Kevin Garside on the Ashes: England must weather this storm then look to clouds on the horizon
Australia will be feeling an awful lot better about the return Down Under
Save for a hot sun at a ski resort turning the white carpet into spring mush there is little more dispiriting than rain slanting across the outfield, though England might yet be glad of it. Rain is this sport's final frontier. Cricket has conquered the dark but, until technology affords the construction of a roof spanning 200 metres or a waterproof wicket, not the wet. Mercifully the summer has been more Spanish than English yet for three and a half hours, The Kia Oval was Christmas sans Santa.
This was more a blow to Australia ambition, since time lost diminishes the scope for bowling England out twice. Jimmy Anderson was notionally on safe ground asking for judgment on the relative capabilities of the two attacks to be delayed until England had batted. Materially his argument was less convincing observing the way Australia's batsmen gorged on Chris Woakes's cooking in mid-afternoon.
It was an entirely different matter, of course, when Anderson and Stuart Broad were racing in. The umpires wandered into the middle around 1.30pm to take initial samples and declared a full review at 1.55pm. This was deeply heartening after a morning watching the groundsmen fight an unequal battle with nature. The announcement of a 2.30pm start was grounds for a bacchanal dance across south London.
The strains of "Jerusalem" were still echoing when Anderson charged in from the Vauxhall End. How can Blake's romantic rant against the ravages of the industrial age not add a yard of pace to a bowler's arrow? Anderson's opening spell of four overs was too good for Peter Siddle, whose off stump he disturbed after the customary nip off the seam.
Anderson has been comparatively quiet since the 10-wicket tyranny of Trent Bridge. At Durham he looked a bowler in need of a rest. The stress fracture that claimed Tim Bresnan also did for that idea, if ever it were a runner in the imagination of the England management. Here he was never less than full tilt, and in the sultry damp, threatening with it. He would end up with four wickets, his last a splendid caught-and-bowled for which he was required to sprint 30 metres to end the entertaining thrash of Ryan Harris.
Anderson has been comparatively quiet since taking ten wickets at Trent Bridge (EPA)
The obvious failure of England's selection thrust Jonathan Trott into the piece. Thus an already bloated five-man attack acquired a sixth component. England's lesser South African is often the captain's idea of the bowling joker, not in the humorous sense à la Seventies sporting panto It's A Knockout but the random variety; trundle in off a short run, wobble it about a bit and hope the batsmen drops off. Steve Smith showed what he thought of the ploy by hoisting Trott for a six to reach his first Test century and Australia's fourth of the series.
Fear not, there was always Brad Haddin. The Australia keeper was fast asleep when he flashed at a wide dobber only to drag it on to his stumps, just as England captain Alastair Cook knew he would when he packed his side with the extra bowler. In contributing thus, Trott both rescued and ridiculed his captain. That, to borrow from the Freddie Mercury song book, is a kind of magic.
There was no mystery about Australia's approach post-tea. James Faulkner's 23 off 21 balls, followed by the rapid 27-ball 33 of Harris, effectively primed England for the 20 overs, or should that be T20 overs, or so they would be asked to face before the close. The forecast for today is the return of summer, for tomorrow the advance of autumn, placing a premium on quick runs and getting England in.
Trott's catch to dismiss Faulkner in the deep matched Kevin Pietersen's the night before, exceeded it even, in terms of the athleticism needed to reach a ball belting towards the square-leg boundary. Woakes, who was a deal more effective from the Pavilion End, now had a Test wicket to celebrate. Still no Simon Kerrigan. The young Lancastrian bowled himself out of the attack on the first day.
With quick runs on the menu for Australia, the skipper had no stomach for rehabilitating the slow left-armer. He did, however, call for Graeme Swann, who answered with a wicket with his second ball. Mitchell Starc's attempt to take the cover off it succeeded only in allowing the ball uninterrupted passage on to his stumps.
One way or another England were feeding Australia towards a declaration. The lack of urgency, or more accurately, the purposefully slow play was a declaration of sorts that England cannot win this game. The goal now is to deny Australia the boost to morale that victory would bring. There are also points to prove at the top of the England order. Take Ian Bell out of it and the lack of consistency has been a worry.
They might start with an opening stand worthy of the description. England have yet to establish any rhythm at one and two since the retirement of Andrew Strauss. The selectors were right to promote Joe Root at Nick Compton's expense but must be concerned at his failure to build on his century at Headingley. Cook's lack of form has compounded the problem. A flat Oval track burnished by sun today offers both a marvellous opportunity to add some ballast before the team heads to Australia in October.
Bell and Root aside only Pietersen has lit a fire at the crease, and in a match England were losing soundly in Manchester. This series has been tighter than the 3-0 scoreline suggests. You might argue looking at the scoreboard that Australia will be feeling an awful lot better about the return Down Under than they were when this series started. They are the team that has showed the greater progress.
England have found a way to win, an admirable quality, but in doing so have not acquired the sense of invincibility that was part of the conversation in June when some were talking whitewash. Indeed come Sunday, the clean sheet might have gone, too.
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