Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Third Test: Match drawn



Those of you who don't understand cricket, or who find it boring, look away now. Be thankful that there isn't another Test match until 25 August. Actually, those who find it boring are now in a minority, it seems (especially those who think football is more interesting than cricket - more on that here - apparently cricket shirts are outselling football shirts). This series has not merely set the cricket-loving world alight - you'd expect it to - but has been so exciting that it has converted an entire nation overnight. Most of them will be fairweather fans, of course, but it says something when the opening of the Premiership generates less media coverage than this incredible Test match at Old Trafford.

On a personal level, it meant something special to me, too, since this was the first time I have ever attended an Ashes Test match. On day one, I took my mother as part of her sixtieth birthday present. Owing to incapacity, it is unlikely she will ever attend another Ashes match, but at least she'll be able to say she was there and saw the England captain make a century. Click 'More' for more...

Stripped of all sense
Our visit was spiced up by our proximity to some lads who were of a kind unique, I think, to Britain. Let's get some context first: we were sitting in seats priced at £45, normally out of the reach of all but the richest or most diehard fans. There are many cheaper seats at Old Trafford, and these are where the more boisterous spectators tend to sit. Somehow the allocation of seats contrives to put all these individuals together in a block. I don't know if there's an option on the booking form reading 'TICK HERE IF YOU WISH TO SIT WITH THE BARMY ARMY', but they always seem to end up together. Anyway, in the row in front of me were four lads from Wigan who were true Barmy Army types (those who need enlightening as to the Barmy Army's character should click here). Two of them were reasonably quiet, bespectacled types who wanted nothing more than to drink beer and watch England perform, but their two mates were of a slightly different breed. They wanted to do the same, yes, but drinking beer clearly held the focus for them. As it happened, one of them (name of Eddie) was obviously out of practice in the raising of the wrist. Stripped to the waste, in the baking Manchester sun (no, I'm not kidding; more about the weather later), and probably unballasted by breakfast, it wasn't long before Eddie was swaying in the breeze. En route to his seat from the bar, he emptied half his pint over the elderly gentleman sitting right in front of us. He stopped to apologise in that over-compensating way that marks out a man as drunk beyond his capacity, while his victim implored him to stop blocking his view of the game.

It wasn't much longer before Eddie had disappeared from his seat. His boisterous friend was calling to him, and the beer-scented old man was beseeching him not to return. The next thing we knew, Eddie was on the field. As the crowd in front of me stood up, I was forced to my feet simply to understand what was going on. Eddie's white buttocks greeted me from a distance. From the opposite end of the ground (where the stewards had been posted, presumably not suspecting that trouble would emerge from our block), red-faced security men ran at Radcliffe pace and bundled Eddie away. My mother, accustomed to the blokeish environment of South Wales rugby clubs from an early age, was shrieking with laughter. But the fun wasn't over. Eddie had dropped his mobile phone onto the field of play, right behind where Jason Gillespie was fielding. Eddie's friend spotted it and was dialling the number within moments. Gillespie ignored it like a true professional. Thwarted, Eddie's friend started ringing round all his friends to inform them of this spectacular moment. His circle of friends turned out to be much wider than his vocabulary, since his means of spreading the news consisted of the phrases "I don't believe it!", "Eddie just streaked!" and "He's a legend!" over and over again. Pretty soon, we were reciting his speech for him. He could have put the speakerphone on and let us talk to his mates. Much of the humour of this situation will be lost on those who weren't there. Out of context it looks puerile, and invading the pitch is always to be discouraged. But, at the time, it was terribly funny.

What about the match, Oscar?
Oh, yes, there was some pretty good cricket, too. Basically, this match has marked a real turnaround for the England team - almost. And it's that 'almost' that has kept the series alive and prevented me from making any wild claims on behalf of the country I am forced to support (there is no Welsh national cricket team, we are subsumed into England). This is the first time in as long as many of us can remember that England have dominated Australia all the way through a five-day game.

It helped that Vaughan finally won the toss, something he has not got a good track record on (and it might be worth reflecting on how much better England's excellent recent record would be if we'd won the toss a few more times - but that's for another post). Despite the gloomy North-West weather, he had no hesitation in batting. It briefly looked like a bad decision, as Brett Lee fooled Andrew Strauss with a cunning slow yorker (which I certainly didn't pick, even though I was right behind the bowler's arm). Strauss departed, his iffy summer continuing. Then another equally out of form batsman came to the crease - the England captain.

What followed was a treat of batting. Vaughan and Trescothick used to open the batting for England, and it was just like the old days, as they ploughed their way through an ineffective Australian attack. We couldn't believe it, at the start of play, when we heard Glenn McGrath had returned from his horrific ankle injury a full two weeks earlier than we had expected. Yet if Australia were hoping to use the fear factor to steal a march on us, they were to be disappointed. It's not that McGrath holds no fear for England - he is still one of their two really effective bowlers - it's just that we are beginning to get the measure of him. Bowling slower than he used to, he is still dynamite on a favourable pitch. But this was not a favourable pitch and, as the day wore on, he began to look tired and even ill. Vaughan and Tresco piled on the runs - 137 of them, in fact, until Tresco attempted to sweep and just nicked the ball on the way round into the keeper's gloves. The bowler was Shane Warne, the wicket his 600th in Test cricket. Already a world record holder, this marked new territory for bowling. It is possible that, when he retires, his record will never be broken. The crowd stood in warm applause. Warne held the ball aloft. Old Trafford has been good to him, but he is never coming back (not in Test or One-Day International cricket, anyway).

England played out the rest of the day pretty well, only a last-ball dismissal of the nightwatchman spoiling the party. Ian Bell had put his demons behind him (ah, how easily the clichés trot out) to score his first fifty of the series and begin to look like the accomplished, smooth cricketer he has always looked like being. His best days are ahead of him. Day One, Warne's wicket notwithstanding, had definitely gone to England, as they finished on 341-5.

Days Two to Four
On the second day, I found myself in the more civilised 'Family Section' right at the opposite end of the ground. One shower aside, it was a clear and fine day. We watched with excitement as Flintoff and Jones smacked an 87-run partnership, pushing England well over 400. If it was disappointing that we lost our last few wickets cheaply, there was a belief going round the ground that someone had seen the weather forecast and instructed the batsmen to get on with it. Anyway, it was our best score of the series so far, so we weren't too sorry if it fell short of 450.

Of course, anything we do to them they can do to us - this has been my mantra throughout the series to stop myself getting too carried away with excitement. This is Australia, a team which has lost only one series in the last nineteen it has played prior to this one. There's a reason for that. They don't often have their backs to the wall and, even when they do, they find a way to get to a match-winning position. I was full of nerves when they came out to bat.

What ensued was the demolition of the Australian line-up by two bowlers, Ashley Giles and Simon Jones, who were not thought to be spearheads of the England attack. The ball with which Giles bowled Damien Martyn was Warne-like in its turn and deception, while Jones got the ball to move in the air and off the seam in directions it shouldn't have gone. Only that man, Shane Warne, saved face for his side, poking (and occasionally smashing) his way to 90. He lasted through Day Two, the whole of the washed-out Day Three (Australia's Twelfth Man was the weather, which has so often pulled England out of trouble in the past) and early into Day Four before holing out to deep square leg. His heroics with the bat had helped add 101 runs for the last three wickets, and put his colleagues earlier up the order to shame.

Needing to hurry things along in the now-improved weather, England set about carving up the Australian attack at almost five runs an over - yet another thing unthinkable in the past. Strauss at last showed that he, like Bell, was no longer prepared to be pushed around, with a brave innings of 106 - all the more brave for having been struck twice on the head in the match. I doubt many could believe it when Vaughan postponed his declaration well after Australia had been set 400 to win. Although it robbed us of time in the evening session and allowed the Australian openers to bed in when the light was too poor to bowl anyone but the spinners, I believe it was the right decision. It gave Geraint Jones a chance to come on and take McGrath's bowling apart, boosting his confidence (which must surely have contributed to his much-improved keeping on the last day), and set the target beyond the world record, and beyond what must have been tempting for the Aussies.

It was clear, as we set about trying to take ten Australian wickets in a day, that we (and the pitch) were not up to the task, though there were times when one did wonder whether the impossible might, once again, as it seems to have so often in this magnificent series, occur. Ponting's resilience as his colleagues fell uselessly around him, should be an example to them all. Only Clarke and Warne seemed to match him, however.

Still, the drama couldn't fizzle out on Day Five. Clarke's stubborn resistance was ended with a cunning piece of deception by Jones, swinging the ball the wrong way to take out his off stump. Warne's dismissal came at such a time of high emotion that I don't even remember it. And Ponting became the latest Aussie to have to fend off a rising one from Harmison only to see the ball land in the wicket keeper's hands. As he saw the finger go up, tears were clearly forming in his eyes. He admitted later that he was certain the match was lost.

But he'd forgotten the evidence of Edgbaston that shows England have a real problem when it comes to bowling tail-enders out. Our line was too wayward, our length too short or too full. Harmison's last over was born out of desperation. It is much harder to bowl out tail-enders when they know they have nothing to lose (as opposed to a one-day match, when they know they have runs to score). Continually trying for the glorious yorker isn't going to do the trick, because it's the one thing they're expecting. It's not that Harmison is a bad bowler - far from it - but he needs to be less eager at times like this. Not, I would suggest, the kind of pressurised death bowler you need to wrap a game up.

Looking onwards
Vaughan's reaction at the end was a testament to his inspiring captaincy and the strength of his character. He gathered his team-mates into a huddle and reminded them that they had achieved more than any England team in the past 18 years - they had put Australia on the rack and kept them there. But for the weather, this would have been another England victory and the Ashes would have been all but regained.

Where does it go from here? Trent Bridge is two weeks away, on the 25th. History there favours Australia, but the pitch is known to be good for batting. Sadly, much will depend on the toss. England could find the Ashes taken away from them on the flick of a coin. But, even if they do, they can be a proud team. For the last two matches, they have appeared the superior side. They know they can dismiss expert Australian batsmen cheaply. They know they can hit McGrath and Warne for six - not once, but again and again. They know the Australians are getting tired and jaded, for all that this draw may feel like a victory for the Aussies. They have seen the fumbled catches, the on-field disagreements, the loss of imagination from the Australian captain. They know they have an equal right to be the victors in this series. History leans towards another Ashes victory for Australia. But history hasn't been writing the script this series. There are eleven brave and clever men in the England team. I can't wait.

EDIT: Over in a parallel universe, Nick Barlow explains why England are suddenly doing so well against Australia.

ADDENDUM: Oh, yes, that reminds me. Apparently someone on ITN news had the gall, after the second Test, to proclaim "has cricket finally become interesting?" Which is a bit like saying, "has ITV finally become shite?"


Blogger CuriousHamster said...

I did think it was something of an irony that Australia, for all the bottle shown by Ponting, were only saved by the English weather.

I also thought Harmiston was trying too hard in that last over. It looked like he had about 7 slips. No way he should be letting them drift down the leg side (I think I've got that right but us Scots do get a bit confused by all the jargon). They should have had Flintoff run down the other end and bowl again. No idea if that's allowed actually.

Fantastic entertainment though. England can certainly be proud of their performances so far.

3:01 am  
Blogger Oscar Wildebeest said...

CH, you do have a basic grasp of the game and its terminology. Harmison did have about seven slips in the last over (it's called an 'umbrella field'), and had no business firing it down the leg side. I presume he was looking too hard for the yorker.

No, Flintoff wouldn't have been allowed to bowl from the other end immediately. Otherwise he would have been ordered to do so (in fact, he wouldn't have needed any prompting).

It's a bit rich for Glenn McGrath to goad the English by saying how they could only manage a draw. He knows damn well we'd have won that game if it hadn't been for the weather. This is not to take away the brilliance of Ponting's resistance, just to correct McGrath's implication that we were lucky to manage a draw. Typical tedious Aussie posturing.

10:19 am  

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