Two days in and the 67th contest for the Ashes is simply electrifying. It has done away with small matters of a structured plot that might include a beginning, a middle and an end and instead is dealing only in constant twists, incredible escapes and abundant controversy.
If the rest of the summer continues in this vein the senses will be numbed. Who needs hype when it is like this, two teams fuelled by apprehension and the prospect of glory? By the end of the second day of the First Test, England were 80 for two, 15 runs ahead and trying desperately to introduce a semblance of normality to proceedings.
The third session was an oasis of calm compared to its two dramatic predecessors as England painstakingly repaired their second innings following a turbulent start. It gave everybody a chance to calm down.
Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen had shared an unbroken stand of 69, going at under two runs an over. They were relatively untroubled on a benign pitch under a cloudless sky. But they came together when England were in peril after losing two wickets in two balls, the second to a highly contentious lbw decision which put the decision review system and its power to overrule human arbiters under scrutiny again.
The day and with it perhaps the series had already been revolutionised in an extraordinary passage of play. When Australia lost five wickets for nine runs in 32 balls they looked dead and buried. It left the tourists at 117 for 9, still 98 runs behind England and the obituaries for a once proud and dominant sporting nation were being polished, not without a little smugness.
There then followed a partnership of 163, the highest for the 10 wicket in all Test matches, between Phil Hughes, who had become a perennial under-achiever on the international stage, and Ashton Agar, the 19-year-old number who was playing in his first Test, purportedly as a left arm spinner.
The stand was the more remarkable for being dominated by Agar who made 98, the highest score by the last man in a Test innings. The last 19-year-old to make his Test debut in an Ashes match was Doug Walters, who made a glittering 155 at Brisbane in 1965.
There is no higher praise for Agar than to report that he lost nothing at all in comparison with a dashing player who went on to make 15 Test hundreds and averaged nearly 50. Apart from a couple of primitively constructed swishes across the line his first innings for Australia was exemplary.
Given the circumstances in which it began it was miraculous. The end, two runs short of a century, must have been heartbreaking but he took off his helmet, shrugged his shoulders and beamed around the ground.
Maybe it never crossed his mind that the chance may not come his way again, or he could have been thinking that he was exceptionally fortunate still to be there. With Agar on six and Australia still 84 runs adrift, Matt Prior whipped off the bails in a flash after Graeme Swann passed the outside edge of the bat.
The umpire, Kumar Dharmasema, as is the case with almost all stumping appeals, asked for help from higher authority, otherwise known as the television official, in this case, Marais Erasmus. After viewing the slow motion action from several angles Erasmus declared that there was enough doubt for Agar to be spared, though since the line belongs to the wicketkeeper and evidence was scant of Agar’s foot being over it, he could and probably should have decided otherwise.
Agar was quite sublime afterwards. His pulling was as fearless as it was crisp and his cover driving was frequently elegant. He perplexed England’s spinner, Graeme Swann, serenely clumping him for two sixes.
Hughes, who eventually abandoned the notion of protecting his partner, fulfilled almost a watching brief from the other end. But it was still a vigilant innings of no little skill from a man who has struggled to come to terms with the rigours of Test batsmanship. His method against skin is rudimentary at best but it saw him through.
On the cusp of a unique hundred, Agar was out. He had just set the record innings for a number 11 in a Test. Since this was 95, set by Tino Best for West Indies at Edgbaston only last year, England may have cause to question their bowling tactics against tailend charlies.
There was no sign of what was to come when Hughes in company with Steve Smith started the day with aplomb, adding 34 runs in the first half hour. But Jimmy Anderson is always a threat and having been denied conventional swing on a gorgeously sunny day was just beginning to find some of the reverse variety when Smith took it upon himself to essay a booming drive outside off.
He managed only a thin nick and set in chain a horrendous chain of events for his side. Anderson was so exceptional that it was possible to wonder if the match officials were about to check if he had the ball attached to a length of string.
In Swann he had the perfect henchmen. Brad Haddin went playing fatally back to a ball which turned and hit the top of off. Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc were both confounded by Anderson, edging behind, the first catch by Matt Prior swooping low to his right being notable. James Pattinson was lbw to Swann and that seemed to be that for Australia.
Instead lunch had to be delayed and when England eventually went to the wicket again they were quickly in dreadful trouble. Joe Root flicked a loose ball down the leg side and then Jonathan Trott was given out lbw to his first ball after Australia reviewed Dar’s not out decision.
The umpire thought he had edged the ball on to his pad but the hotspot camera that might have confirmed it was being used to show the replay of Root’s dismissal at the crucial time. Dar, knowing he was right, was forced to overturn the decision. England needed to regroup and it was to the benefit of pulse rates everywhere that they succeeded.Reuse content