Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Fifth Test: Match drawn




More on this to follow, as I am too excited (and exhausted from Trafalgar Square) to write more at the moment.

NEXT DAY: Right, I think I can make a start, but I may have to write this post in stages. What has just happened has been a sporting triumph that I've been waiting for for almost twenty years.

Younger and non-British readers may struggle to understand the immensity of this moment, so some context may be necessary. The last time England won the Ashes was in January 1987. Thatcher was still on the throne, oops, I mean in power. Mobile phones were only just beginning to feature in life. There was no internet worth speaking of. I was eighteen years old.

Australia have won every series since then, often by brutal margins: 4-0 in 1989, 3-0 in 1991, 4-1 in 1993, 3-1 in 1995 and 1999, 4-1 in 2001 and 2003. Their team has come to dominate the world, beating every other country both at home and away. They have had searing pace bowlers, the world's greatest ever spinner, two wicket keepers of scintillating brilliance, and batsmen who plundered runs in the safe knowledge that any shortcomings would be put right by their bowlers.

Every serious cricket watcher had long ago come to the conclusion that this period of invincibility would only end when the seemingly superhuman players (McGrath, Warne, Gilchrist, Hayden, Ponting) retired, and lesser players took over to level the playing field. It was simply a question of waiting for that time to come and hoping we could snatch a series off them before the next generation of cricketing gods took over.

Instead, what happened was that the New Invincibles were hiding flaws and weaknesses among them that were horribly exposed when England revealed that they had been busy since the last defeat - busy honing a team that didn't accept failure, busy working on the key skills necessary to begin their own spell of world domination, busy studying the weak points in their opponents' defences and exploiting them, busy developing a self-confidence that matched that of their old enemy. When the two met again, it was the ageing complacent Goliath which was undone by the unyielding, talented David. Except that this David was armed with rather more than a mere catapult.

The Match

Michael Vaughan has not often won three tosses in a row. In fact, I'm not sure that he ever has. So it was all the more surprising when Ponting called wrong and the coin came down in England's favour. How the hearts must have sunk in the Australian dressing room! The Oval has a reputation as being a batsman's paradise and it was not long before England were capitalising on the flatness of the track, putting on 82 for the first wicket at rapid pace. It was then that Trescothick, motoring on 43, edged Warne behind and Hayden took a brilliant catch. At this point, the wheels began to fall off England's batting in a way that looked all too familiar. Vaughan, continuing his policy of gifting wickets, spooned one up to mid-wicket. Bell, who has hardly ever looked comfortable since his huge century against Bangladesh, bamboozled by Warne's spin (or lack of it). Pietersen, feeling for one, watching his off stump fall. It was at this point that one began to feel that Pietersen's early promise was never going to be fulfilled.

Thank God for Andrew Flintoff. If Shane Warne has been the Australians' talisman throughout the series, the one player who kept their hopes alive, fighting when all around him were struggling, then Flintoff has performed the same role for England. He joined Strauss, the most elegant and (arguably) most talented of the England upper order, and they proceeded to add 143 for the fifth wicket. From a position in which Australia were firmly in command, England had clawed their way into contention. When they were dismissed all out for 373, it looked like an inadequate total (just as every one of their first innings totals this series - with the possible exception of Trent Bridge - has looked, in isolation, inadequate). But that was reckoning without the England bowlers.

Of course, one of those bowlers, Simon Jones, had missed the cut because of his ankle injury. Suddenly, England's line-up didn't look so threatening. Australia finally found the form they had been missing all summer. With Langer and Hayden making centuries and a first-wicket partnership of 185, it looked like the good old times had returned to Australian cricket. People began speculating on the size of Australia's first innings total - 450? 500? Could Gilchrist come in and make the most of conditions, perhaps pushing them towards 600? Were England about to be humiliated?

The Australians had reckoned without two things. The first was the English weather. I can't say whether they'd seen it and didn't believe it, or whether they just didn't factor it into their plans, but on the second day Langer and Hayden, both looking in fine touch, were offered the light and took it, to the absolute jaw-dropping astonishment of every spectator. The opportunity to pile on runs and put pressure on England was squandered. In that decision, Australia had jeopardised the strongest position they had held since Lord's. While their reasons look justifiable (they didn't want to lose a wicket or two in fading light), hindsight will make them shake their heads in disbelief at their own timidity.

The second match-winning factor was that man Flintoff again. With little play possible on Day Three because the light was so awful, Australia came into the fourth day needing to amass a huge total so they could bowl out England cheaply - or, alternatively, declare behind, bowl England out and then reach a manageable total. The weather was improving. The latter tactic was obviously dismissed as too un-Australian. They continued to bat. Then Flintoff came on to bowl. Eighteen overs later, his breath failing him and his body aching, he had taken five top-order Australian wickets, and the visitors were demolished. Speculation as to how huge their first-innings lead would be now looked stupid. They were all out for 367, six runs behind England's score.

So, England came into bat, needing to survive four sessions against the best spin bowler and the best seam bowler in the world. It all looked bad when Strauss, the centurion of the first innings (and the only player on either side to score more than one hundred), bat-padded a catch with only one run to his name. Then the weather kindly intervened again. The umpires, eccentric throughout the match, first decided that Australia could only bowl spinners. Then, shortly afterwards, they decided that no bowling of any kind was acceptable, and brought the players off. (Umpire Billy Bowden later explained that the light had fallen well below the level at which it had been offered to the Australians. Since the regulations have now changed so that the umpires have more reason to take the players off for light, they felt they had no choice but to give the same opportunity to both sides. While the logic was impeccable, it made a mockery of the spirit of the game.)

The last day dawned, with the Ashes in Englad's grasp if they could only bat out the day. Vaughan and Trescothick started well, making good use of the fast outfield, to hammer one four after another. Then McGrath, still a potent threat at 35, got Vaughan to edge one behind. With his very next ball he repeated the trick with the all-at-sea Ian Bell. On a hat-trick, he got the next ball to rise to Pietersen. Pietersen's head and bat flinched back, the ball rose in the air and was caught in the slips. The Australians were exultant - the umpire unmoved. The ball had hit Pietersen's shoulder, not his bat. It was to be the firest of many reprieves for the ex-South African.

Trescothick and Flintoff fell. England were five wickets down, and it wasn't even lunch yet. Were we going to be robbed of our rightful prize at the last moment? It was at this point that Pietersen decided he had had enough. Launching into the Australian attack, throwing the advised caution to the winds, he lashed out. With Collingwood providing low-scoring but dogged defence at the other end, Pietersen hammered seven sixes (a record for an Ashes innings, beating Botham's) and brought up his first ever Test century. Collingwood and Jones couldn't stay with him, but Ashley Giles - not for the first time - came and filled in the defensive position, adding some vital runs of his own. At tea, Pietersen was still in. England had now lost only seven wickets, and had a lead of 227. The match was as good as dead.

After tea, Pietersen continued to enjoy himself, reaching 158, the second highest individual innings of the series. Giles also reached a personal landmark, making it to 59 - his highest Test score. When Harmison edged a catch off Warne (bringing the leg-spinner to twelve wickets in his last match in England), England were 335 all out and there was no point in playing any further. Indeed, someone worked out that even if all the remaining overs were to be bowled (which would have been impossible, given the time of day) Australia could have won if they scored at the rate of nineteen per over - over three runs per ball. Not literally impossible, but as close to it as makes no odds.

Australia came out to bat, since this is what the regulations require. You would have expected them to have a bit of fun - free runs were up for the taking in a hopeless situation. But after only four balls the light was offered to them. The muddy thinking that had affected Langer and Hayden in the first innings clouded their minds again. Once again, they took the light. Everyone left the field. For twenty minutes, there was confusion. There was no possibility of an improvement in the light. There was no possibility of any result other than a draw. And there was no provision in the rules for a situation such as this. Eventually, Ponting went to the England dressing-room and conceded defeat. The umpires, in a comically improvised charade, went to the middle and took the bails off the stumps. The crowd roared.


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