Calling it a winning draw, in the words of Simon Doull on commentary, might have been stretching it a little, but England managed to at least salvage their self-respect at Dunedin after a diabolical start.
Their 167 all out represented the fourth consecutive occasion they’ve scored less than 200 in the first innings in the opening match of a Test series on foreign soil. Like lemmings proceeding in single file off a cliff; or a man standing on the edge of a subway platform who feels the irrational urge to jump though every ounce of reason or logic tells him not to; that or first-day-back-at-school recklessness; it’s almost something England feel they have to get out of their system nowadays before buckling down in the second innings and showing us what we know they’re capable of.
Only Jonathan Trott showed the application that was necessary, and if there were any lingering doubts as to the fact the pitch had no demons in it whatsoever, Hamish Rutherford quickly dispelled them as he made the most of the benign conditions with an assured and confident 171 on debut. Whether or not he’d find batting as easy on a subcontinental turner, or a truly green seamer, as he made it look here remains to be seen, but that’s not to take anything away from a knock that was impressive in its strokeplay and maturity. This lad’s got a future.
England may have regained their self-esteem thanks to second-dig centuries from Cook and Compton, and the heretofore-unrevealed talents of Steven Finn as an all-rounder, out lbw for 56, to ensure the draw. But watching that contagion of collapse that swept through their first innings like the batting equivalent of Spanish flu, one can’t help but wish England would rid themselves of this alarming psychological glitch.
Thankfully, on past record, this is unlikely to happen in the second Test at Wellington, which starts tonight. At the very least this should be a more equal contest between bat and ball, the pitch at Dunedin proving so moribund as to kill off any chance of a result once the first day was lost to rain. The Wellington wicket will have more in it for the seamers, something that could present a conundrum for New Zealand should they win the toss: bowling first could bring dividends, but Brendon McCullum’s doughty posse of hard-working quicks, who gave their all so wholeheartedly in the first Test – Neil Wagner deserves special mention – may yet be a bit stiff in the legs after their heroic exertions.
If England have a devil on their shoulder urging them to bat like idiots in the first innings of a first Test abroad, Australia have already pushed the self-destruct button, and we’re all standing back and marvelling at the mushroom cloud.
The suspension of four players ahead of the Mohali Test – James Pattinson, Mitchell Johnson, Usman Khawaja and vice-captain Shane Watson – for failing to complete a written self-assessment after the drubbing they received at Hyderabad has provoked much hilarity on Twitter and, elsewhere, more serious examinations of the sport’s growing professionalism and how this needs to be reflected in “team culture”. Coach Mickey Arthur has said this represents the culmination of “lots of small minor indiscretions that have built up to now… Being late for a meeting, high skin folds, wearing the wrong attire, backchat or giving attitude are just some examples of these behavioural issues that have been addressed discreetly but continue to happen”. He has the full backing of captain Michael Clarke, who referred to “a number of issues on this tour where I don’t think we have been hitting our standards”.
Ultimately, though, this whole shemozzle has been exposed to the glare of public hilarity and derision through four cricketers’ refusal to turn in their homework on time. More seriously for Australian cricket, it exposes the fact that there isn’t a heck of a lot of respect for coach and captain amongst the squad, and that if management are going off the deep end over paperwork, then, like a school teacher screaming hysterically at a classroom full of unruly six year olds, it’s plain they’ve already lost control. With all the talk over Clarke’s at-times tense relationships with players under his watch, past and present, it also shows up the mythical Aussie concept of “mateship” to be just that – a myth. How Australia pull themselves together after this, to the extent where their focus falls once again on the sport’s basic concepts – scoring runs and taking wickets instead of assignments and “wellness forms” – remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, England will be looking to press the reset button in Wellington while licking their lips in anticipation of an Ashes contest that’s looking increasingly like going their way with every day that passes.