James Lawton: Psychological victory is England's as Strauss and Cook tear into Johnson
For the Australians there could be no comfort when Strauss put behind him what might have been an accumulation of disaster that scarred his career for ever
Monday 29 November 2010
When Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook were scoring centuries and Jonathan Trott, in his meticulous, somewhat sadistic way, was letting the Australians know he was absolutely intent on getting one of his own, the scoreboard could scarcely have been more emphatic.
It spoke of only one possible conclusion to the first Ashes Test this English breakfast time.
The scoreboard was, however, wrong – utterly wrong. If the first Test was heading anywhere yesterday it wasn't a draw – not, anyway in terms of what is likely to come next in Adelaide at the end of this week – but a massive victory for the psyche of Strauss's England.
This belief, it is true, might just be taken hostage by some extraordinary convulsion in the small hours of this morning, but this would have been at total variance with all chartable evidence over the previous four days.
This said, unequivocally, that when England were under most pressure they still looked, unlike the Australians in similar circumstances, players of both accomplishment and considerable competitive nerve.
In suggesting this so impressively they were, of course, challenging a quite well established tradition here in Brisbane and this was something not fed in along with the computerised numbers flashing so brightly against the names of England's batsmen yesterday.
What is supposed to happen is that the Poms arrive as nervous kittens while their hosts grow a little more ravenous for their blood with each new session. Then the action shifts to South Australia, where England report with hollowed-out cheeks and staring eyes.
Not this time, however. Not according to any scrap of cricket logic.
You might think England had pretty much the kind of day their opponents had on Saturday, when Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin inflicted statistical carnage on every English bowler, even the young taker of six wickets, Steve Finn.
But you would be as wrong as the scoreboard, because the truth, for once, is that it is not England who have been forced to take the big hits in this ground, which might have been custom-built to ambush all visiting Test teams.
On Saturday England's bowlers were so out of luck they probably would not have bothered to expect a kind gesture from the Salvation Army. It was also true that their persecutors Hussey and Haddin were in ever-improving nick as Test players fighting to preserve their careers.
Yet at no point did such as Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann and Finn ever look as though they were about to sue for peace on the most favourable terms.
It was quite the opposite. Anderson knew he would have had the notch of Hussey on his gun handle if he had not been betrayed by a quirk of the decision review system – and rather than being crushed by this knowledge it seemed to drive him towards a deepening effort. There was not a hint of any shortfall of style or commitment.
For the Australians there could be no such comfort when Strauss so magnificently put behind him what might have been an accumulation of disaster that might well have scarred his career for ever.
Few Test captains could have carried to the crease quite the foreboding of Strauss yesterday morning after his third-ball dismissal in the first innings and his horribly tense survival of an Australian referral after being trapped by the first ball he received on Saturday night.
Strauss's response not only brought him his 19th Test century, and fourth in the Ashes, but another round of respect for his ability to put aside all personal pressure and provide coherent, strong leadership. While that most formidable competitor Ricky Ponting at times seemed to be going through the motions as England pulled away from the crisis that came with a first-innings deficit of 221, Strauss showed much wit in handling his bowlers under the onslaught of Hussey and Haddin – and then insisted on a swift dismissal of the Australian tail.
It meant that England didn't suffer one serious casualty on the day Australia dominated so profoundly. By comparison, Ponting appeared to be in charge of a detachment of walking wounded when Strauss, Cook and Trott took the fight back to the Australians.
Most haunting was the sight of Mitchell Johnson, whose progress in Test wickets has come at a rate faster than that of the legendary Jeff Thomson, pitching to the lowest point of his career.
One of the most gifted, and violent lower-order batsmen in the game, who came into this Test with a century and a haul of five wickets from his last state game, he made a duck in the first innings. An accomplished fielder, he dropped Strauss just as the England captain was moving on to a new plateau of aggression. As the bowler many rated as the chief threat to England, he returned to the dressing room in yesterday's dusk with match figures of 0 for 131.
At one point Ponting gave Johnson a back-pat of encouragement but it was if he was intruding into deeply private grief. In not much better condition were Strauss's first-morning conqueror Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle, the man from the Victorian back country who later that day had delivered his stunning hat-trick.
Strauss, more than anyone, carried the aura of someone who knew precisely what was at stake. He was not playing for a draw because that would have been the least of his ambition.
What he was really playing for was confirmation of a growing conviction here that whatever happens in the next few weeks – or occurred when most of England was this morning sleeping towards another working week – is that he has indeed brought a team equipped to make at the very least a proper battle on Australian soil.
Former Australia captain Ian Chappell might have been making music for Strauss's ears when he said: "We've heard a lot about this English team but we have to admit they do look like a real deal."
Strauss, though, is plainly in a zone beyond mere flattery or false hope. He declares: "The most important thing in Test cricket is not to think about the past or the future but live in the present." Right now, he could hardly want to be in any other place.
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