Sunday, August 13, 2006

Third Test: England win by 167 runs



I know it's approaching a week after the event, but I've spent the last few days filming and travelling around the country (and out of it, if you consider Scotland to be a separate entity as many do). Anyway, this victory means that England have won the series and reclaimed their position at No. 2 in the world Test Match rankings. Which makes sense, because England almost certainly are the second best Test side in the world - and, this winter, may be found to be the best. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Go on, click 'More'. Go on!

As my taxi arrived to take me to Euston for the Birmingham train, Mohammed Sami went for a run so suicidal it would have made the organisers of Dignitas flinch, and Pakistan lost their seventh wicket - which was pretty much game over. At the beginning of the final day, however, I felt it was England who were on the back foot. Having conceded a lead in the first innings, despite what had looked like a pretty hefty first-innings score, they posted 345 in the second innings, led from the front by captain Andrew Strauss who brought up his tenth Test century (more on this in a bit). Pakistan had been set a total of 323 runs to win, on a pitch which seemed to contain no surprises and with three of the world's best batsmen in their side (plus a couple of others with decent records). Hoggard was rumoured to be carrying an injury, Harmison's devastating form of Old Trafford had once again retired to the back of his mind, Sajid Mahmood was showing no indication that his continuous selection was justified and only Monty Panesar suggested any threat to the strong Pakistani line-up. Despite the size of the target (even these days, anything over 200 is deemed to be a hard ask for the fourth innings) I felt Pakistan had the strength in batting to make it and defy the records - so many records have been broken in the last five or so years, after all.

As it happened, Panesar was every bit as threatening as his earlier form had promised and bowled incredibly tightly and accurately. But the real star was the previously hopeless Sajid Mahmood, who defied the "traitor" taunts of the enormous contingent of Pakistan supporters in the crowd (these people are British - what's wrong with them? It's only a bloody game! Even if it is the best of all possible games...), and grabbed four wickets of batsmen who might have been his team-mates had his dad not upped sticks and came to Britain in the sixties. It was his best performance in an England shirt by miles, and must give him a guaranteed place on the plane to Australia (where he may find the bouncy wickets to his taste, even though his questionable accuracy will equally be a feast for the Australian batsmen).

England had three other shining lights in the match. Ian Bell scored his third hundred in successive Tests, a feat matched by such greats as Bradman, Hammond, Sobers, Richards, Compton and Sutcliffe, not to mention many of his more imposing contemporaries such as Ponting and Dravid. What was all the more impressive was the manner in which he scored them - fluid, competent, chanceless, rarely looking ill at ease. The No. 6 spot - previously unquestioningly belonging to Flintoff - looks like a surer bet in his hands which means the six batsmen four bowlers option must be strongly tempting for England.

Chris Read had a miserable start to his Test career. Not with the gloves - his keeping was usually flawless - but with the bat. He failed to pass 20 in his first set of matches, and once famously ducked a yorker. Dropped (with dreadful timing) by the selectors for his poor form, he went back to county cricket to work on his batting. On the strength of this match, the work has paid off. His first Test fifty bolstered the English lower order in the second innings and ensured a defendable total. He dismissed five Pakistani batsmen in the match, including the last to fall - Inzamam dancing (as only Inzamam can) down the wicket, missing Panesar's deceptive delivery, and hearing Read tap the bails off with the ball. I'm sorry to see Geraint Jones dropped, and feel the manner of his falling could also have been handled much better by the selectors - who display a lack of empathy that would make a Cyberman blush - but if Read's fine form continues, the order will be strengthened by his inclusion.

What can one say about Andrew Strauss? In thirty Test matches, he has scored ten centuries. That's a rate of one every three matches - only Bradman, Headley and Walcott have a better rate in Test history. That Strauss's average is still below 50 is indicative of his frequent inability to get a good start - but, once he gets past fifty, the road to a hundred seems free and open every time. His Test average has actually improved since he took over the captaincy. What's more, with England in a potentially difficult position on the last day he maintained his calm and authority and, with the help of some excellent bowling and a good helping of luck (which all good captains need), he steered his side to victory. He is genuine captain material. With Vaughan unlikely to play international cricket again, and with Flintoff barely able to recover in time for the Ashes (and with question marks over his ability to pull his side out of trouble when things are going badly), surely it is the time for the ECB to appoint Strauss the official, no-questions-asked, not-waiting-for-anyone-to-come-back-and-take-over England captain.

So to the Oval, where Pakistan's best bowler looks likely to play, having recovered from his injury and where the playing field will be more level (apart from that little dip behind the wicket at the Pavilion End of the pitch). The toss - and the weather - will probably be as strong a factor in the result as any performance by the players. England have announced an unchanged squad today. My money's on the draw, but the great thing about cricket is that anything can happen.


Blogger Philip said...

the great thing about cricket is that anything can happen

Including, for impressively sustained periods, bugger all.

7:51 pm  
Blogger Philip said...

Rather like certain comments boxes, now I think of it.

7:52 pm  
Blogger Oscar Wildebeest said...

Glad there's one person who hasn't given up reading my blog, anyway...

3:06 pm  

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