For much of the first day of their Ashes warm-up match at Taunton, Australia’s recent misery appeared to be continuing.
They looked like an outfit overwhelmed by their recent disciplinary troubles and on-field difficulties; Chris Jones accumulated 130, barely battiing an eyelid, while Nick Compton compiled a chanceless 81, fresh from his England omission earlier in the week.
The Australia bowlers, dubbed “the best in the world” by Mickey Arthur just days before he was shown the door as coach on Monday, looked placid and unthreatening for much of the day.
Then, armed with the new ball, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc found some swing and managed to skittle six Somerset batsmen in the space of 28 balls with the score lodged firmly on 310. Jones’ dismissal precipitated a collapse from 304-2 to 320 all out.
Shane Watson and Ed Cowan then survived the final over of the day to take Australia to the close at 2-0. Both players will hope to get time in the middle in order to nail down an opening spot for the first test at Trent Bridge - a department made less competitive by David Warner’s antics in Birmingham Walkabout three Saturdays ago.
Watson particularly will be looking to lay a marker down after a tour of India that was nothing short of disastrous: a miserable batting average, homework gate and his standing down as vice-captain made for a dismal few weeks.
He is very open about his desire to bat at the top of the order and needs runs, especially as he is unlikely to bowl much on tour due to a troublesome back. Cowan and Watson are expected to open up in the first Test, but recalled veteran Chris Rogers, so experienced in English conditions, may yet bat at the top of the order.
Somerset’s dramatic collapse placed Compton and Jones’ earlier efforts into a new light and context. Compton’s 81 looks more valuable when only two of his team mates joined him in double figures.
His innings, knocked around at a strike rate of 56 (a far cry from his excruciating second innings effort against New Zealand at Headingley that sealed his demotion), was fluent and grew in poise as time passed.
He looked well set for a century when Nathan Lyon, now looking over his shoulder after Fawad Ahmed’s selection for Australia A, had him caught by Michael Clarke at slip. Compton drove with intent and utilised the midwicket area to good effect, as he always does when in form.
This knock, along with the 166 he scored against Durham three weeks ago means that he will remain on England’s radar over the coming weeks. Like James Taylor’s excellent double hundred for Nottinghamshire yesterday, Compton’s knock means that England’s batsmen, and especially Jonny Bairstow, need to score runs in their warm-up against Essex to dispel any question marks over their places in the side.
Despite omitting him just two days ago, Geoff Miller and co will be delighted with Compton’s form. It means they head in to the Ashes with eight players competing for six places in the batting line-up. With five nailed on starters when fit (Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell and Root), Bairstow leads the rest but must show form to see off Taylor and Compton’s advances.
Alternatively, if Bell’s patchy form continues or Pietersen’s dodgy back relapses, the selectors have Compton or Taylor to turn to.
It was also a pleasing day for Australia, their best on tour so far, despite an inauspicious start. Pattinson swung out James Hildreth when set and Starc ripped the Somerset middle order to shreds when hooping it about with the second new ball.
Both ended with four well earned wickets to edge closer to a first Test berth. James Faulkner got better as the day went on and is fast becoming a viable option as a number seven batsman and fourth seamer.
Despite being expensive and lacking consistency at first, Faulkner picked up the key wicket of Jones, a wicket that laid the foundation for Somerset’s spectacular collapse. Runs in this match and Australia may turn to him as an all rounder. Nathan Lyon held up an end effectively for 23 overs but the one downside was the performance of the workhorse Peter Siddle. So often so reliable, he lacked control and bled runs at more than 4.5 an over.
As the Ashes draws ever close, events in Taunton have left both sets of selectors with plenty of food for thought.
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