Was it our imagination or did England start this perfect day 3-0 up in the series with an outside sniff of recording an unprecedented 4-0 Ashes triumph? A full house, glorious sunshine and a docile wicket that yielded runs at almost four an over with Australia at the crease screamed come and get me to the England batsmen. If ever there were a day to establish Ashes hegemony this was it.
In some parts of the world they can’t pay people to watch Test cricket. Make that most parts. At The Kia Oval you can still walk out of the Tube into the opportunistic clutches of ticket touts, gathered in huge numbers to trade hot tickets.
These boys know a money-making tale when they smell one. And when to bail. The streets outside the stadium were clean as a whistle by noon lest the punters came screaming out of the arena asking for their money back.
Contests that yield prolonged discussions about the pitch are a sure indicator of cricketing death in the afternoon. The radio and television boys gave plenty of airtime to the remarkable news that The Oval pitch was the slowest of the series, as determined by Hawk-Eye, the modern game’s ultimate arbiter.
Technical arguments about slow pitches making it harder for England’s batsmen to get the ball off the square are acknowledged but countered by the Australian example of the day before. Same surface, different attitude, marvellous spectacle.
This was truly recidivist stuff from England, 50 shades of grim on a track of even bounce if plodding carry. Jonathan Trott in particular invoked the spirit of Geoffrey Boycott, who once went more than 500 balls without a boundary in an Ashes series, with his exaggerated forward defensive on a day crying out for the gun.
We love Test cricket for its nuanced intensity but against this Australian attack, honest and accurate but more probing than threatening, there had to be more to life than the full face of the bat. Trott’s first two hours at the sun-baked crease yielded just 15 runs, the equivalent of driving 30mph on the motorway. He deserved a ticket for that.
Trott was, of course, one of many in England’s upper echelons without rhythm. Openers Alastair Cook and Joe Root were equally reluctant after a summer not overly nourished by runs.
Sports psychologists have done their best to furnish the lay audience with the jargon to express what it is to be an athlete in form. “In the zone” is the preferred terminology, describing that happy state when thought and action are at one, a head free of clutter, no doubts, feeling groovy.
This was anything but. England had laboured to 68 in the first hour, adding just 36 runs to the overnight score. Neither Cook nor Root had been unduly troubled and looked ready as drinks were served to reach out in search of the trigger point that would release us from the tedium.
First ball back, Ryan Harris sent a quick one slanting away from Cook, who bit on the hook and edged to Brad Haddin. Cook could not believe what he had done, his concentration snapped like a thread, chasing a ball he would and should have left.
Harris is a big unit, thundering in from the Pavilion End like an agricultural vehicle, bumping unevenly across the turf, the opposite of svelte. But what comes out of his hand is all finesse, penetrating deliveries that make the batsmen nervous.
There were no free balls from him, no let up for the opposition. Before you know it, the batsmen can barely breathe. At least Root put bat on the first ball he faced after drinks. This was an act of reconnection, gaining his attention immediately. Fluency was not yet his but he was still there, gaining incrementally, restoring gradually what he knows is within.
Any game that lasts six hours a day is one of phases. Cook’s exit brought Trott to the crease resulting in a commensurate slowing to a trickle of the run rate, the return of attrition.
Two an over on days like this is no advert for the game, no matter how well Harris was bowling. Mitchell Starc was eminently hittable but England were not throwing punches.
Root’s exit on 68 was a disappointment, Trott’s for a glacial 40 off 134 balls less so for it brought England’s man of the series, Ian Bell, to the crease. With Kevin Pietersen at the other end there was at least potential for a prison break late in the day. Pietersen was not at his imperious best but with him there is always a sense that something might happen. There were a few early scares precisely because he was trying to apply some pressure to a bowling attack that had assumed absolute command.
Perhaps England were simply unable to escape the circumstances of a match that, believing they could not win they did not want to lose. So here we were strangled by stasis. Even the weather had given up by the final session, the blue sky giving way to a grey top that prompted the firing up of the floodlights. An ironic cheer went up when Pietersen pulled Peter Siddle to fine leg. The shot harvested just a single.
The fact that it left the square was cause enough for celebration. You can imagine the tumult when Bell breached the boundary rope 20 minutes later. Pietersen eventually recorded the second slowest 50 of his career. It took more than three hours to fashion.
This has not been a vintage Ashes conflict. We have had drama, moments of real tension, but those episodes have not soared by virtue of rare brilliance, rather from common failings. Only nine centuries thus far. The ball has dominated, yet no single bowler has taken the series by the throat. Only Bell, by a street the summer’s outstanding performer, has consistently met the obligations of the leading man. And when Pietersen departed for 50 in the gloaming it was to him that England were looking again.
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