On the day that England fought back, a question still lingered. The revival was overdue and worthwhile though it was some way short of redemption. For now, the open-topped buses should remain in the garage.
Australia’s batsmen, put under the cosh by England’s bowlers, gave a demonstration of how not to deal with the circumstances at hand, presumably using the template laid down by their opponents throughout the series. The second day of the fourth Test was as fruitless for scoring runs as the first.
They came at barely more than two an over, a dreadful advertisement for drop-in pitches. Yet a week ago in a Twenty20 match on a pitch two strips along on the square here the Melbourne Stars scored 208. Different format, different mindset but, in case these blokes ever forget, the same game.
ASHES PODCAST: Stephen Brenkley and Tom Collomosse discuss the second day of the Fourth Test. Listen below…
England bowled with real discipline. They had to. Their first innings had been brought to a frightening, juddering halt by Mitchell Johnson, this time just the 145 short of the 400 they are forever seeking and rarely attaining (just once in their past 15 Tests).
The addition of an authentic all-rounder has made a discernible difference to the tourists. Since Ben Stokes was introduced to the team for the second Test at Adelaide (mostly to allow the playing of two spinners) he has looked and felt the part. He adds a new dimension to the attack and yesterday he was the preferred first-change bowler.
It gives England the opportunity to use their seamers in short spells if they wish and to sustain an attacking position. This may well have contributed to Jimmy Anderson’s most effective day of the series, and probably since his wonderful match at Trent Bridge in July. Down on pace as he now is, he was canny in his changes of angle and pace and will have been delighted to extract some reverse swing.
With Stuart Broad finding awkward lift and Tim Bresnan asserting his control, going at under two runs an over, England forced Australia to panic. And this time they did not leave them any wriggle room. England’s lead was 91 when the ninth wicket fell and the day was done.
Johnson was as usual irresistible against a lower order who were not remotely equipped to deal with his pace and brutality. He took his tally of wickets for the series to 28, 18 of which have come in four separate clutches for just 51 runs.
It was the second with his fifth ball of the day that cast a cloud over proceedings. Johnson had already removed Tim Bresnan with a bouncer flapped despairingly to short leg.
Kevin Pietersen pulled out of one pull shot and then essayed an ugly cross-batted hoick to a straight ball which splayed his stumps. It was swiftly billed on one social networking site as the worst cricket stroke ever played.
This was probably an over-reaction. On the other hand, it might have been much too restrained. It was at best the product of a confused mind. Was he wondering what was best for the team or best for himself?
There was a case for playing strokes because the self-containment of the first day had gone too far. But this was less a stroke than a vainglorious heave – sod you, boys, let’s get out of here.
Pietersen had spent four hours the previous day batting within himself, resolutely declining to take the attack to Australia as if it all meant so much to him that he was damned if he was going to make a mistake.
The result had been a laborious fifty, though there have been a few of those in his canon lately. Now with England seven wickets down he decided on a complete reversal of policy.
It was ugly, thoughtless cricket and, although Pietersen was easily the top run-scorer in England’s innings, the time has arrived when he should be asking himself (and we should be asking him) what it is he stands for as an England Test batsman. Throughout this series, the word has come from the camp that Kevin wants nothing more than to succeed.
At a press conference on Christmas Eve, Pietersen explained that he was pretty happy with his form but had simply not been able to turn starts into something of substance in this series.
But his innings have been littered with contradictory messages. They have not been the work of a man who craves to prolong his career much beyond the week after next. He may think that he does but the way he is playing suggests something rather less than durability.
The counter to that, naturally, is that he was England’s top scorer for the first time in the series and for the third time in the year had scored one of his slowest Test fifties. Maybe he simply thought that Johnson was about to sweep away the tail anyway so there was nothing else for it.
The total of 255 looked too few and another healthy crowd of 77,453 (a whole Test match’s worth of attendance at any English ground) obviously thought so. It soon became evident something was up, which is what happens when cricket grounds are in reality football grounds. The square at the MCG is dropped in these days at the end of every AFL season.
Chris Rogers played vigilantly as four partners came and went. He wants a hundred in this series to secure his place for a little longer, knowing that there will be no second chances for an opening batsman of 36.
David Warner was guilty of hubris, playing a shot a ball and more or less gifting Anderson a wicket. Stokes brought one back to take Shane Watson’s inside edge on the drive, Michael Clarke left a ball from Anderson which took his off stump and Steve Smith was superbly held at second slip off a fiercely edged drive.
Ian Bell was the catcher, new to the position after the shock retirement of Graeme Swann, who did the job for more than 50 Tests. Things move on quickly. The second slip is dead, long live the second slip.