When Michael Clarke stepped into the arena yesterday, England launched their cunning plan. It seemed faintly discourteous at the time, proved to be the height of folly and was perhaps the most glaring single error of Alastair Cook’s captaincy.
Clarke was unquestionably a man under close scrutiny. As captain of Australia, he had been out in the first innings when limply prodding at a bouncer, his head twisted away from the ball. At best it looked clueless.
England remembered this, but chose to overlook plenty of other important matters. In consequence they immediately brought back into the attack Stuart Broad, Clarke’s nemesis, a fast bowler at the peak of his form who had already dismissed the batsman eight times in Tests. This was a perfectly valid ploy. To ensure that Clark faced Broad, England spread the field and virtually invited him to take a single off the sixth ball of an over from Jimmy Anderson. Here was a man who at that time had scored 24 Test centuries, had a batting average in the fifties, was captain of a team who led by 230 with eight second-innings wickets in hand, and his opponents were offering freebies because they were anxious to exploit a weakness.
Maybe, just maybe, it would have been wiser to keep him waiting, giving more time to fret about what might be coming. But this was too clever by half, designed to provoke the fighting instincts of a player who has made a career within a career of responding to adversity.
The upshot was that Clarke pulled the first two short balls from Broad for four and went on to take 24 to 25 in a seamless innings of 113. It was batting of an extremely high class, which exuded authority and helped to put Australia in firm control of the match, and perhaps the series.
By the close of a gruelling third day for the tourists the gap between the sides had closed to 536 runs. England had only eight wickets left, losing two in the 15 overs they received after Australia declared at 401 for 7. If Michael Carberry was unfortunate, Jonathan Trott was left with serious concerns about his future as an international batsman after pulling a Mitchell Johnson short ball to deep backward square leg.
Clarke shared a partnership of 158 with David Warner, who made his fourth Test century and his first in an Ashes match. Together they put the match out of sight for England. They batted with permanent aggression, buttressed by their large lead.
If no bowler was safe, the position for Graeme Swann was especially perilous. Australia’s dominant position mean they could carry out their strategy of attacking Swann with rather fewer worries than they might have had if England’s batsmen had done their job.
But it was still disconcerting to see an English spinner with Swann’s record withdrawn to spare him further punishment. In three overs early on the third afternoon, Swann went for 36, 10 in the single over from the Stanley Street End, 26 in two from the Vulture Street End, after which there was no option but to send him into the country for a while.
Soon almost all of England were in the country. Warner is a naturally flamboyant batsman. His readiness to strike boundaries in all areas – he is as happy bunting down the ground as he is cutting mercilessly – is complemented by rapid running between the wickets.
On Thursday he hooked the first ball he received for four; yesterday he repelled two probing spells of bowling at the start of the morning, from Anderson and Broad. Later on he sent both bowlers back over their heads, in Broad’s case for six. When he reached his hundred he leapt and punched the air with the right hand that was once famous only for punching Joe Root.
In truth, there was nothing much the bowlers could do but limit the damage against two such players on a pitch where the ball was at last coming on to the bat. With every free-spirited shot England’s bowlers must have cursed their batsmen.
They had withered on the second day before a rejuvenated Johnson, who is bowling with a pace and ferocity perhaps not seen since the days of the great West Indies fast bowlers of the 1980s and 1990s. If he can sustain this form for the series, England may be in deep trouble.
England stuck at it reasonably well despite the onslaught, and Swann at least became the seventh England bowler and only the second spinner to reach 250 Test wickets. Only Derek Underwood, on 297, is ahead of him as a spinner, and Swann should track that down by next summer.
But first he has this series to negotiate and the early indications are not looking propitious. Above all, Swann (and his bowling colleagues) need their batsmen to score more heavily.
It had looked so cosy for England after the first day of the match. They had reduced Australia to 132 for 6, with Broad looking irresistible. The key to this match, and to the series, came in the seventh-wicket partnership between Brad Haddin and Johnson which followed. Both scored fifties – and Haddin added another yesterday – and Johnson’s success lifted his confidence.
In the past he has shown that if he bats well his bowling works better. His innings set up everything that followed.