Australians show a little aura can go a long way
Saturday 08 August 2009
At least two certainties will survive the outcome of this amazing Test match. Both of them concern England's Andrew Strauss.
One of them is to do with his thinking as a captain. The other is about his reflections as a man who might just have been guilty of a touch of hubris after that brilliant victory over Australia at Lord's last month.
Strauss said, with, let's be fair, quite a bit of compelling evidence, that the nation's fiercest cricket opponents had lost their aura. The implication was that without such as Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, Australia could no longer walk on to a cricket field and create a degree of intimidation before a ball was bowled. There was another, more compelling implication. It was that the Ashes were coming home for a second straight visit.
For much of yesterday this seemed not so much the hard-headed calculation of a captain who in many ways has done a brilliant job of re-creating the sense of a real England team but the meanderings of an outright fantasist.
The Ashes were, once again, vulnerable to the merest gust of wind – one that never came on a still, hot Yorkshire day, but something else came with chilling force. It was the reminder to Strauss that if Ricky Ponting's Australians have indeed lost their aura, they are not exactly empty-handed at this pivotal stage of the series.
Certainly they have been less negligent with that quality which created all that aura in the first place – a willingness and an ability to fight on when many teams would accept the march of history and quietly lie down.
Only one team lay down yesterday and it wasn't the men wearing baggy green caps. Arguably the most despised bowling attack in modern Australian cricket history were joined by veteran Stuart Clark and the result was devastation to the English belief a winning 2-0 lead might be less than five days away. Strauss sat on the pavilion terrace grimacing at the sight of each new disaster as England crumbled to a pitiful 102 – their third lowest first innings score in all appearances here.
Strauss was dismayed by a tumultuous 24 hours which had heaped one blow on top of another. First the talismanic match-winner Andrew Flintoff was made to face the realities of his overtaxed body and then wicket-keeper Matt Prior, one of the team's most naturally combative figures, was briefly threatened by an injury sustained in the pre-game warm-ups. Strauss' carefully constructed team confidence was tumbling around him.
And while all this was lapping around the England captain, something extraordinary was happening to his opponents. They were in a mood of aggression that has marked the very best of their work over the years. They were edgy, they were ready to fight and by lunch-time England were just about at their feet.
At 72 for 6 Strauss' England had been reminded that, in the most pressurised of circumstances, a little aura can go an extremely long way. Especially, this is, when it is fleshed out in one of the most persistent fighting instincts in the history of the game.
Strauss went to a piece of slip catching of absolute brilliance by Marcus North – and then one of the greatest ordeals of his career began to unfold. He sat on the terrace and recoiled with each new blow.
A particularly savage one came when Ravi Bopara, a No 3 batsman of much heralded brilliance, gave up his wicket with a shot so denuded of will and confidence that questions against a future that had seemed so assured earlier the summer are certain to be posed with renewed force. Also withering was the tame shot of Paul Collingwood, the man who so doggedly represented English resistance in the first Test at Cardiff.
Collingwood went for naught as England tumbled to a position that could scarcely have been further away from their ambition to strike at an Australian team alleged to be equipped with scarcely any of their old force or confidence.
Such an assessment must have seemed absurd – and not least to Strauss – as his counterpart Ponting led the assault on England's flimsy total. Ponting played as a man possessed, picking his shots with brilliant precision, including a massive six as England's seam attack, augmented dramatically at first by Steve Harmison were all plundered quite without preference or prejudice.
When Ponting left, Australia's momentum inevitably stalled somewhat and there had also been the encouragement of the wickets of Simon Katich, Shane Watson and Mike Hussey. Still, England were desperate to get some foothold in the match that a few hours earlier had offered so much and when Michael Clarke, the most streamlined of Australian batting talent in recent Tests, arrived at the crease it was the signal for a massive effort at retrenchment.
Harmison, who was supposed to bring an immediate replacement of the furies that had gone with Flintoff, was in charge of this particular assault. One of his deliveries cracked against Clarke's helmet – another flew off his arm and led to a mass appeal when Prior got under the skied ball.
But if Clarke was living hazardously under the weight of Harmison's attack, he was still the live and menacing evidence of a point that Strauss had perhaps mislaid a little prematurely.
His response to the worst of Harmison's pressure was one quite sumptuous four through the covers. At the other end North, a century maker in Cardiff and another new Australian plainly capable of fighting to the end of any kind of issue, was presenting the most relentless of defence. It was the kind of cricket we just hadn't seen from England when the chances of a swift Ashes kill had first begun to drift away.
At one point, Strauss looked up to the sky, then held his head in his hands. The battle had changed course in a way he could not have imagined and it was plainly a day he would never forget. And, perhaps, never stop learning from.
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