Fifth Test, Day 4: We’ve been stitched up

The denouement to this topsy-turvy and at times indecipherable series came at 5.48 pm on Day 4 with the dismissal of Mike Hussey for 121. Australia were bowled all out for 348 and lost the deciding fifth Test by 197 runs. England’s crew of battlers and journeymen (Strauss and Flintoff excluded) prevailed 2-1 to regain the Ashes. Let the double-decker bus tours, Trafalgar Square fountain celebrations and MBE award ceremonies begin.
At the commencement of this monumental run chase late on Day 3, this Australian XI required 546 runs to win the Test, the Ashes and immortality. A run chase over double the size of the highest fourth innings total ever achieved to win an Oval Test (Gilbert Jessop’s famous 1902 innings of 104 in 70 minutes) and 33 more than the first class record of 9/513. The infinitesimal probability of an Australian victory were not reflected in the odds at the start of play on Day 4. With most corporate bookies and turf accountants (I love that description), Australia were a touch over 4/1 to achieve the virtually impossible. England looked good value even at their firm odds on quote. To get anywhere near the target, the Aussie batsmen needed to exhibit the footwork, temperament and composure of South African raised debutant IJL Trott. They also needed the England attack to wilt and bowl poorly. Only Ponting and Hussey truly exhibited these Trott-like characteristics.
In blazing English sunshine, and on a pitch resembling a Mumbai dustbowl, Australia started the fourth day at 0/80 with makeshift opener Watson on 31 and Katich on 42. The two Australian openers, Katich who does not open for NSW and Watson who will not open for NSW, advanced the score to 86 before Katich succumbed to Swann not offering to a straight faster delivery. It was canny deception from Swann and poor judgement from Katich who again lost his wicket in the forties.
Four runs later, Watson lived up to his reputation as a prime lbw candidate. He was caught shuffling on the crease and was culpably late in attempting to play a cutter from Broad. It was déjà vu all over again and the fourth time in the series that Watson had been dismissed in this manner. Watson shuffled back to the pavilion in a similar fashion to that receipt-laden bloke in the tax accountant advertisement that is played ad nauseam on Fox Sports. I reckon Watson is ill-equipped to be a long-term Test opener. I also believe (three half-centuries notwithstanding) that the selector’s predilection of picking him come what may will ultimately prove to be a mistake.
In a tense atmosphere characterised by frequent half-shouts, groans, gasps, frequent calls of catch it and dry washes, Broad and Swann initially bowled well in tandem. Swann probed, varied his pace cleverly and occasionally got one to turn and bounce alarmingly out of the footmarks. Coupled with strategic field placement from Strauss, Swann shackled Hussey down early in this potentially career-defining innings. At the other end, Broad bowled cutters, also varied his pace cleverly and occasionally got the ball to spit off a good length.
In their superb third-wicket partnership of 127, Ponting and Hussey demonstrated that this Oval wicket was not impossible to bat on. For a batsman to thrive, he must first survive. Survival required a great technique, resolute defence, sound shot selection and a modicum of luck. From tentative beginnings to their respective innings, first and second drop both played themselves in, used the crease well and played with increasing assurance and aplomb. Both batsman pulled, cut, drove, glanced, pushed, defended and somehow managed to survive. Prior to lunch, Ponting showed the first signs of developing into Manchester Ricky from 2005. He began to exhibit that same amalgam of Zen-like calmness and flinty resolve. Hussey meanwhile, began metamorphosing back to Mr Cricket from 2006-2007. Hallelujah. At lunch, Australia had reached 2/171. It was England’s session but Australia had fought back admirably.
After lunch, first Ponting and then Hussey reached their fifties. Broad was warned for running on the wicket. At 2/217, the first of two cataclysmic run outs rocked Australia. Despite doing nothing in the game, it was a case of cometh the hour cometh the man. Guess who? Hussey clipped one to wide mid-on and immediately called yes. After slight hesitation and ball watching, non-striker Ponting responded to the tight call of a run. Flintoff lumbered to his left, gathered the ball, threw the ball sidearm and ran the Captain out with a direct hit. Ponting, scarcely believing his fate, did not want to leave. He had to go though. Eventually he did, cruelly run out for 66. As JTH noted sagely in the Almanac blog a matter of moments afterwards, “What sort of burden do you think Hussey is feeling right now?”
Almost immediately after Ponting’s dismissal, Michael Clarke, on nought, clipped one off Swann into the boot of IJL Trott at short-leg. Clarke thought he had bisected the close-in field. The ball however ricocheted to Strauss at backward short leg who underarmed the ball at the stumps and caught Clarke just short of his ground. Absolute disaster for Australia matched equally by unbridled delirium for England.
On reaching double figures, Marcus North, facing Swann, took a massive swing against the spin, missed the ball by a country mile and could not move his back foot. It remained anchored on the line as custodian Prior gleefully removed the bails. Billy fired him. It was a brave and probably correct decision without consultation from the third official. I have a theory on North. I reckon he is either a 0-10 man or a 100 man with very little in between. Australia went to tea at 5/265 with Hussey unconquered on 77 and Haddin on 10. England took their chances, procuring two run outs and a stumping in that session.
At 5/278, Broad accepted the second new ball. Anderson supported him from the other end. Haddin lived dangerously off one early Anderson over with the new agate. He was dropped by Onions at mid-wicket when on 12 and then played two airy cover drives for boundaries that could have easily gone to a fieldsman. Onions could have been daydreaming about Pictures of Lily. Hussey brought up a memorable (in more ways than one) and superb tenth Test hundred with a signature cover push for two. It was his first Test hundred since Bangalore in 2008, a span of 28 innings. Despite running out Ponting, this innings has probably saved his career. Should it, though? It was ironic that Ponting was notably absent from the player’s balcony as Hussey raised his arms in personal triumph. For Mr Cricket, the signature shots returned. At 5/306, Hussey incredibly very nearly ran himself out. Foolish.
In the initial forays of the final session, England’s bowlers began to look increasingly jaded. Haddin continued to play his shots in his seemingly carefree way. Suddenly Haddin became too carefree. On 34, his attempt to loft Swann out of the ground landed in the safe hands of Strauss. Haddin’s departure signalled the end of Australia’s resistance. Johnson soon followed for a globe, caught by Collingwood at second slip. Siddle caught at mid-off for 10. Clark caught at short-leg first ball. All three fell to Harmison. The spinner provided the swansong, capturing a defiant Hussey for 121.
In successive Oval Tests, Australia has been thwarted by a South African raised batsman, Pietersen in 2005 and now Trott in 2009. England came into the Headingley Test with their fingertips on the Urn. They headed for the decider at The Oval with fingers burnt, much soul-searching to be done and a batting order requiring a major overhaul. What else can I say? We have been stitched up. I recommend Dave Goodwin’s piercing criticism of selectors, coaching panel and tactics. It is 16 months until possible redemption.

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