Monday, August 29, 2005

Fourth Test: England won by three wickets



And so the magnificent series goes on, and once again I am reduced to sitting on the sofa, staring at the screen with my fists and jaw clenched, making Mrs Wildebeest close the door on me to keep her (and Baby Gnu) isolated from the overpowering atmosphere of tension.

Let's first establish the wonderful position England are now in. Ever since 1989, they have been losing Ashes series. Eight in a row, in fact. None of these series have been so much as drawn - Australia have hammered us every time. The false dawn was in 1997, when we won the first Test and drew the second, only to see them win the next three comfortably.

Now, for the first time since 1987, we are ahead in the series, and it's a series we cannot lose. It's worth repeating that: we cannot lose. The irony is that we can still lose (or, more accurately, fail to regain) the Ashes. In order to win them, we must win or draw the last match which begins at the Oval on 8 September.

England have a good history at the Oval. They have lost only 21% of all the Test matches they have played there. Against Australia, the figure is only 18%. Of the last six Ashes matches played there, England have won three to Australia's one. This should all be qualified, however, by two observations: in recent times, the series has usually be won by the time the Oval Test has come around, which means the Australians have tended to take their feet off the pedal; and the last Ashes match played there ended in an innings victory for Australia.

The pace at which the matches have been played means that the next match is unlikely to end in a draw, unless the weather intervenes (and the Oval is in one of the driest parts of the country). Therefore, England realistically speaking need to win the match to win the Ashes.

The Oval has a reputation as a good batting pitch, which takes a good amount of spin. In other words, it is probable that whoever wins the toss will win the match (the side batting first have won each game in the series so far). It is a pity that a series so important could be won on the flick of a coin, but that's sport for you. In any case, a team can defy losing the toss if they play well. And both teams know that they must play to the absolute maximum of their ability if they are to keep, or win back, the Ashes.

Anyway, let's look at the last Test. It's hard to say who the match-winner was for England, although Andrew Flintoff obviously deserved his Man of the Match award. When he came to the crease, England were not in trouble, but they were not doing as well as they would have hoped, on a track suited to batting. Flintoff, who seems to know no fear at all, came in and settled English nerves with a 177-run partnership with Geraint Jones (who continually saves his place in the side by making up for his glaring errors behind the stumps with decent performances in front of them). Even so, England's total of 477 would not have been impenetrable for an Australian team playing at its best.

Luckily for England, they have a bowling line-up which when fully fit intimidates the best players in the world. More than one observer (and current Australian batsman) has compared England's four-man pace attack with the highly threatening West Indian line-ups of the seventies and eighties. The great strength of England's bowling is that, far from merely banging it down the track in an attempt to frighten the batsman, the bowlers each contribute in different ways: Hoggard is a traditional seam-and-swing it type, who takes key wickets at key moments (as he did in this match, making a bigger contribution with the ball than in any of the previous three); Harmison gets great bounce from his speed and height, and is the nearest to the Curtly Ambrose "scare 'em" type that England have in their line-up; Simon Jones has mastered the new art of reverse swing, which continues to puzzle the Australians (Ian Chappell has been quoted as saying he believes it doesn't exist); and Flintoff seems capable of anything, not least the once seemingly impossible task of subduing Adam Gilchrist. Jones, who took five Australian wickets in the first innings, is now injured and looks doubtful for the Oval - the fact that his replacement is not obvious shows the paucity of quality bowling in England.

Anyway, it was this line-up that reduced Australia to 218 all out, notwithstanding some cameo slogging from Brett Lee, who will probably be the side's most valuable man once McGrath and Warne have retired. The tourists were made to follow on, the first time this has happened since 1988 when their fortunes were at their lowest ebb. The psychological advantage this gave England outweighed any more detailed tactical considerations about facing the bowling on the last day (or so it seemed at the time).

It was not surprising that Australia performed better in the second innings, especially once Simon Jones had disappeared with an ankle injury. To their minds, they must have been in an impossible situation, and that can relieve the pressure in a strange sort of way. That they set England a target of over 100 must be partly accountable to the absence of Jones, and partly the resilience of Michael Clarke and Simon Katich (and Shane Warne, whose ability with the bat has been one of the revelations of the series).

It has been a long tradition of English cricket that, when your opponent is down you do not kick him - you give him a hand up, tie one hand behind your own back and invite him to take a couple of free punches. This match was to be no exception. Had the target been something like thirty or forty, we would have won easily. Had it been over 200, bizarrely, it would probably also have been easy, since we would have treated it like a normal innings and been cautious but confident. However, the required target of 129 sat awkwardly between those two stools. A figure like that looks easy, but you still have to put in a fair amount of work to reach it. For a while it looked like the only work England were doing was putting the garnish on the dog's evening meal.

This is not to take away from the brilliance of Australia's bowling. Without McGrath, they must have felt the match was lost. But Warne never plays as though the situation is hopeless, and his famously wicked spin which has made him the greatest bowler in the game's history, coupled with the nervousness of the English batsmen, almost saw Australian revenge for the humiliation of Headingley in 1981. As English bats prodded tentatively forward, the ball hit the rough, spun at weird angles, clipped the outside edge and went into safe Australian hands. Again and again.

Surely, spectators must have been thinking, someone must come to the rescue? Surely we can't all lie down and let our moment of glory disappear over the horizon, like a Brett Lee six? So it proved, in the unlikely form first of England's two most wild and (at least until recently) undisciplined batsmen, Flintoff and Pietersen, who put on 46 for the fifth wicket; second, once those two had fallen to brilliant pace bowling from Lee, to possibly the most unsung heroes in the England side - Matthew Hoggard (once the world's worst Test batsman) and Ashley Giles. The four which Hoggard hit off Lee, perhaps the least typical shot he has ever played, pretty much ensured the game was up for Australia - and only those who were uncharitable enough to think back to Edgbaston only a few weeks earlier did not rate our chances as better than good.

The win, agonisingly close as it was, puts the fire back into English hearts. The players must take this into the last match. They know they deserve the Ashes. They know their record at the Oval is good. They know the pressure is on Australia (whatever imbecility their captain comes out with about the pressure "being on England"). They know they have been the superior team for the last three matches. But they should also remember that it's not over until the last wicket falls and the last run is scored. Complacency has so often been our enemy. Let's kill it off for good.

FURTHER READING: Norm on cricket pundits; Corridor of Uncertainty on cricket versus football; and Geraldine finds herself converted to cricket.


Blogger The Moai said...

I just cannot hack the strain. Dare I to dream? A Grand Slam, an Oxford boat race victory and the Ashes all in *one year*?

10:22 am  
Blogger Oscar Wildebeest said...

Sadly, I went to Cambridge. Otherwise, I'm right there with you.

10:29 am  

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