Sunday, August 07, 2005

Second Test: England won by 2 runs



What an incredible cricket match. Those who say the game is boring should have watched the magnificent ebb and flow of these past three and a half days.

This is a placeholder for lengthier comment to follow, as I have to work (on a Sunday!).

UPDATE: Right, I'm back, and I've had a couple of days to digest the result.

I watched very little of this match, as I have been away in Suffolk on a family holiday. There was a TV in the hotel room, but the room itself was boiling hot all the time, so not conducive to staying in. In any case, we were far too busy sightseeing in Cambridge (going back to my old haunts) and Bury St Edmunds, and I don't think Mrs Wildebeest - who is not a cricket obsessive like myself - would have appreciated it if I'd had earphones in place all the time. So I stayed in touch with proceedings via the radio in the car, and text messages from friends, plus occasional glimpses of the TV at the end of the day (which meant I got to see that ball from Harmison, which will stay in my mind for a very long time).

We deserved to win this one, although it would be equally fair to say that Australia deserved to win it. In any case, this was the one (and only) Test that I had predicted England would win, so I was anxious to keep my prediction intact. With McGrath on the floor with his ankle ligaments in tatters, and an insane decision by Ponting to field first, it was an opportunity we could hardly dare to squander (Ponting's captaincy isn't impressing me, to be honest - he seems to think his team's reputation will bulldoze the opposition by itself, regardless of his input. His immediate predecessors, Waugh and Taylor, were thinkers as well as talented players, who got under the opposition's skin. Confronted with an enemy which refuses to lie down and capitulate any longer, his imagination seems to have panicked. I'm sure those words will come back to haunt me - but, if Australia win the series (if?), it will be despite him, not because of him).

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What made the difference in this match at first was the fact that Trescothick and Strauss took the fight to the Australian attack. No doubt the absence of McGrath helped them to relax and feel more confident, but to put on 112 for the first wicket and hammer Lee and even Warne round the field showed a new England, an England prepared to put Lord's behind it. Trescothick, at last, is batting as if he were afraid of nobody. When he is in this kind of mood he is one of the greatest openers in the world. South Africa have several times been on the receiving end of a belligerent Tresco, and Australia felt his power in the one-day match at Headingley this year. Strauss showed more application and comfort than in recent times, but I still get an enduring impression that he is no longer as happy at the crease as he was in his golden year of 2004. Something is troubling him, and it's not just balls from Shane Warne which spin at an angle that no ball has a right to spin at (there has been suggestion that he should have seen it coming in the second innings, but this seems harsh).

It was that opening partnership that should have set England up to make 500, but Michael Vaughan seems as useless with the bat as he currently does with the coin. The irony of his position is that he would have been dropped by now if he weren't the captain. His captaincy is what is winning us matches, not his batting. Few captains would have shown the degree of outward calm he displayed in the last few overs of the match on Sunday morning, and few captains are prepared to defy orthodoxy in their field positions and bowling changes as much as he does. Nevertheless, it doesn't help your side if you have effectively lost your second wicket as soon as you have lost your first. In this series, he has scored 3, 4, 24 and 1. We need him in the side, of course, but that is pathetic even by a tailender's standards.

Ian Bell - well, we still expect great things from him. He has already shown he has immense talent, technique and application, but he is looking like a young rabbit staring at an approaching vehicle and wondering what that rumbling sound is. He was unlucky with the umpiring at Edgbaston (many players were, it seems). If he doesn't score heavily at Old Trafford, however, he may find himself struggling to hold his place against a rather rotund Kentish man (who doesn't really deserve to be in the side more than Bell, but at least has a better record).

If the opening partnership set up the England victory, it was the coming together of two English batting gods that should have sealed it. I was listening to the partnership between Pietersen and Flintoff on the radio in the car, cursing my luck that I was zooming up the M11 and not sitting in front of a TV screen. It must have been a thing of beauty to watch six after six being struck off Australian bowling (in fact, Pietersen hit only one six but it must have felt like more). The partnership was only 103, but it felt like so much more.

When GoJo was out with the score on 293, I'm sure many spectators felt that the 450 England deserved was now beyond them, But the English tail has learned to wag with surprising regularity now, such that it is an example to the rest of the world (except maybe South Africa, who have a lot of previous form in this area). I listened with increasing optimism as the score ticked round towards - and eventually, miraculously, past - 400. Is Simon Jones the world's best No. 11? He hasn't always produced the goods with the bat, but he has a gutsy determination to occupy the crease and frustrate the opposition, and that seems to be worth a good 20-30 runs by itself. He was the silent hero in both England's innings, staying put and notching up the singles (with the odd risky six thrown in to frighten the enemy) so that our totals were respectable and kept us very much in the game.

By this stage, Edgbaston was looking like a good pitch to bat on. "If we can do it to them, they can do it to us," has been my mantra all the way through this series, and has prevented me from undue optimism throughout. Learning that Australia had lost Hayden to his first ball gave me a filip, naturally, but as Langer and Ponting started to pile on the runs, my heart sank and I focused my attention on showing Mrs Wildebeest the fine sights of Cambridge. Then I learned that Ponting was out, and that Martyn had succumbed to a brilliant run-out by Vaughan (all right, I suppose we need him for his fielding, too - occasionally). My mobile was bleeping regularly as Freddie and Jones smashed their way through the tail, and we had a lead of 99 runs. Surely, I thought, that's it, that's enough to guarantee victory. But against Australia nothing can ever be taken for granted, not until all twenty of their wickets are down.

England's second innings ensued and, once again, my mobile buzzed like a mad wasp stuck in my pocket. Mrs Wildebeest did not need to ask what was happening. As my son played happily in a playground in the ruins of St Edmund's Abbey Gardens, my jaw became set, my teeth clenched and my expression grim. 29-3, 31-4, 72-5, 75-6... this wasn't in the script. And then my friend texted to say that Flintoff had dislocated his shoulder. I almost smashed my phone in disgust.

I had underestimated the Lancashire colossus. From somewhere he found the courage and physical strength to hit four more sixes, beating Botham's Ashes record (Freddie has now hit 59 sixes in his Test career, which puts him eleventh in the all-time list - another 29, and he will surpass Chris Cairns's record, although Gilchrist may have already done so by then). With the irrepressible Simon Jones as his partner, he added 51 for the last wicket, and gave us a respectable total.

Still, 282 may be a lot to ask for a fourth-innings total, but this is Australia who have little respect for records. As the wickets started to tumble again (Freddie taking Langer and Ponting in the same over, the Aussie captain lasting only five balls), I began to relax. Returning to the hotel, I switched on the TV in time to watch Harmison bowl the last over of the (extended) day. Australia were seven wickets down, but Michael Clarke (who has found his form just at the right time) was still at the crease and would have been just the person to steer them to victory. Harmy bowled a few short ones at him, which he fended off or allowed to swoop narrowly past his off stump. Then he ran in and bowled a ball so perfect in its precision that I am moved to think about it, even now. 'Poetry in Motion' is a horrible cliché, but this is the closest real life gets to it. I dislike football intensely, but I am reminded of Beckham's free kick against Greece in similarly last-chance circumstances - a ball that glides in the air, bends as it glides and finally hits the one spot it must. Think Luke Skywalker firing the one-in-a-million shot that destroys the Death Star. Pick any naff comparison you like - that ball was pure genius. If Clarke had hit it, I wouldn't be writing with such enthusiasm right now. But he played over the top of it, and it destroyed his stumps.

I went to bed happy. Game over. We'll just wrap this up in the morning. Lee and Kasprowicz can't bat. Over a hundred runs needed. We can't lose from here.

But, as I've said before, this is Australia, and you can never relax.

As the tail chipped away at the lead the next morning, and my mind went back to the ICC Champions Trophy final last year when England were robbed of victory by two West Indian tailenders with no previous record of batting prowess, my expression again darkened, my body stiffened and my silence told Mrs Wildebeest that this might not be the best time to ask me what else we might do with what remained of the weekend. When we arrived back in London, I unpacked the car, my earphones still plugged firmly in. Fifteen runs needed, and Simon Jones dropped the catch which would have won us the match. I banged the boot of the car in frustration. Only the presence of a neighbour prevented me from screaming in the street: "This is Michael Kasprowicz, for fuck's sake! He can't fucking bat!!"

Well, we all know what happened. They gave us a scare. Harmison took an illegal wicket (although I'm sure everyone thought at the time that it definitely was out). By this point, I had the TV on, my knuckles whitening around the remote control. I watched as Geraint Jones stretched out for the ball that had flown off some part of Kasprowicz (it looked like the bat handle at the time). He dived. The ball landed in his gloves. Contrary to the pattern of his Test career, it did not immediately pop out again onto the ground. Geraint held it aloft, yelling in celebration. I took a deep breath - was this it? Had we been saved at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour (oh, you know what I mean)? The camera switched to Billy Bowden. He seemed to be deep in thought with that vacant look of disinterest which characterises his attitude at the stumps, when he's not turning cartwheels to indicate a six. His right arm twitched. The finger went up.

I'm glad I couldn't watch myself at that moment, or I would have found my reaction immensely embarrassing. I have a vague memory of beating my hands on the carpet, of lying on my back kicking my legs in the air, of jumping up and down as if on a pogo stick. To be fair, most of the England team were doing the same; apart from Flintoff who, in an act of incredible sportsmanship which shows the depth and strength of his character, walked over to the distraught Brett Lee, patted him on the shoulder, and appeared to say something like, "well played, mate, bad luck".

So the Ashes are all square. This is the first time since 1997 that England have won a 'live' Ashes match (and that proved to be a false dawn, as the Australians suddenly found the form they'd been missing and steamrollered the rest of the series, allowing us a consolation victory at the Oval once they'd retained the Ashes). The difference between now and 1997 is that we have a team which believes in itself, a team which really works together as a unit, a team with talent which can compete on equal terms with the rest of the world, a team which contains at least three individuals who would walk into the Australian side, a team no longer prepared to lie back and take a hammering but to stand up proudly, look the Aussies in the eye and say "that's enough - it's our turn". I still don't think we'll do it. But with two of their fast bowlers in hospital, at the time of writing, and the psychological impetus of the last match heading our way, I am prepared to believe, for the first time, that we might really be in with a chance.

Tomorrow, I head for Manchester. I'll be at Old Trafford for the first two days. I will probably see Shane Warne take his 600th Test Match wicket. With luck, I'll see Freddie bat at his home ground. I may even see the first century of the series being scored (my money's on Langer). This is one of the most exciting series I have ever watched, between any two opponents - and I saw 'Botham's Ashes'.

I'll be back at the weekend, and will I have some tales to tell? On the strength of this last match - you bet.


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