By Ian Chappell, Daily Telegraph
THE two Ashes skippers, Steve Smith and Joe Root, engaged in an early battle of wits and after a fairly even beginning to the contest it appeared the Australian may have established a couple of helpful advantages.
Smith resorted to a short-pitched assault as England sought to build a sizeable total.
This concerted attack by Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins created a crack, which they were quickly able to extend into a gaping hole, as the England lower order subsided and the total was contained to manageable proportions. This is a tactic that favours Australia as they have the extra pace to employ a short-pitched assault, while England don’t.
When England decided to return the compliment they succeeded in slowing Smith’s scoring but not to unhinge his steel-trap mind. He calmly avoided the short-pitched stuff and slowly ground his way to yet another Test century.
In future when he’s in the field, Smith may employ this aggressive tactic a little earlier in proceedings, although both James Vince and Mark Stoneman avoided the short ball comfortably.
The other encouraging aspect of Australia’s attack was the control exerted by Nathan Lyon’s challenging off-breaks. There were times when the England innings was becalmed as Lyon extracted spin and bounce from the seemingly docile Gabba track.
The self-belief that Lyon has gained in the past couple of years helped him dictate terms while Vince and Dawid Malan sought to build big scores.
Lyon’s ability to control the England scoring rate while still asking serious questions of the batsmen, will be crucial in the next few weeks.
If he continues in this vein Australia’s pacemen can be used in short bursts and this may result in Starc and Cummins being available for the bulk of the Ashes series — a decidedly desirable outcome.
The other noticeable difference in the two bowling attacks was the lack of variety in England’s. The Australians faced a steady stream of right-arm fast-medium bowlers and the standard dropped off once Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad were out of the firing line.
For his part, Root displayed a lot of energy and was full of early ideas but his enthusiasm faded a bit when Smith and Shaun Marsh established a presence. The drop in intensity coincided with the ball softening and the two Australians eagerly capitalised to pick up the scoring rate.
Root can ill afford to run out of ideas as the England attack is going to rise or fall on him being innovative. It was telling that for all Root’s elaborate plans, England were unable to force Smith to change his exceptionally successful batting style. An inability to dictate to Smith will result in England facing larger totals than their fragile batting line-up can handle.
On the other side of the coin, Cummins executed a cunning plan to dispense with Root when the Englishman was at the crease. As well as luring Root into playing around his front pad and falling to an lbw appeal, the Australian pacemen still have a short-pitched trap they can unleash on the England captain later in the series.
The simple summary of the two skippers’ plans is the Australians — thanks to Smith — displayed an ability to weather a prolonged spell of probing bowling and then prosper, while England struggled to cope in this regard. As the series wears on it could prove telling that Australia has two top-class batsmen — Smith and Dave Warner — with the ability to take control of an innings, while England is highly dependant on Root.
This is where the absence of Ben Stokes will be felt most.
There was another aspect of Root’s captaincy that the baby-faced Englishman may want to review. In the early going when England were dominant, Root was totally in charge but as Smith looked more and more invincible, the number of on-field conferences increased.
These gatherings give the appearance of uncertainty and an important part of good captaincy is creating the impression of being in control.
England’s on-field conferences grew in size and regularity during their abysmal 2013-14 Ashes series under Alistair Cook’s captaincy.
That tour ended in tears.
Ian Chappell is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.