Bowlers set the pace in brutal mind game

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The Independent Online

Often a long build-up is followed by disappointment. Suffice it to say that the first day at Lord's yesterday surpassed all expectations.

By lunch the crowd was in a ferment. Probably no bowler hats were thrown into the skies as wickets fell but they might as well have been. Then came a collapse and a rally mounted by two of England's more exotic players.

It was a tale of two fast bowlers of contrasting styles, who took wickets by thumping the ball into a quixotic pitch from a height that did not permit a second chance. It was a tale, too, of disarray in the minds of batsmen unable to settle back into the rhythms of Test match cricket.

England began well. From the first ball the bowlers ran in hard and went for wickets. Memories of inhibited past performances were banished. This was a different England, an aggressive team ready for a fight. Australia were not given time to settle.

Not that they made much attempt to contain themselves. Instead they went for their strokes, hooking, driving on the rise and running between wickets in the manner of men pursued by Ann Widdecombe. On previous occasions the Australians' attempt to seize the initiative has usually been rewarded. Now they were dismissed in 40 overs.

That England had the bowlers to exploit a firm pitch was reward for the foresight shown by selectors, who promoted tall pacemen blessed with an extra yard of pace.

Among them, Steve Harmison was outstanding. Whirling away from the Pavilion End, and bowling without any hint of the hesitancy seen in South Africa, Harmison troubled every batsman. His pace disconcerted the Australians. Justin Langer took a blow the arm, Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden were late on their hooks and were struck on their heads.

Perhaps it was just as well that Matthew Hoggard could not find his line. His swingers contrast with the pitch-pounding approach of his team-mates and his late movement makes it risky to drive on the rise. When Hoggard did land the ball correctly Hayden was bowled and a stiff-legged visiting captain was dropped at fifth slip.

Andrew Flintoff took the third wicket with a lifter. No jerk was detected in his bowling till his very last ball, and his wickets were the product of hostile bowling. Simon Jones was swift enough to hurry batsmen and to ensure that the pressure was maintained.

Between innings England's bowlers must have been pleased with themselves. Then came McGrath. Even by his own elevated standards, the veteran's performance was spellbinding.

Bowling with hypnotic precision, he dismantled his opponents, took them apart with the sort of controlled authority shown by Tiger Woods at St Andrews. Not a ball, not a hair, not a thought was allowed to stray from the correct path. Everything was part of the infernal plan.

McGrath is an extraordinary operator. None of his deliveries was fast, none bounced steeply, none swung or turned or curled or deceived the batsman. Most of them landed in the predicted place. But his deliveries cannot be understood in isolation. They are part of a succession that creates doubt and provokes error. None of his colleagues was remotely as threatening.

In hindsight, the English might have been bolder, while Australia stood accused of precisely the opposite offence. Perhaps that was the problem. Neither side found the right tempo. But, then, cricket has always been a game played in the mind.