Ashes retained, and now series won.
It’s amazing, how a match can turn on its head.
Australia went to tea on the fourth day of the Durham Test, sitting pretty on 120-1, the match for the taking and with it a salvaging of some pride. Only 179 runs away. Chris Rogers had been the man to go, edging Swann to slip for 49 runs that seemed a continuation of the quietly-resolute 110 he’d made in the first innings. Khawaja was new to the crease, but David Warner’s resurrection from panto villain to Aussie hero was nearing fruition with 57 runs next to his name. The new ball, a spring-loaded hand grenade in Ryan Harris’s hands in the morning, seemed as dangerous as a week-old jam donut for England’s seamers.
By 7:41 that evening, Australia were all out for 224. It was one of those what-the-hell-happened sessions of insanity, where panic and cluelessness in equal measure grip a side by the throat and you couldn’t help but think back to that awful collapse at Lord’s. All those series what-ifs, where Australia have reminded everyone they’re not an easy touch, and Durham was the best opportunity they had of winning, with events entirely in their hands, unencumbered by time restrictions, or the vagaries of the weather: just 299 runs needed and the cool heads and straight bats required to hunt that total down.
A couple of posts ago I wrote that the funeral orations for the demise of Australian cricket may have been slightly premature, and mentioned that they were unlikely to sink to the levels the West Indies did in their post-nineties plunge, but Australia’s collapse at Durham reminded me of something we’ve become used to seeing from the Windies – a team that’s now so used to losing, it freezes when it finds itself in a position from which it can win.
Take nothing away from England, though – whatever was said during that tea-time war conference over protein bars and energy drinks, it worked. Khawaja fell to Swann soon after the break, but it was Tim Bresnan who started the procession of batsmen back to the pavilion with the wicket of Warner. it was one hell of a ball: full, angled across the batsman, seaming away and taking the edge through to Prior. The best, though – or worst, from an Australian perspective – was yet to come.
I’m not sure whether Stuart Broad’s inspired spell, which had roughly the same effect on Australia’s innings as a tropical storm on a trailer park, was one of the greatest of modern times or an achievement of such magnitude that it just serves to throw those days on which he bowls wide, ineffectual dross into even starker relief. I’ll settle for the former for the time being, because however you want to define that elusive “zone” that sportsmen aspire to, that makes them superhuman in the eyes of us more earthbound mortals, Stuart Broad was not only in it, but he had made himself at home, rearranged the furniture and signed a nine-over five-wickets-for-22-runs lease, with Michael Clarke’s scalp as down-payment. Clarke can count himself unlucky to have been the recipient of two best-of-series, destined-for-YouTube, unplayable deliveries – the other, of course, being the thunderbolt sent down by Jimmy Anderson at Trent Bridge.
Broad was deservedly Man of the Match for that performance, but Ian Bell deserves his share of the laurels as well. Even with 17 Test centuries to his name before this series, there have always been niggling doubts about his “ticker”, his appetite for a fight, when his side are up against it and tough runs are required. His three centuries this series have set England back on an even keel when the early loss of their top three has seen them listing to starboard. His partnership with Pietersen was wonderful to watch, particularly with memories of the latter’s magnificent Old Trafford knock still fresh in the memory. If Pietersen is Wagner – batsmanship as bombastic spectacle, all blaring brass and thundering timpani – Bell is a Haydn string quartet, with those legato cover-drives and glissando deflections to third man. Elegant salon cricket at one end, Valkyries and Götterdämmerung at the other.
Bell’s come a long way from his days as Shane Warne’s whipping boy. We may have laughed along with the “Sherminator” jibes at the time, but it looks like the grit was there after all; it’s only now we are seeing the pearl it’s become, and admiring its lustre.
Speaking of Warne, I enjoy his punditry enormously (and his bowling masterclass on Sky was a treat), but his insistent, niggling criticism of Cook’s captaincy on the last day – and in a subsequent article for the Telegraph – was the only bum note in an otherwise enjoyable commentary stint. A crafty attempt to undermine the opposition it may have been, but it also had the slightly desperate tang of sour grapes. I know that, ontologically speaking, true objectivity is impossible, and even with Warne on board the Sky team are still head and shoulders above their Channel Nine counterparts in terms of even-handedness, but it was still a bit much. It’s true that Cook may come off the poorer when compared to the more gung-ho, gut-feel captaincy of Clarke, but the ready-made riposte that it is England who have not only retained the urn but won the series seems hardly worth mentioning.
It’d be remiss of me, though, not to mention two notable performances for Australia. It’s a shame that Ryan Harris and Chris Rogers were on the losing side – how is Ryan Harris even still upright after three consecutive Tests? – but Harris’s career-best 7-117 in the second innings, and Rogers’ redoubtable maiden Test century on the second day were in the end all for nothing. They were let down by their team, and it will have hurt like hell. The challenge at the Oval on Wednesday will be to distil that disappointment into renewed determination. They will need to come out angry, and come out swinging. Pride ain’t much to play for, but it’s still something.