It is a mere eight years since Freddie Flintoff bent down to commiserate with Brett Lee at the end of one of the greatest Test matches of all time but there were moments when it seemed a whole lot longer than that.
England’s time-wasting tactics were gut-wrenching. So were their histrionics when the cricket nation’s enemy No 1 David Warner legitimately survived a DRS challenge by England.
Of course, it is easy to be romantic, if not naive, when we get round to any discussion of the Spirit of Cricket, and when umpires Tony Hill and Marais Erasmus decided the light would only suffice if Alastair Cook volunteered to bowl Joe Root in tandem with Graeme Swann no one could have reasonably expected him to breathe any further life into Australia’s chances of keeping the fight for the Ashes alive.
These were already threatened by the recidivist Manchester climate, which promises to return to type again today, and it certainly wasn’t in England’s interests to turn away the gift offered by the match officials. However, there is strategy, there are tactics and, as former Australian captain Ricky Ponting pointed out at Cardiff the last time England went on such a go-slow, extremely “ordinary behaviour”.
On that occasion England avoided a first-Test defeat which might have changed the momentum of a series which ended in Australia’s loss of the Ashes in the final Test at The Oval. England survived in the most dramatic circumstances but not before incensing Ponting with some of their delaying tactics.
The Australian captain yelled at England’s 12th man when he brought fresh gloves to tail-ender Jimmy Anderson for a second time in two overs. The English physiotherapist was also angrily ushered from the field. Ponting said later: “I just didn’t think any of it was required. He had changed his gloves the over before and a glove isn’t going to get too sweaty in one over. I just don’t know what the physio was doing out there. I didn’t see anyone call for him to come out and as far as I’m concerned it was pretty ordinary.”
That is an Aussie euphemism for atrocious and it would probably also have been applied to Stuart Broad’s boot-grappling antics at Trent Bridge a few weeks ago when England were attempting to run down the clock before a final pre-lunch over.
Yesterday Ponting’s angry successor, Michael Clarke, could hardly complain about Cook’s refusal to reject the chance of stopping dead Australia’s hopes of building on their lead of 331 and giving themselves the platform for a serious attempt at bowling out England on the last day. However, on this occasion context was everything.
Clarke’s frustration had to be set against the fact that, despite the high work rate of Swann, England’s over rate was desperately at odds with any serious ambition to win a Test match when such a possibility was still feasible for a team which had been outplayed so thoroughly for most of the match.
Persistent rain followed the stoppage for light and, with the certainty of an overnight declaration from Australia, the odds now heavily favour English survival on a day when more rain breaks are expected. However, if the Australian resurrection is unlikely, there is no shortage of encouraging portents for the journey to Durham for the fourth Test later this week.
At Lord’s the great Australian Test tradition seemed on the point of interment. At Old Trafford it has showed more than a few vital signs.
Not least encouraging was the feisty performance of the man for whom the crowd – and quite a number of England players – reserved massive doses of the most serious scorn. It reached a climax when Warner’s pull shot was coolly grasped by Joe Root, the boy with the choirboy looks who took the punch from Warner in the late-night Birmingham bar. For the hooting crowd it was plainly the final chapter in a morality tale but Warner walked off the field with a puckish grin and a relatively jaunty stride.
This was not so difficult to understand. He was fined, suspended and sent off to A squad exile in South Africa but, having paid his fine and served his time, he came back to England to revive his Test career. It was an expedient of some nerve and success.
His 41 yesterday seems likely to have pushed Shane Watson down the order and given some notice of the kind of performances which Australia will require if they are to build on their Old Trafford performance – and then make some serious resistance when the action moves Down Under later this year.
Clarke’s team came to Old Trafford as candidates for nothing more than condescension, if not pity. They will leave this evening, whatever the outcome of likely scattered action, with a lot more reason for belief in themselves.
Clarke has, with all due respect to centurion Kevin Pietersen and the consistent Ian Bell, reannounced himself as arguably the classiest batsman in either dressing room, Chris Rogers may finally have nailed down his right to Test cricket, and in Ryan Harris (above) Australia could also claim a seam bowler of wit and bite to equal anyone in the much vaunted England squad.
This is a roll call of efficiency which might have sounded odd before Jimmy Anderson sent down the first ball last Thursday morning. There is, it is true, still lots of hard opinion that Australia are destined for some considerable time in the wilderness.
However, this was a view that inevitably diminished over the last few days. Not only did the Australians fight with much spirit, they also produced some quite outstanding cricket, certainly enough of it to provoke in England something much less than the style and the demeanour of natural-born champions.
As we were saying, Cook was utterly entitled to leave the field in light which could only risibly be described as dangerous, however much it outraged all those who had paid as much as £120 for their ticket. What could not be justified, though, was the uncomfortable suspicion that his team hadn’t shown too much heart for the fight.