Fourth Test – Day 3: Australia home as all eyes turn to The Oval

by Peter Flynn

Australia levelled the five match series one all after wiping The Old Enemy like a dirty backside in the 4th Ashes Test at Headingley. Their innings and 80 run dismantling of a largely shambolic and Flintoffless England represents one of the more extraordinary momentum shifts seen in a recent Ashes series. What was especially galling for the home side were the swiftness of its capitulation and the fact that Australia finally managed to secure all 20 wickets. Defeat came in a mere seven and a bit sessions of play in a Test that progressed along at a frenetic and often chaotic tempo. England came into this Test with their fingertips on the little urn. They now head for the decider at The Oval with fingers burnt, much soul-searching to be done and a batting order requiring a major overhaul.

England started the third day at odds of 500/1 (ironic given Headingley’s Ashes past and massive ‘unders’) and teetering on the brink of an ignominious defeat. 261 runs in arrears with five wickets left in the shed. In occupation were backstop Prior and potentially hamstrung nightwatchman Anderson. The latter a single away from completing 54 consecutive test innings without a globe.

No sooner had Anderson avoided a blob for the 54th consecutive occasion with a boundary to third man, he played a limp shot in Hilfy’s opening over of the day and was snaffled comfortably at second slip by Punter. England had now sunk further into the abyss at 6/86. This brought Summer Bay’s Stuart Broad to the crease. Prior and Broad played freely adding 34 for the 7th wicket before Hilfenhaus and Haddin combined to dismiss Prior for a typically breezy 22 off 29 agates. The catch was an uncharacteristically good one from Haddin, snared low in front of first slip.

The dismissal of Prior brought Swann to the crease and these two proceeded to smash the Australian pace attack all over the park. They made a mockery of those who perished before them and caused Australia’s bowlers and captain to collectively lose the plot. Broad brought up his 50 off only 42 balls with a flurry of boundaries, including four boundaries bludgeoned off one Stuart Clark over. The pair especially took to Clark and Siddle with lofted drives on both sides of the wicket, wild slogs to cow corner, pulls and hooks. This ‘swinging from the date’ approach caused Siddle in particular to bowl too short and without a semblance of intelligence. Clark went for 32 off a two over spell and was treated with complete disdain. Broad was finally caught on the boundary by Watson off a wayward Siddle for 61 scored off only 49 balls.

Their extraordinary 8th wicket partnership of 109 runs, scored at the rollicking rate of nine runs per over, possessed the spirit and intent of the Botham/Dilley 8th wicket stand of 1981. Unfortunately for England, they were so far behind in this match for the partnership to amount to anything more than nuisance value to the Australians. It did, however, provide great entertainment for the Yorkshire crowd and certainly got the West Stand (formerly the Western Terrace) in full voice. The absence of the use of a spinner in the first session was conspicuous. Does Ponting know when to bowl spinners? Swinging tailenders is one such suitable situation for either a Katich or a North to have a trundle.

England were finally dismissed just after lunch for 263 with Johnson taking the last two wickets, including that of Swann adjudged caught behind in dubious circumstances for 62. Billy Bowden being seduced by a stifled appeal from the Australian slips cordon. Replays suggested that Swann didn’t get within the same postcode of knicking it. Johnson’s Michelle Pfeiffer (5/69) marked a welcome return to form. Hilfenhaus again impressed with his four wickets.

Putting the Broad/Swann flurry to one side, it is astonishing to contemplate that it took until the penultimate match of this series for S. Clark to be afforded an opportunity to ply his bowling skills. Especially in conditions conducive to his Old/Hendrick mode of bowling. To use a herpetologist’s description, S. Clark was Australia’s reticulated python in England’s first innings. He suffocated his victims to death by bowling a consistent nagging line and length as well as procuring sideways movement both in the air and off the deck. These old-fashioned skills and central tenets of test match bowling that have stood the test of time were somehow forgotten by a culpable and amnesiac selection panel.

The inclusion of Clark has seemingly allowed Johnson to emerge from hibernation, shed his skin (characterised by a severe hairy), and again assume the mantle of King Cobra of the attack. He mostly bowled with great verve, velocity, rediscovered rhythm and effective planning. The Poms jumped about the crease when he bowled short and were caught behind the crease and in front of the stumps when the late inswinger to the right-hander was delivered. Eureka!

What is the road ahead for Australia? A two day practice game against Kent at Canterbury will afford Brett Lee an opportunity for more self-promotion. This ‘pick me pick me’ charade that is being played out in the press by Australian players is becoming tiresome. Although this approach worked for Shane Watson, who somehow spruiked his way into the team, it appears that Lee is destined to fail in his pursuit of selection.

I suspect Australia may want to field an unchanged XI at Kennington Oval. Hussey will stay at second drop despite undeniable evidence (he’s lost where his off stump is) that he is in decline. At Headingley, the selectors adopted the philosophy of selecting the bowling attack based on a measure of potency rather than on balance. Will this be the case for The Oval Test or will they revert to the ‘horses for courses’ approach? Hauritz has been handy thus far and has probably over-performed in all honesty. The pitch conditions (a possible Bunsen burner) may provide a saviour for Hauritz and give selectors a selection headache.

What is the road ahead for England? Firstly there will be hourly medical updates on the condition of Flintoff’s knee and a great temptation to play him even if has to have his leg amputated. There will also be a groundswell for a change in personnel, particularly in the batting department. I envisage a two-pronged campaign. One push is likely to be for the inclusion of Kent’s dependable first drop Robert Key to replace the loose and ill-equipped Bopara at three. The second push is likely to be for the inclusion of another South African raised player. In this instance, Warwickshire’s Jonathon Trott should come under serious consideration. As an aside, will English supporters remember that Flintoff and Pietersen took the wheelbarrow full of Indian rupees prior to the Ashes and got injured in the process? Love is blind I guess.

In a postscript, a serious push is also emerging for the selection of Surrey’s Mark Ramprakash. The Strictly Come Dancing winner of 2006 will be 40 in September. Such a shock selection move would bring back memories of Colin Cowdrey’s recall against Lillee and Thommo in 74/75 and Brian Close’s selection against a fearsome Windies pace attack in the ‘grovel’ series of 1976. Given that Close was 45 years old, Ramprakash is a mere youngin’ by English recall standards.

Headingley used to be a happy hunting ground for Australia. They weren’t beaten at the ground in an Ashes Test until Laker’s 1956 series. Then in the period 1972-1981, Headingley became a nightmare ground for Australia. In four successive Ashes tests, the Aussies suffered at the hands of Fusarium and Deadly Derek in ‘72, free George Davis protestors (including one Peter Chappell) excavating the pitch in ‘75, Boycott’s 100th hundred in ’77 and the talisman Botham and the demonic Willis in ’81. Let’s hope that 2009 Headingley Test will be remembered fondly in the years ahead as the Test that sparked the retention/regaining of the Ashes. Bring on The Oval.

Comments

  1. Good stuff Peter.

    Rest assured that the IPL is blamed for the Pietersonand Flintoff injuries on an hourly basis. And Trott is being talked down as an inclusion, it’s more Ramprakash that they’re on about now, Key getting a mention but not much support. They’ve plenty of time to lick wounds now but they’ve clearly got some way to go.

  2. Peter Flynn says:

    Cheers Ben,
    Alec Stewart is one of Ramp’s main cheerleader as far as I can tell.

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