Fifth Test, Day 1: Gasometers and elephants make for intriguing final Test

By Andrew Gigacz

The Oval is a ground that always makes me think of the North Melbourne Footy Club. It was the scene of the so-called “Battle of Britain” in 1987 when Donald McDonald, Alistair Clarkson and their North mates “went the knuckle” in the post-season exhibition match against Carlton. Ian Aitken’s jaw is still rattling, 22 years later.

And then there is the skeleton of the gasometer, clearly visible beyond the Oval’s small stands. For many years the view from North’s home ground at Arden Street was similar. Even one of their players, the late Mick Nolan, was known as the Galloping Gasometer. Big Mick was built like an elephant and broke packs open as though he was one.

Back at the Oval, with the deciding Ashes test about to begin, there are two elephants, one in each change room.

For Australia, it’s Ricky Ponting’s captaincy. As good a player as he’s been, his standing in history as a captain will come under severe questioning if his charges hand over the Urn for a second time.

In the England room, the elephant is the batting top order. While captain Andrew Strauss has been outstanding, the rest of the top six have been brittle to say the least. Bopara didn’t cut the mustard and has been replaced by debutant Trott. You could argue that Bell and Collingwood haven’t cut the mustard either, but they are still in the team, now even higher up the order. For much of the series they’ve needed the bowlers to do their job of making a defendable total.

Australia, if they win the toss, could potentially bat themselves to a draw, all that’s required to retain the Ashes.

Andrew Strauss is a tosser. Or I should say he is THE tosser of the coin today. (He could well be a tosser in the other sense but he seems like a nice enough bloke when they interview him.) Ponting calls heads. It’s tails and the Poms will bat.

You get the feeling Strauss and Cook are going to have to hang around for a good while for England to make a big score. Though the first day pitch appears benign, Bell and Collingwood have huge question marks hanging over their heads. But Siddle makes an early breakthrough. Cook caught at slip and it’s 1-12.

Ian Bell comes in to face perhaps the biggest test of his career. All the bowlers probe and in one over Mitchell Johnson works Bell over with some searing lifters aimed at his throat. Bell looks way out of his depth.

At the other end, Strauss is rock solid, playing only the balls he needs to and picking off the loose ones. And there are a few too many of those. When the 100 comes up, 72 of them have been in boundaries. And when lunch arrives at 1/108, there’s been only one half-shout for LBW, suggesting not enough balls have been directed at the stumps.

Bell has been lucky but brave. For Ian, the bell has not tolled just yet. Ponting showed aggression early as captain, but appears to have run out of ideas too quickly. The Aussies didn’t pick a recognised spinner but could he not have thrown the ball to North, Clarke or Katich for an over before the break?

Session 2 sees Hilfenhaus and Clark resume hostilities. They bowl tidily although without venom. Unexpectedly, Strauss tickles Hilfenhaus through to Haddin and he’s gone for 55.

At 2/114, surely this is the time for one of Australia’s bowlers to put Bell and Collingwood to the sword. But none do. Mitchell Johnson returns to the wayward ways of the early part of the series. Wides and no balls come all too regularly. The other three aren’t bad but they are, it is pointed out to me, innocuous. Instead of using the corridor of uncertainty, they’re using the corridor of untouchability – bowling way too wide.

Beyond the middle drinks break the 50 partnership comes up for Collingwood and Bell. The globe above Ponting’s head finally lights up and he calls on the spin of North. There is turn there even in his first over. Things could get interesting.

In Siddle’s next over, he draws a drive from Collingwood and the thick edge is taken by Hussey. 3/176.

At the other end North is getting bounce as well as a bit of turn. New boy Jonathan Trott is at the crease and the game is at an intriguing stage. He and Bell survive a tense few overs and at tea it’s England 3/180, with Bell 72 and Trott 3. Bell has become almost comfortable. His first ever century against Australia beckons.

Or not. In the first over after tea, Siddle finds an inside edge on Bell’s bat and the ball hits the stumps. 4/181 and with a few deliveries breaking through the top of the surface, the commentators are starting to talk of a pitch that will break up on day three or four.

The next half an hour is a stalemate between bat and ball. Siddle and Clark. Few runs, no wickets. Gradually Trott and Prior lift the run rate until, with the last drinks break almost due, Prior is sucked in by a Mitchell Johnson slower ball. 5/229.

Freddy Flintoff arrives to a huge ovation. What can he provide for the crowd in his last Test Match? Alas, not much on the first day. Johnson shakes him up with some short balls before enticing a top edge through to Haddin with a wider one. 6/247

Ponting gives the strike bowlers a break before the new ball, turning to North and Watson. Watson is unlucky not the snag an LBW in his first over. In North’s next over, Katich fields a Trott leg-side clip and brilliantly throws the stumps down before Trott makes it back to his crease. 7/268

Watson cuts Broad in two with an inside edge that goes to the boundary. Unlucky again. North is now making a ball or two explode off the pitch each over. The commentators start talking about 300-350 being a good score.

Broad and Swann eke out another 30-odd runs through a mixture of streaky shots and reasonable defence. At 7/297, Ponting’s had enough and instructs Siddle to take the new ball. And in the day’s final over, Siddle breaks through to have Swann caught behind.

So England reach stumps at 8/307. The game is tantalisingly poised.

For Australia, the bowlers have all contributed, with Siddle taking four wickets, Johnson three, and Hilfenhaus one. My mate Stuart Clark has been tidy but he’s wicketless. Watch out for him to come into his own when England bats again and the bounce starts to vary.

England’s top order has been serviceable but not dominant. Bell was admirable if not entirely convincing and Strauss looked the goods until his surprise downfall.

In a way this first day has been a reflection of the entire series. The upper hand passing from one team to the other at regular intervals. Ball beating bat, then bat dominating ball. Both teams good at times without ever really being great. But even – very even. Four more days of this and we might get the memorable climax to the series that we’re hoping for.

And the elephants?  Neither of them has left the room just yet. They’re enjoying this match far too much.

About Andrew Gigacz

Well, here we are. The Bulldogs have won a flag. What do I do now?

Comments

  1. Nice writeup Gigs. Good luck taking over from Gideon Haigh.

    Nothing about Hilfies so called No-ball against Strauss, apparently the clanger of the day. Great to see Siddle getting another good 5-for chance. All those journos who called for his head should start putting the sauce on their toupee’s.

  2. Incidentally, the level of annoyance my wife has with me about the amount of time I spend enjoying sport via the most common visual electronic medium is best summed up by an anagram of “The Oval Test”: LOATHE TV SET

  3. Thanks Lucas. Good point abut Strauss’ dismissal. Hilfie was way over the line. But then so was Vettori when Warne was out for 99 in 2001! It all balances out (sometimes).

  4. Peter Flynn says:

    Played Gigs.
    Great article.
    Aussies must make 500.

  5. David Lewis says:

    Little known fact Mr Gig. Andrew Stauss spent a couple of years at Caulfield Grammar junior school. Some would say, not the only tosser that has emerged from there.

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