Alex Massie

Stick It Up Your Punter

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There are only three things wrong with this Australian side. They can't bat, they can't bowl and they can't field. A harsh verdict and one that may need to be revised before the end of the series, but one that's an accurate appraisal of Australia's most recent efforts. This is a good but hardly great England side. It ain't Jack Hobbs and Wally Hammond hammering these hapless Aussie bowlers but Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott...

"There's only one side playing cricket out there - and it's not Australia" said a commentator on Test Match Sofa* which is the kind of deliciously piquant assessment England supporters have been waiting to dish out for  25 years. Not since 1985 has an Australian side looked so helpless.

Of course it can all change and, this being cricket, Australia could yet escape a with a draw. Yet Graeme Swann will surely fancy his chances on days four and five and England should head to Perth 1-0 up and with all the momentum and confidence on their side. Australia's batsmen failed in the first innings at Adelaide and, on current form, only Hussey and Haddin would be selected for any composite side drawn from the two teams.

Indeed, on present form England's 2nd XI attack - Tremlett, Shahzad, Bresnan and Panesar - is no worse than Australia's first-choice selection of pie-chuckers. Brisbane was a shirt-front and the Adelaide Road is true as it ever was but England aren't a 834/3 kind of batting outfit, no matter how friendly the conditions.

Poor Punter. Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor would have struggled to coax something better from the attack Ponting must shuffle. It's not his fault his bowlers can't  - or couldn't yesterday - bowl to their fields. Nor is it the skipper's fault that Xavier Doherty has been promoted beyond his abilities. (Why this happened remains a mystery, not least since Steve O'Keefe, career bowling average 24, was quietly impressive for Australia A in Hobart.) Harris, Bollinger and Siddle are honest triers but yesterday they were just so many heavers and heifers. Willing, but bone-headed and lacking class.

Unless England bat badly - which should never be discounted as a possibility - it is hard, on present form and absent bowler-friendly conditions, to see where Australia find 20 wickets. And yet, England must seize this opportunity since failing to do so invites the wheel of fortune to turn against them later in the series.

Who knows, perhaps the Australian selectors will be bounced into selecting a more competitive side. They certainly have options: Philip Hughes could replace Marcus North, allowing Shane Watson to drop down to six. Or David Hussey (career average 55!) could add some vim to the batting. Or Usman Khawaja. Or Steve Smith and O'Keefe could make their Ashes bows. Or Hauritz could be recalled.

But perhaps that's the rub: Australia, for once, simply can't be sure what their best side would or should look like. At some point, however, they may discover it. Which makes it all the more important that England seize their current opportunity. But for England supporters there's been something comic and dizzying about these past few days that will not be forgotten for many a year. The job, as they say, however still needs to be finished. 600 is the first target, then 10 Australian wickets...

*The alternative test match commentary: informed, partial and deliciously waspish. The people who will enjoy it most are England supporters living in Australia.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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