Nathan Lyon has not been as vociferous at the start of this Ashes series as he was before the last one in November 2017. There has been no need and maybe there really is a return to the brave old world when Australia respected their opponents. Back in Brisbane two years ago Lyon was the cheerleader on the welcoming committee, talking of English batsmen “running scared”, of a determination to “head-butt the line” and of an Aussie team eager to “end careers”. “I didn’t end any careers,” he said. “Mitchell Johnson ended them.”
There is a suggestion that Lyon might just have ended the career of one of England’s most cherished Test cricketers, Moeen Ali, who has been dropped from the team after one match in the series. At Edgbaston Moeen, a few miles from his home, cut a sad, forlorn figure. Suddenly he was playing an alien game; nothing worked. And Lyon was Moeen’s great tormentor.
Lyon dismissed Moeen for nought and four, which merely confirmed his hold over him. This meant that in his past 11 innings against Australia Moeen had been dismissed by Lyon nine times. In those matches he has averaged 16, a paltry return for a man who could boast – though he never would – five Test centuries.
Yet it was not Moeen’s batting that led to his omission. It was the gulf between the two off-spinners that prompted Ed Smith and his fellow selectors to make such a swift change. At Edgbaston the ball began to turn as the match progressed, just as it should on a good Test pitch, and it was here that Lyon highlighted Moeen’s current frailties.
In the second innings Lyon was ruthlessly clinical as he fizzed down his off-breaks, allowing the batsmen no respite. Conditions were in his favour and he was going to take advantage. The batsmen were dispatched in the classical manner. Jason Roy, a little generously, allowed himself to be bowled through the gate. Joe Denly and Joe Root were snaffled at bat/pad, while the left-handers were gobbled up as perfectly pitched deliveries found the outside edges of bats dutifully defending: six for 49 from 20 overs.
Moeen, by contrast, had faltered. He had bowled perfectly adequately during Australia’s first innings in support of the seamers but in the second, when he was meant to be the major threat, he could impose no pressure on the batsmen. There were some unnecessarily quirky fields set, especially against Steve Smith, which did not help. However, in these conditions he should have been able to test the left-handers far more – and there are four of them in their first six.
His length was inconsistent and so was his action. Sometimes he even used two different actions in the same over, a bad sign. One had his right arm braced like a darts player before he entered his delivery stride; the other, which looks more natural and fluid, had his right arm by his side.
These were the visible signs that all was not well. The numbers were telling, too. In that second innings, which began with Australia under pressure to try to save the game, Moeen bowled 29 overs, taking two for 130. Root and Denly, part-timers, were required to bowl 26 overs between them. It was Moeen’s bowling in that second innings that prompted his omission.
This need not be the end for him. Moeen has played 60 Tests for England and has taken 181 wickets; only Derek Underwood, Graeme Swann and Jim Laker among English spinners have more. In his self-deprecating way Moeen has been a stalwart of the side for the past five years. He can return, though it is hard to see how he can do so quickly. He needs time to breathe and to restore his game away from the Test arena, which is difficult to do this season as Worcestershire have only one Championship match before the Ashes conclude.
Next year the domestic schedule will be so distorted, with two short-form competitions in mid-summer, that the impediments for any player trying to recover form before a Test match will be greater still. It seems odd that those in charge, Ashley Giles and Smith, appear so sanguine about the situation.
At Lord’s Moeen’s replacement will be Jack Leach, who has hardly had the ideal preparation for his first Ashes Test: he has bowled three fruitless overs – against Ireland – in the past month. Hence expectations of Leach’s impact should be tempered as the two teams assemble. He is one of several English players each compelled to rediscover his form during the game.
England’s squad has shrunk significantly since Edgbaston, where 14 men were gathered. Leach has been summoned but with Jimmy Anderson and Olly Stone injured and Moeen dropped there are only 12 to choose from, including Jofra Archer, who confirmed his fitness by playing against an inexperienced Gloucestershire second XI.
The twelfth man – in decreasing order of likelihood – will be one of Sam Curran, Jack Leach and Joe Denly. After the Ireland Test there will be much staring at the surface and a certain nervousness in the belly of the new groundsman, Karl McDermott, since Root declared his last Test pitch “substandard”.
Meanwhile a buoyant Australian party have plenty to choose from. They have the option of recalling the mighty Mitchell Starc on a ground well suited to left-armers or Josh Hazlewood; or they could stick with the Edgbaston quartet, an enviable selection conundrum especially when England’s resources are diminishing so rapidly.
Australia struggled for runs at the top of the order in the first Test but the performances of Travis Head and Matthew Wade were especially reassuring.
So, too, was Smith, whose constant presence at the crease will have occupied England’s backroom staff. Magic formulas and strange field placements probably play into his hands. England need to perform the basics better when bowling at him and to make him work harder for his runs – with the odd bouncer.