• England v Australia, 3rd Ashes Test, Old Trafford, 2nd day

No time for trepidation from England

George Dobell at Old Trafford
August 2, 2013
Stuart Broad had a lengthy wait to tick up wicket No. 200 © PA Photos

There was some irony in the timing of Stuart Broad's 200th Test wicket. The wicket, that of Michael Clarke, not only placed Broad within a select band of England bowlers to have achieved the milestone, but it meant that the England team, for only the second time in its history and the first time in more than 30 years, contained three men with over 200 Test wickets.

It is an impressive achievement. The last time it happened was in February 1982. In that game against Sri Lanka, Derek Underwood's final Test, the England team also contained Sir Ian Botham and Bob Willis; one of the more impressive trios in England's post-war history.

Now Broad, James Anderson and Graeme Swann have joined them. It is a milestone that, as well as the skill of the individuals concerned, underlines the wisdom of talent identification, central contracts and continuity of selection that have typified England cricket in recent times.

Both Broad and Anderson were identified unusually young by English standards and fast-tracked into international cricket. Both have had some bumps on the road but the selectors have ensured they have had the rest periods denied their predecessors and stuck with them through the inevitable fallow times. There is now every chance they will finish their careers as the top two wicket-takers in England's Test history.

Swann took a somewhat more circuitous route to success, but here claimed the 17th five-wicket haul of his Test career. Now only Botham (with 27) and Sydney Barnes (with 24) have taken more. In partnership with Broad and Anderson, Swann has played a huge part in helping England enjoy their most successful period in the modern age.

We might well, in years to come, look back on this as one of the best attacks England have had. It may not compare to Waqar, Wasim and Mushtaq, or McGrath, Warne and Lee or any combination of West Indies quicks but, by England standards, you have to go back at least 30 years to find anything comparable.

But there is no getting away from the fact that they reached the landmark on a trying day. It was a day on which Anderson recorded the worst analysis of his Test career - 0-116 from 33 overs surpasses the 0-111 he conceded in Johannesburg in 2010 - while Broad had laboured for 54.2 overs - that's 326 balls - between taking his 199th wicket and his 200th and eventually reached the milestone in the second most Tests of any England player.

This was also the highest score England had conceded since South Africa plundered them for 637 for 2 at The Oval in July 2012. The last couple of times they have conceded anything like such totals, both at The Oval and in Ahmedabad, when India scored 521, they lost.

That should not be the case on this occasion. This pitch is flat, though no flatter than The Oval track of July 2012, and there is a strong chance that rain will reduce the remaining playing time in the game. Bearing in mind that England will retain the Ashes if they draw this Test, then England will not be as unhappy as they might have been. Talk of 5-0, or even 10-0, whitewashes hardly matters.

England did not bowl badly. Anderson was, by his high standards, a little off his best and lacked potency and, in bowling only 20 maidens in the 146 they delivered, England failed to build the pressure they may have wanted on the Australian batsmen. But this is a fine wicket and Australia batted well. It would be wrong to read too much into it.

Some critics might suggest that England failed to 'make things happen' but that is to fail to understand England's method. While there was a little conventional swing and some decent turn, at least with the newer ball, England were unable to gain reverse swing.

They play, Kevin Pietersen apart, safety first cricket and know that they only need avoid defeat to ensure they cannot be beaten in the series and therefore retain the Ashes. They had no need to chase the game and lacked the weapons to take wickets in bursts on such surfaces.

It is not their natural method anyway. Instead, they aim to suffocate their opposition with tight bowling and sharp catching. But on this occasion Clarke, in particular, was too good for them and they were unable to bowl with quite the consistency required to build the requisite pressure.

Besides, for a while it appeared England would dismiss Australia for nothing more than a par total of around 450. By the time Peter Siddle was out Australia were 430 for 7, but Brad Haddin then added 97 in an excellent, unbroken eighth-wicket partnership with Mitchell Starc.

England should not have allowed it to happen. Haddin was badly missed on 10 when Matt Prior failed to cling onto an edge off Anderson. It was not the first mistake by Prior this series and a reminder of the sometimes capricious nature of sport. Only four months ago, Prior was named England Player of the Year for his sustained excellence in the previous 12 months. Since then, he has failed to reach 40 in eight Test innings and missed several chances.

Prior's place is quite rightly in no jeopardy at all. It is not just that England now understand the benefits of settled teams and continuity of selection, but that it is almost impossible to predict who his replacement might be.

England have reservations about the keeping of the limited-overs options - the likes of Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow - are unlikely to turn to the better keepers - the likes of Chris Read, James Foster and Tim Ambrose - while the keeper from the Lions' tour, Ben Foakes, is very much a work in progress with bat and gloves. Steve Davies or Craig Kieswetter are closer to Test cricket than many might think.

After play Swann suggested England could still win the game. Perhaps with the Adelaide Test of 2006-07 in mind - England scored 551 for 6 dec in their first innings and still lost by six wickets - he claimed England's aim was to gain a first innings lead and then utilise a deteriorating pitch to dismiss Australia cheaply in the third innings.

"We'll get a lead on day four and then bowl them out," he said. "It's a very good pitch and we've got some of the best batsmen in the world.

Such positivity sounds encouraging, but it is not always mirrored by England's actions. The decision to send in Tim Bresnan as nightwatchman with 30 minutes of play remaining was as flawed as it was negative. Jonathan Trott, England No. 3, should have relished the opportunity to bat on this pitch for as long as possible and is as well suited to doing so as anyone in the world. The decision to shield him can only have suggested fear and trepidation to Australia.

Swann did make one interesting point, though. He suggested that Bresnan's failure to call for a review after he was adjudged caught behind when replays suggested he had missed the ball supported the theory that, at times, players are genuinely unsure whether they have edged the ball.

Bresnan's departure meant that Trott and Alastair Cook will be at the crease at the start of the third day. With Kevin Pietersen seemingly struggling with his calf strain - the England camp insist he is fine, but he was noticeably inconvenienced in the field - England will need Trott and Cook to bat for a substantial portion of the day if they are make the game safe.

They are one strong batting performance away from retaining the Ashes and could hardly have asked for a much more benign surface on which to produce it.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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