The Ashes 2019 – Third Test: This is where the test comes

 

In that much trodden cliché about sport being warfare minus the weapons, it is usually warfare that is done the disservice. Nevertheless, sport remains one of the better ways we have to challenge ourselves without killing each other. We can find out how brave, or otherwise, we are under pressure. How focused. How resolute. How skilled. And we all get to go home at the end of the day. Usually. But in both sport and war, there are the moments that just are, then there are the moments that matter.

 

Within the realm of sport, that magnificent 19th century anachronism we call Test cricket  remains one of the grandest platforms for producing moments that truly matter. Those five days provide a broad palette upon which to create.  A day of tedium can suddenly ignite. A seemingly inexorable tide can evaporate in a delivery. An opponent who could only muster 67 in their first dig can chase down 359 in their second.

 

On a sunny Sunday afternoon at Leeds, with the score 9-286, Ben Stokes remained very much in the moment. He may have reflected on  moments six weeks previous, during the World Cup Final, but only briefly. The task at hand was as clear as it was unlikely. If England were going to score the 73 runs they required to keep Ashes hopes alive, he had to get most of them. And he had to keep the strike. With fielders scattered to the boundary in all directions, he was as good a chance to go over them as through them. The modern bat, so much more forgiving of the off-centre blow, was an ally. So was the boundary rope. He just had to pick his moments. And ride his luck.

 

Australia had already on this day appeared to succumb to the temptation of getting ahead of the moment. They started the day as they’d played the game, maintaining immaculate line and length, denying scoring  opportunities. For 25 minutes England remained scoreless. Then Joe Root was dismissed. The second new ball was due. Overnight, everyone who claimed to know thought it would be decisive. It appeared the Australians had been listening. They departed from their strategy. Every ball now over-strained for a wicket. Line and length fell away. Bairstow took advantage. Stokes, who’d been determined to play an attrition game while Root was in, now  joined Bairstow. 66 came from ten overs. At lunch, the game increasingly seemed England’s to lose.

 

After lunch, Australia regrouped. Lyon and Hazlewood led the way. As the screws again tightened, a succession of Englishmen succumbed. By the time Broad was yorked by Pattinson, Australia had claimed 5-48 post-lunch and the task was almost done.

 

But what do you do with an opponent who refuses to accept the reality of a situation? Who seems so singularly in a flow state that he is almost oblivious to fear, yet also acutely aware of opportunity? When the Black Knight proves it really was only a flesh wound, what next?

 

What Ben Stokes proceeded to attempt was predictable, but how he well did it was beyond reasonable calculation. Yes, he’d done something similar in the World Cup, but that made it feel more unlikely this time. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, does it? Well apparently it does. With interest.

 

From the comfort of commentary boxes and lounge room sofas, plenty of criticism of Australia’s tactics and deeds have since flowed. Like economists, the greatest cricket strategists usually trade in hindsight. But cricket is a game of moments, punctuated by pauses. After every delivery, no matter what has transpired,  the batsmen must wait for the bowler to get back to the top of his mark. In theory, both have a blank slate for the next  delivery, but there is always a context. Stokes took hold of the context, changed it so quickly, so violently, that Australia just couldn’t match him. In that final hour, they were less than they’d been. But, that was then. And they were so close.

 

What Australia need to reach peace with now is that the 2019 Headingley moment has passed. It doesn’t have to be the 1981 Headingley moment revisited. History doesn’t have to repeat if you learn the right lessons.

 

Yes, Tim Paine shouldn’t have burnt that final review. But that mistake says as much about the DRS system, which forsakes the advantage of technology’s dispassionate objectivity by requiring the players to make judgements in the hottest moments, as it does about Paine. The same man, immediately after that mistake, was brave enough to recall Lyon with only 8 to get. It was a move that should have won the game.

 

Yes, Nathan Lyon should have handled Cummins’ throw when Leach was stranded. But realising the potential ramifications of what he’d just done, Lyon regrouped the very next ball and bowled a delivery that could well have saved the match. Many would say should have.

 

You can accuse both men of error, but not faint hearts. They just met a better opponent on the day. There will be other days.

 

There is nothing pre-determined about what will come. Neither of these teams will go down amongst the greatest to have represented their respective countries. Both sides generally bowl much better than they bat. But within each team lie individuals who have shown they are capable of great feats. Many more moments will present themselves. With all the subtlety and nuance that test cricket accommodates, the possibilities are still endless.

 

What was appearing a fait accompli could now become one of the great series. Opportunity awaits those who will seize future moments that matter. The name of the game, after all, is test cricket.

 

 

For more from John, click here:

 

For David Wilson’s reflections on Headingley, click here:

 

To read what it was like to be at the ground on the day, read Smokie Dawson’s piece here:

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he is in his 40th year as a Carlton member.

Comments

  1. Well played J Butler.
    I find your stories measured and thoughtful.
    This is the sort of story you could come back to years later and have a good think about.

    I’ve been interested in some commentary suggesting that Australians are very good at “giving it” when our teams win, and not so good at “taking it” when our teams lose.
    e.g. “You just lost the World Cup,” – SR Waugh to H Gibbs when H Gibbs dropped that catch in 1999(?)

    I wonder about the idea of “choking” in this context.
    I wonder about advances in mental health awareness over recent years/ decades.
    I wonder whether we can tolerate an error of judgement if we recognise other behaviours that we value highly.
    I wonder whether we can separate behaviour from the intrinsic worth of a person.

    Old Trafford next week. Interesting times. Thank you.

  2. John Butler says

    Thanks ER.

    Our minds would seem to be on similar paths re this. More words coming on those very subjects you raise.

  3. It all comes down to who can handle the pressure best. I well remember several incidents in my youth. Bill Petersen was a gifted table tennis player but put him into competition and his game fell to pieces – in our lunch time matches he would win easily however, in a tournament Bill would struggle and lose to players (me included0 nowhere near as good as him.

    I also dabbled a little in billiards with reasonable success. Bill again was a real natural but once more his game would fall apart under pressure. But Bill was no orphan as several others I knew turned to water the closer the game came to the finish line. I also felt the proverbial butterflies but managed to hold them at bay to win 2 billiard tournaments (out of two) in which I competed.

    There can be no possible doubt what ever, test cricket separates the men from the boys (or alternately the ladies from the girls)..

  4. John Butler says

    Fisho, I’d be in Bill’s club when I consider my suburban cricket career. Had mu moments, but certainly didn’t rise to the occasion at other times.

    Like golf, cricket gives you the time to think yourself out of it. The first challenge is to not defeat yourself.

    I don’t think the Aussies choked at Leeds so much as they were blown off course by Hurricane Stokes. But do they keep their nerve now?

    By the by, a couple of potential ins named Smith and Starc may yet be relevant.

  5. DBalassone says

    Well said JB. Perhaps we needed this result for the good of cricket – to breath new life into the remaining two tests, which would have been dead rubbers had Australia got up. I would say interest in test cricket is at a rare high at the moment – which is a good thing.
    I think any criticism directed towards Lyon, Paine, or even the umpire are unwarranted (in real time who’s to say that any of us would have given that out LBW). I don’t have any issue with anyone for this loss…except for the cricket gods. Here’s a list, that I’ve put together with a mate (we only back to ’81). Talk about deja vu.

    1 run vs WI Adelaide 92/93
    2 runs vs Eng Edgbaston 2005
    3 runs vs Eng Melbourne 82/83
    5 runs vs SAF Sydney 93/94
    7 runs vs NZ Hobart 2011/12
    1 wicket vs England Headingly 2019 (73 added for last wicket)
    1 wicket vs Pakistan Karachi 1994 (57 runs added for last wicket, winning runs coming after a missed stumping by Ian Healy)
    1 wicket vs India Mohali 2010
    1 wicket vs West Indies Barbados 1999 (at one stage WI 8/248 chasing 311, Lara masterclass)
    2 wickets vs India Chennai 2001 (after losing the previous tests where we enforced the followed on)
    13 runs vs India Mumbai 2004 (chasing 107 on a turner in a deadrubber)
    19 runs vs England The Oval 1997 (chasing 124 in another deadrubber)
    18 runs vs England Headingly 1981 (chasing 130, another follow on game, Botham’s Ashes)
    29 runs vs England Edgbaston 1981 (the very next test)

  6. DBalassone says

    Also 14 runs vs England Trent Bridge 2013

  7. John Butler says

    DB, I knew the list was gruesome, but still….ouch!

    And dare we suggest some uncomfortable truths might lie in this list of results? More on that in a coming piece.

    With my cricket purist hat on, I agree that this is the best thing for the series. It could be 2005 all over again.

    With my Aussie hat on, I’m with you. Blame is not the point in this one. Sure, there were stuff-ups. But mainly caused by the pressure of an incredible Stokes onslaught. Can we not just say, “too good Ben” and move on?

  8. Gee guys, I wonder how many of those close losses that are listed by DB happened after the winner was bowled out for 67 in the first innings. How were 10 overs for 66 bowled without someone pulling the bowlers aside after 3 or 4 overs of getting smacked to re-focus? A collective panic appears to have engulfed our boys, notwithstanding being unlucky not to get that final LBW decision. Stokes was amazing, but to pa great extent we allowed him to be. I agree it has transformed the series though!

  9. John Butler says

    G’day BJ.

    Clearly, as such a win hadn’t happened for over 130 years, none of those losses listed occurred after the opposition made 60-odd.

    I’m not sure why you think there wouldn’t have been discussions on the field during that 2nd new ball period. Bowling changes were made, but we only had three quicks to use, and for a period they all seemed to over-try.

    I don’t think there was any panic at that point, just over-eagerness. And we did fight back after lunch to take 5-48.

    But there’s no doubt we wilted when the Stokes onslaught launched fully. It was quite an onslaught. As to how much he took control, or whether we conceded it, opinions will differ. I’m open to suggestions as to what we could have tried differently. Mitch Starc would have been handy. but he wasn’t playing.

  10. I enjoyed this description. It describes the ebb and flow of the final day so well.

  11. Been thinking about narcissism in elite sport and how the very best can sustain themselves inside their self reinforcing bubble – Stokes, Warne, Carey, Trump. Self doubt never a possibility. It’s where the good bloke/mental health argument breaks down when it comes to pure binary I win/you lose. We all love a winner – so long as he is on our side – but you mightn’t want to otherwise share time with them.
    Similarly with captaincy – that ability to rise above the moment – and see the bigger picture of what is happening in the game and the opponent’s head. Mike Brearley went on to become a psychoanalyst and his “On Form” is a great series of essays on the mental side of sport. An analytical introvert as captain he was adept at denying space and oxygen to opponents. Dry them up. Use short legs in their field of vision. IM Chappell was the opposite as an extreme extrovert – but his keen mind would never let the game amble as Paine did in the last hour.
    The Australian quicks bowling short (particularly at Leach) and giving Stokes room to swing his arms was a captain having “faith in his bowlers” when they were at their wit’s end needing direction. A reason why there have been few keeper captains (but keen minds like Rod Marsh) is they can’t readily get in bowler’s ear/face when they need direction.
    Paine captains like Kade Simpson when the team is crying out for Patrick Cripps.

  12. John Butler says

    Thanks 6%. Glad you liked it. Hopefully Australia can pay better attention to the 1 per centers at Old Trafford.

    Thought provoking as always PB, though I don’t really agree with some of those assertions/conclusions. I think Paine is a long way from being classed with the Brearleys or Chappells as a tactician, but I don’t happen to see one of them lying around unused at present. But as a leader, I do see him as a considerable improvement on Steve Smith. Which gives me hope for the nest two tests.

    Your point about keeper captains is only valid to a point. Given how long they spend setting fields now, it’s entirely possible for a keeper to run the show. And they often have the best view of conditions.

    We’ll doubtless argue for eternity about what should have happened in that final hour, but as I said in the piece, my view was that Stokes’ tactics were entirely predictable. What wasn’t predictable was how superbly he executed them.

    Cheers

  13. JB well played measured and balanced I wish to add where was the off field support hammering the bowlers at fine leg re stay patient line and length ! Mike Brearley or Ian Chappell wandered out on to the ground in the last hour we win,Paine was putrid ( not just him ) overall we lost the plot still spewing

  14. Marnie Burchell says

    I am impressed with your piece John.
    It is a measured and thoughtful observation.
    Keep writing.

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