How England’s triumph of planning created the perfect Ashes set-up
We've seen a lot of set-ups lately.
Pune's groundsman was set up by undercover TV reporters. American politicians yell about set-ups as their secrets are exposed. At the Brisbane Test, day two was marked by the way England set up Australia's top order, one by one.
Australia went for a singular and basic set-up in the first innings. Regardless of who the batsman was, the plan was to bowl short and hope he hooked you to the deep. It took a while, and cost a bit, but eventually it worked.
While the Bodyline talk in the newspapers remained absurd, Steve Smith went as close to Douglas Jardine's tactic as modern laws allow. Short leg for the fend, and a man in the deep just in front of square. Leg slip and fine leg as the two behind. At one stage England's tail batted with no one between point and square leg.
Tactically, you could describe it as indiscriminate. When England came on to bowl, you could say anything but.
The touring team came at Australia with precision, and immediately got results. Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, David Warner, Peter Handscomb, all knocked off within 25 overs after lunch, with the score at 76.
It was the way Handscomb was nabbed that most caught the attention of ABC Grandstand expert Simon Katich.
"I wondered for a second, why is he bowling back of a length? Then I thought … ah ha."
'He was looking for boundaries'
With Handscomb, England had targeted his tendency to hang back in his crease. Jimmy Anderson was the bowler, and few in the world are better at targeting a single spot on the pitch.
Back of a length indeed, several in a row. Then the fuller ball slipped in, angling towards the stumps. Handscomb was initially spared by the umpire, presumably thinking there was an inside edge. But the DRS review showed no contact, and the ball hitting his back pad.
Given the depth at which Handscomb bats, there was no escaping that impact. The projection showed the ball smashing leg stump.
On a break from commentary, Katich wasn't in any way inclined to rest his voicebox. With the glee of an enthusiast indulging in his pet subject, like Ken Jennings tackling a Jeopardy round, the former Test opener took the dismissals apart one by one.
Methods to dismiss David Warner please Alex, for 400.
"Their field had a part to play. They know he likes his boundaries early. So they had a deep point from the word go, and that's a big area for him. They didn't give any sort of width, which he'd play through on the front foot," he said.
"By coming round the wicket and cramping him up, they made him play a shot he'd got out to in the past. He probably could have punched that off the front foot through the covers, but he went elsewhere because he was looking for boundaries."
Warner was trying to dink around the corner on a pull shot to a ball that wasn't short enough. He'd be done that way in England a couple of times in 2015, and this bowling cartel has long memories. At the time people called it a soft dismissal, but it wasn't one in which the batsman had full agency.
Warner's partner Cameron Bancroft had required a simpler approach. "On debut, you don't know how someone's going to cope with the emotion. We've all been there, and it's nerve-wracking," Katich said. (We haven't all been there, but you know.)
"It's an easy set-up. Straight, straight, straight, knowing he wants to feel bat on ball on debut. They gave him a few, had him driving to mid off and mid on. Then they throw one wide, he plays and misses. Did the same process again, and this time he nicked it."
Exactly so. Bancroft was touted for patience and discipline as an opener, the qualities that had brought him the unbeaten double-century in the Sheffield Shield that got him in the side.
In his first Test, he threw the bat at one too wide to dignify with a response, and provided England the early incision.
England's tightness of delivery gave little away
As for Khawaja, his bad dreams from Sri Lanka followed him home to haunt him here. He has bossed seam bowling on this pitch, but perhaps no one has thought to try him against spin.
Against Dilruwan Perera in Galle in 2016, the left-hander faced off-breaks from around the wicket, and kept mistaking the straight ball for one that might turn. He was clean bowled twice in a day.
Enter Moeen Ali in Brisbane, the same bowling style, the same line. Moeen bowled one that gripped in the pitch and turned substantially away from the edge. That was all the set-up required. The danger ball straightened a touch, but nowhere near as much as Khawaja was playing for. Leg before wicket, plumb.
Steve Smith and Shaun Marsh managed to keep the strategists at bay, but only got their side to 165 at stumps. The match situation and England's tightness of delivery gave little away. Again, said Katich, tactics were king.
"It's such good classic Test match bowling. They've shut the scoring down. They know Tim Paine's coming in next, he hasn't played for a long time. So if they stop the scoring for an hour, then a wicket falls, he's coming in under enormous pressure."
Australia will resume today with a couple of potential century-makers at the crease. Smith did nothing to harm his case as the world's best batsman, with a fighting 64 under pressure. Marsh was verging on a 50 of his own, shrugging off criticism of his selection with a steady, then fluent, display.
On the third day, though, they will search for safety, then a lead, against an impressive group of bowlers, from a position of 137 runs behind. An unusually stodgy pitch influenced by cool and damp conditions in the last few weeks will play its part.
"We've got plans for each individual, but we've got to have plans that work for this wicket," Anderson told Grandstand after play.
On all available evidence, they did. Having executed those plans, as per the modern parlance, this Test match is another thing that has been set up beautifully.