Melbourne Five-fer: Day One

  • By: Dave Tickner
  • Last Updated: December 26 2013, 9:53 GMT

Dave Tickner picks out the key points from day one of the fourth Ashes Test at the MCG.

Carberry is bowled offering no shot to Shane Watson
Carberry is bowled offering no shot to Shane Watson

1. Same again
For England's batsmen, it was Groundhog Day on Boxing Day as a now familiar pattern emerged. A (relative) flurry of early runs followed by slow suffocation of the scoring rate as batsmen short of confidence are starved of loose balls by a bowling attack sticking resolutely to its successful plans.

All the batsmen made starts, but were unable to up their scoring rates - or in some cases even maintain them - before falling short of a match-affecting total.

Even the modes of dismissal were familiar, with Michael Carberry getting himself a start before falling to a faulty leave against the around-the-wicket angle from which Australia now consistently trouble him, while Joe Root and Ian Bell paid the price for tentative defensive prods outside the off stump.

And Jonny Bairstow, who has not played a part in England's batting disasters in the series to date, still offered a familiar picture by offering inadequate, open-gate defence to a straight delivery.

England got through to the new ball with only four wickets down, which was good, but barely 200 runs on the board, which made their position precarious.

And Australia reaped the rewards for all the discipline they'd shown after a slightly sloppy opening hour as Mitchell Johnson dismissed Ben Stokes and Bairstow - who replaced Matt Prior as keeper-batsman for this match - to leave England tottering on 226/6.

It's easy to talk about batting intent when the run-rate drops to two an over as it did for much of the afternoon and evening session, but it's not like the England batsmen were patting back half-volleys and leaving long-hops; those deliveries simply weren't there.

The batsmen could perhaps have been busier and more keen in their pursuit of strike-rotating, scoreboard-ticking singles but the frustration was really that while desperately trying to sell their wickets dearly too many still fell in avoidable fashion.

2. Cook off
When Kevin Pietersen was out trying to smack Nathan Lyon over long-off in Perth, there was a furious reaction. He was reckless, brainless, and - in the words of a man whose England Test runs tally he overhauled today - a mug.

There will be less opprobrium heaped on the England captain for his dismissal today, fencing way outside the off stump at Peter Siddle to give catching practice in the slips, but it was a less forgivable shot than Pietersen's.

There are two things to consider when considering a batsman's shot: selection and execution. When a batsman is dismissed, it's reasonably safe to assume the execution has gone awry. Pietersen did not mean to hit the ball to long-on. Cook did not mean to edge it to second slip.

So what of the shot selection. Pietersen was trying to score six runs, in a way he had done to a near identical delivery with an identical field setting in Lyon's previous over. Should he have tried to clear that man again after making his point? Perhaps not. With hindsight, definitely not. But the shot selection was at least understandable. There was palpable potential reward and KP weighed it up against the risk of dismissal and decided the numbers fell in his favour. Mistaken, perhaps, but not illogical.

For Cook's shot selection today, defending the ball a foot outside the off stump and away from his body, there is no such defence or mitigation. The maximum reward is a scampered single, and even that is unlikely.

An attacking shot is not automatically more reckless than a defensive one.

3. KP digs in
Kevin Pietersen had some fine responses in a delightfully spiky press conference in the build-up to this Test, but he gave a better one with the bat at the MCG. Despite what his critics believe, this was not the first defensive, gritty innings Pietersen has played for his country.

He looked in poorer form than in other efforts this winter but stuck it out and, via a mixture of fortune and fortitude, came through unscathed to reach stumps on 67 not out.

As always with Pietersen's batting, nothing was done by half. Whatever thing KP is doing out in the middle, you are left in no doubt that that thing is taking place.

When KP plays a defensive shot, there can be no ambiguity about the fact that the ball has been defended. His is an unorthodox, unique technique, but he appears to derive a certain pleasure from holding an exaggerated forward defensive pose.

Not since Robin Smith was in his pomp have deliveries been left so comprehensively as those Pietersen demonstratively ignores, his front foot lunging forward, his back foot sweeping across way outside off stump as the bat is arced upwards.

And, of course, whatever form he's in, a Pietersen drive or pull to the fence is rarely anything less than eye-catching.

These trademark Pietersen exaggerations are not only for good, though. When KP plays and misses, it always appears to be the most unplayable of deliveries. And when he felt sick today, everyone knew about it. Ditto when he tried - successfully it turned out - to make the 89th over of the day the last with some outrageous leisurely jaunts to the middle of the pitch in order to tap down errant and invisibly tiny pieces of misplaced turf.

What this means, then, is that whatever KP does, you notice it. Often for better, sometimes for worse.

When he's out of form, you see it. When he gets out playing a misjudged shot, you will notice it.

But what today also made clear, if further clarity on the issue were needed, is that to suggest Pietersen is not among the best six batsmen available to England is nonsense.

4. Margins
It could have been so different, though. Twice Pietersen enjoyed the sort of good fortune he feels he has missed in the series to date. After scrapping his way to six not out in an hour, the criticisms that would've come his way had he been caught mis-hooking to long-leg would have been long and loud.

But Nathan Coulter-Nile's bizarre and ultimately comical failure to stay within the boundary despite taking the catch a good couple of yards inside the rope spared Pietersen on that occasion, while England's number four could have been caught at midwicket for the third time in the series had George Bailey held a stinging chance.

There's something undeniably enjoyable about the fact Pietersen, even when playing on ostentatiously, seemingly point-proving, defensive innings, should still offer two such chances.

5. Toss
I don't think Michael Clarke would be a very good poker player. After winning three handy tosses in a row to start this series, he could hardly have made it more clear that he would happily have lost this one. When announcing his un-Australian decision to bowl first, he betrayed his uncertainty with a disarmingly frank "I can't believe I'm saying this, but we'll bowl."

It was, it turned out, probably the wrong decision. The pitch was good, and the murky cloud that played a part in his thinking had disappeared by lunch.

But the scoreboard, at this stage, vindicates him. A combination of Australia's efficiency and England's shattered confidence meant the tourists were unable to capitalise on what could have been a Christmas gift from the Aussie skipper.

Much of the credit must go to Ryan Harris. While Mitchell Johnson has taken the headlines in this match and will do so again today after his late double salvo with the second new ball, Harris is the best bowler in this side.

Playing an eighth consecutive Test, a major feat in itself for a player with his horrendous injury record, the right-armer was almost faultless today. The only scoring shot in his five-over new-ball burst was a four between keeper and first slip as Alastair Cook looked to leave. He got no more generous as the day progressed.

The number of half-volleys and long-hops from Harris in this series can be counted on one hand. He produced the crucial half-bat-width movement to expose uncertain footwork from Root and Bell and his performance could have yielded results even more impressive than his 2/32 had Australia's catching today matched their standards from the first three games.

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