head, pushing the English and their false bravado back into the ether as the final two matches went Australia's way. The fourth ODI was won by 78 runs and the fifth by 42.

So what happened in those first three? It seemed to me that the only thing lacking for Australia was their old one-day confidence, arrogance even, and once that was relocated things started improving. Player by player, Australia had the better side particularly in the batting line up. There were some injuries in the bowling side that meant inexperienced players were drafted in, but since when has this held back Ponting in the fifty over game? Also, with the exception of Graeme Swann, England's bowlers aren't much to sing about, so this should really have posed little problem for the Australians.

It can only be a theory, but I maintain it was the confidence levels. Not only had Australia just lost the final to England in a blazing T20 campaign, but Ashes wounds from a year ago were probably still raw. Those on their first England were maybe feeling a little overwhelmed by it all and I suspect their usually strong captain had his mind on other things.

Ponting was most likely playing his last tour in England and would have felt under pressure, if only internally, to bring home some sort of trophy. If his mind was more on his own game than rallying the troops in their time of fracture, this will have had a huge impact on the series. Notice that once that pressure was dropped, because the series was lost, things turned right around. Could it have been because Ponting was concentrating on the captaincy again?

From here Australia moved on to their “tour” of Pakistan in England. It started with two T20s in Birmingham, where Pakistan gave their opponents a long overdue walloping both times. Pakistan are, without a doubt, one of the best T20 teams in the world at the moment and their previous four outings against Australia had resulted in four near misses for Pakistan who, in 2009, were crowned world champions in cricket's shortest format. They missed out on the 2010 final only by a near miraculous effort from Australia's Mike Hussey as took his side to a win they had no right to.

This was followed by two tests, the second of which would prove eventful to say the least.

The first test, at Lord's, was a tale of two bowling sides. Put in to bat first, on a pitch made for bowlers, Australia looked poor in the extreme. Bowled out for 253, the pressure piled on their bowlers to step up. And step up they did. They bowled Pakistan out for a paltry 148 then went on to rack up 334 and set Pakistan 440 to win. Salman Butt and Azhar Ali put in quite an effort, pulling their second wicket partnership to 102 and giving the Aussie fans quite a scare.

On the final day, however, and with the pitch dulling out Ricky Ponting showed his captaining nous and tossed the ball to his part time spinner Marcus North – a batsman whose extremely ordinary performances, at both domestic and international level, since the 2009 Ashes tour has led many to question his place in the side. Ponting's decision was not a mistake. North took six wickets, getting himself on the Lord's honours board while his captain's chances of doing same faded before his very eyes.

Australia won by 150 runs. Their outstanding player in both innings was the quiet and much under rated Simon Katich, a man who was dropped from the side after the 2005 Ashes loss and who had to fight tooth and nail to regain his place. I would like to see him more celebrated, but at 34 years of age his time is running out.

Shahid Afridi, one of Pakistan's many captains of the last 18 months, retired from test cricket after this first match. This left Australia to face an inexperienced side at Headingley and with a new captain, this time Salman Butt who had certainly impressed at Lord's.

It all looked good when Ponting won the toss, but less than good when he chose to bat first. If anyone should know this, it should be Ponting – Headingley is unpredictable and Australia always do better there when they bowl first. Add to this that they were playing a side whose strength is in its bowling and whose weaknesses are exposed when they bat and it all seemed obvious that Ponting should have bowled first. Of course, it seems obvious to us fans and viewers, but I guess we need to trust our captain knows what he's doing. He had sure proved us wrong just days earlier when he sent North in to bowl a few overs.

And so we watched.

And then the horror set in.

Pakistan's bowling, while always good, was utterly outstanding this time. Young Mohammed Aamer took 3 wickets for 20 and Umer Gul 2 for 16 as they and their colleagues knocked over one Aussie batsman after another. Pakistan, whose fielding has caused them concern in the past, had everything in place and it all came together for them beautifully. Within a few hours of the first innings having started, Australia were all out and for only 88 runs.

Despite this, the match was far from over. Pakistan had not beaten Australia in a test for fifteen years and we soon saw why. Australia can fight, and never more so than when their backs are to the wall. They bowled Pakistan out for 258 then went on to put together 349. This left Pakistan chasing only 179 to win.

Not difficult.

Well, it shouldn't have been but Australia did their best to make it that way. They managed to take down seven of Pakistan's wickets before the victory was complete. Australia's bowlers once again took the game to their opponents and if they'd had a few more runs to play with, who knows what might've happened?

But it was not to be. Pakistan took a long awaited and well deserved win against Australia and the MCC “Spirit of Cricket” series ended, fittingly, in a series draw.

And so another tour of England has drawn to an end for the Aussies and this one not a particularly successful one. Ponting and Cricket Australia's selectors must now be pondering their options for the Ashes, which will start in Brisbane in November, and beyond. Injuries still hover and batting is looking weak while bowling is inexperienced. Plus three of their central batsman – Katich, Hussey and Ponting himself – are in their mid thirties and their careers must surely be drawing to a close. This may be the last Ashes series for those three. Who on earth will take the helm for the next one?

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