Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London

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The Independent Online

This was almost Test cricket as it used to be, were it not for the absence of tension that has stripped the Ashes finale of significance. England, understandably, could not quite replicate the intensity of Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, and Australia were always going to struggle to deliver the same ineptitude with the bat they had shown in the Midlands.

For much of the first day at least this was a contest going through the motions, a match played in the spirit of a third-place play-off at the football World Cup. The series decided, it could never quite escape those circumstances. It just didn’t matter enough.

Early on, Australia sought refuge in an inversion of recent norms: batsmen occupying the crease, leaving balls outside the off stump, that kind of stuff. For an hour they rocked along at 1.5 runs an over. It was like watching Test cricket in the Seventies, with punters yawning through the afternoon session after  taking on too much liquid  during lunch.

Ancient traditions continued with a chivalrous guard of honour for Australia’s outgoing captain, Michael Clarke, who vindicated his decision to retire with an ill-judged defensive stab at a ball from Ben Stokes as if he were still batting on a juiced-up seamer. What a player Clarke has been, his cataclysmic fall this summer serving only to remind us how great he once was.

Alastair Cook was in a sense caught in the same mindwarp that lured the Aussie skipper, believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue here. As Australia demonstrated at Lord’s, when the wicket behaves England are not as good as recent results suggest and Australia not as bad.

To win the toss and insert at The Oval was the decision of a captain high on the madness of summer, who read too much into Australian decline and in the alchemy wrought by a moving ball. It all came back to the centre here. There was some movement in the first hour, but in the absence of a bat coming to meet it, there was no edge to find.

Chris Rogers, another playing his last Test for Australia, and David Warner chased nothing. Where blades flashed through Middle England, they remained cautiously sheathed here. It might yet erupt into party mode as the match evolves, but on day one the burn was slow.

There was a murmur of agitation beforehand with a silent protest organised by the Change Cricket movement seeking to highlight the inequalities in the organisation of the global game. The gathering outside the Hobbs Gate was small but the message powerful, pointing at the carve-up of revenues in the interests of India, England and Australia, who between them own 52 per cent of the game’s wealth.

Among the protestors, who stood silent for three minutes, was the Member of Parliament for Folkestone and Hythe, Damian Collins, who is seeking to have ECB president Giles Clarke brought before the Culture, Media and Sport select committee to account for the ECB’s role in the running of world cricket via the auspices of the International Cricket Council.

Clarke features heavily in a documentary entitled Death Of A Gentleman, which argues that the ICC’s gluttonous governance of the game is ruinous for its prospects. “Cricket has been taken over by England, Australia and India at the expense of the other 102 countries that play the game,” said Collins.

“These three titans of the game have engineered a backroom power grab where cricket is the loser and England, Australia and India are the perennial winners. Not only are they doing the wrong thing by their sport, but it is a conflict of interest. It is clear they do not have an interest in developing and growing the game globally, but only in their own backyards.”

It was a noble effort by Collins, who has also spoken vehemently against the corrupt practices of football’s world governing body, Fifa. While the film’s makers, Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber, held a banner and Barmy Army trumpeter Billy Cooper played the Last Post, Collins missed a trick in not inviting Jeremy Corbyn to offer cross-party support. The Labour leadership contender knows a thing or two about tapping into the zeitgeist and firing up a community eager for change.

Talking of which, England’s next engagement takes them to the graveyard of the United Arab Emirates, where Pakistan exercise freakish dominance on tracks that offer no help to England’s match-winners under English skies. With that in mind England might yet regret the exclusion of Yorkshire leggy Adil Rashid for a dead rubber match that could not have been better suited to the blooding of a Test debutant.

If England are to keep pace with the hyperbole generated by Ashes glory they will need a wicket-taking spinner to do so, as well as an opening batsmen to contribute something other than doubt at the top of the order. At some point Adam Lyth will be called to the middle in what has become an audition for winter inclusion.

The final session was marked by a brief interruption for rain and a ray of sunshine emanating from a commentary box renamed after the late, great Richie Benaud, whose final stint behind the mic in this country came a decade ago at this very ground at the end of the 2005 Ashes series.

Benaud, the former Australian skipper who died in April aged 84, went out calling one of the greatest innings played by a cricketer representing England in Ashes combat, Kevin Pietersen smashing 158 on the final day to draw the match and secure the return of the urn after an absence of 16 years.

England have won every home series since while managing to throw in a couple of 5-0 defeats Down Under. Half this Australia side will not be seen again two years hence when England seek to retain the Ashes in the southern hemisphere, quite possibly boasting the world No 1 ranking, should a dependable opening partner for Cook turn up and Rashid train on.