Australian angle: Oval track catches Ponting off guard but attack adapts to win day

Peter Roebuck, former Somerset captain, nowcolumnist of the Sydney Morning Herald, writes from the Oval
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The Independent Online

England have cooked the books. As it turned out the talk about preparing a typical Oval pitch was all smoke and mirrors. England, or Durham and the Dominions as they might be renamed, provided a track as dry as a camel's tongue and as eager to spin as Gandhi. Somewhere along the way, too, a normally white surface has acquired a sun tan. Although pitches are notoriously hard to read – Len Hutton once compared them to wives but that sort of thing is nowadays frowned upon – this one is expected to break up shortly.

Far from playing hard and true, the strip was grudging and dusty from the opening hour. Confounded, the Australians took a while to adjust their sights. At first they blasted away like intemperate miners – the home captain collected six leg-side boundaries before lunch. After the long break, Ricky Ponting set the sort of fields often seen in Delhi and his bowlers kept it fuller and straighter. Thereafter the batsmen had to work harder for their runs. Still, helped by a fast outfield and sundries, an unsung batting order reached 300. That makes it harder to grizzle about the pitch.

England's strategy was ruthless, and might have been taken further by including a second tweaker. Only the unwillingness to admit it stuck in the craw. Nothing was more calculated to confuse the touring think tank than the appearance of a dusty deck. After all the Australians had just won a match in two and a bit days with a four-pronged pace attack. And it was the same with the previous two triumphs in Africa. Unsurprisingly they were reluctant to change anything. Traditionally the Oval favours tall fast bowlers and genuine spinners. Remaining loyal to their successful quartet, the Australians omitted Brett Lee and Nathan Hauritz.

It was a rotten toss for Ponting to lose. Now the Australians will live on their nerves for five days. Putting runs on the board was their first priority because they set the tone and force desperate opponents to take risks. Had Australia been able to bat they could have worked themselves into an unassailable position and thereafter slept easily as England chased the game. Now they may find themselves fending off sharply turning off-breaks whilst Andrew Flintoff thunders in at the other end.

To make matters worse the Australian bowlers began badly. To compound the error, they overstepped 16 times, slowing an already lamentable over-rate. Amongst the flingers, Peter Siddle rallied after one bad spell and deserved his scalps, Ben Hilfenhaus improved as the day went along but Stuart Clark lost control as he mixed up his deliveries. Mitchell Johnson took ages to get going. His short deliveries were a handful but fuller offerings were not as well behaved. His inconsistency has been a feature of the series.

All things considered the visitors did well to take six wickets before the total had reached 250. Several of the batsmen left the middle cursing themselves. Every time England seemed on top they lost a wicket. It's been that sort of series. Jonathan Trott's straight bat and calm manner caught they eye.

Not so long ago the entire England selection committee, the president of MCC and various broadcasters had made money in South African in the apartheid years. Now local cricket is benefiting from families migrating from that country, and cricketers seeking sterling.

Australia's position is precarious. Hereafter they may need to choose horses for courses. Previously they were able to play the same blokes in all conditions. Great bowlers travel well. The current crop have varied skills. A ruthless approach may be required, with bowlers coming and going regardless. Hitherto Ponting has balked at this policy. Captains know continuity fosters spirit. Only in Leeds and Cardiff, though, did the visiting captain have the right attack at his disposal. Here he was burdened with four pacers and a part-time spinner unused to tight fields.

Opening knocks: England's Oval record

First-innings scores at The Oval:

1999 England 153, New Zealand 236

2000 England 281, West Indies 125

2001 England 432, Australia 641

2002 England 515, India 508

2003 England 604 South Africa 484

2004 England 470, West Indies 152

2005 England 373, Australia 376

2006 England 173, Pakistan 504

2007 England 345, India 664

2008 England 316 South Africa 194

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