Australian opening gambit upstages Lord's masters

Australia 126-1 v England
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The Independent Online

For six hours, the conquerors of Lord's waited for the opportunity to demonstrate their renewed mastery. Yet the moment, when it at last came yesterday, found England strangely, dangerously bereft.

Where they had been urgent and insistent in taking a precious 1-0 lead in the Ashes they were suddenly uncomfortable and lacklustre. They played as if they had been woken from a deep slumber minutes before play was due to start and were simply not ready for action.

Australia looked like a team in search of an aura once more and would not rest until they found it. The tourists' daring makeshift opening partnership rattled merrily along without feeling any of the heat to which it must have expected to be subjected. By the time England had taken their first wicket, their only success of a day which lost 60 of its 90 overs to rain, the first wicket had progressed jauntily to 85.

By the close, the tourists were 126 for 1 and Shane Watson, who had been astonishingly preferred to Phillip Hughes, had made an untroubled and enterprising 62. The innings had already contained 22 fours with the promise of plenty more to come.

Australia were disturbed neither by his unexpected elevation – indeed they prospered because of it – nor by the dramatic loss of their wicketkeeper Brad Haddin. In the warm-up after the teams had been handed over, Haddin broke a finger and Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting, had to ask his England counterpart, Andrew Strauss, for permission to replace him. This was agreed, rubber-stamped by the match referee, Jeff Crowe, and the reserve wicketkeeper, Graham Manou, was suddenly making his Test debut.

England, with a lead in their pocket, might have made some capital of these matters. Not a bit of it. The new ball bowling, far from making Watson and Simon Katich feel as though they were in the cauldron, was unacceptably capricious.

The batsmen did not have to play often enough and when their bats came into use it was usually to propel another half volley to the boundary. If Jimmy Anderson was particularly disappointing, Andrew Flintoff, the hero of St John's Wood, was hardly more inspirational. Similarly, Stuart Broad and Graham Onions both conceded boundaries in their opening overs.

There was a mitigating factor in the that damp run-ups – and they had every right to be damp considering the torrential rain that had fallen all the previous day and night – persuaded the bowlers to approach their work gingerly. As a result none of the seam bowling quartet hit the crease with the robustness that might normally be expected. But the resulting innocuousness was difficult to condone.

There were 16 fours in the opening partnership. Katich clipped off his pads and cut adroitly, Watson straight drove and pulled almost casually, both fuelled by errant bowling. Watson was brought on this tour as an all-rounder who might, or might not, bat in the middle order.

There was no question of his opening the batting at the start of the trip and in the three matches he tried it for Queensland in late 2007 he failed in all three innings. In four of his six innings he made ducks and the experiment was quietly dropped.

Repeating it in this match was a measure of the lack of trust that Hughes's technique had engendered among the Australian selectors. Dropping a player in mid-series abroad is not something Australia do. The last time it happened was in 2001 when Michael Slater was omitted for the last Test, allowing in Justin Langer and the start of one of the all-time great opening partnerships. Maybe Watson and Katich will become the new Langer and Matthew Hayden.

On this occasion, they had given no hint of their intentions and the news leaked out in Australia and was then, in the modern way, Twittered. Ponting might not have been particularly pleased with the leak, probably intent on keeping it secret until he handed over the team sheet at the toss. But there were no secrets any longer. Not that it mattered. If England had time to hatch a plan for bowling to Watson it was either misguided or flopped spectacularly.

Relief came only in the form of Graeme Swann who had to be introduced into the attack in the 19th over – there really was no option – and immediately hit pay dirt. His second ball to Watson yielded a shout for lbw as the batsman swept. It might easily have been given.

Swann could not be denied a second time by Aleem Dar as he came round the wicket to Katich and produced an arm ball which struck Katich in front. No crowd in England is more animated than that at Edgbaston and this brief triumph provoked them into full voice. Swann was almost immediately taken out of the attack and England were impotent again. Ponting played as if a man on a mission and Watson was seeing the ball writ large in front of him.

The crowd had been patient for most of the day but their irritation grew with each pitch inspection. They knew that had they been watching at Lord's the match would have begun much earlier. But the Edgbaston drainage is not in the same class and it was a tribute to efforts of the groundsman that there was play at all.

Part of the ECB's mission is to improve drainage at all grounds and this is something that must be proceeded with apace considering the fancy charges that now apply to Test match tickets. This was the day on which they announced some of the arrangements for future Test matches between next year and 2016. There will be no more Tests in May because the ECB has suddenly discovered that the public has no appetite for them. But it will mean that seven games, more often than not, will be crammed into the middle of the season.

Australia will be back at Edgbaston today, weather permitting. They said they would respond to defeat, they look as though they mean it.

Bitter tweet: Truth about Hughes's blog

On Wednesday it was David Cameron who made a twot of himself over Twitter; yesterday Phillip Hughes was the twit. At 8am yesterday up popped a message on the young Australian opener's (or now former opener's) Twitter feed: "Disappointed not to be on the field with the lads today. Will be supporting the guys, it's a BIG test match 4 us. Thanks 4 all the support!"

Since no team announcement had been made, Cricket Australia was not best pleased at their game plan being revealed to England some eight hours before the eventual toss. But Hughes, who had spent Wednesday night ironing, it you can believe anything on his Twitter, claimed ignorance and a few hours later his manager and coach Neil D'Costa held his hand up.

D'Costa, who is in India, claimed the error was caused because he miscalculated time differences: "I look after the Twitter for Phillip and we were certainly under the impression [the timing was OK] because of the time change. I'm in India and I was dealing with all the stuff through Australia. Unfortunately, I am probably the fool in this situation."

Match details

Weather report Dry and sunny, cloudier after lunch but rain holding off until after close of play. Maximum temperature 20C.

Cheeky flutter Ian Bell to top score in England's first innings; 5-1 (William Hill).

TV times 10.00-19.00, Sky Sports 1, HD1. Highlights 19.15-20.00, Five.

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