Lifeless Test carries health warning for game

The Australian angle: If the pitches in Adelaide and Perth are docile and the matches peter out the game will suffer.
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The Independent Online

Despite its records and changes of mood the Gabba Test ended in a dull draw yesterday. Certainly it had its ups and downs but distant observers will conclude that the pitch was flat, the bowling weak, the ball soft and the last few days hardly worth the bother. Sessions passed without a wicket falling. A total of two men were dismissed on the last two days.

After the match, captains and commentators alike talked about a fantastic contest. And it did contain some memorable moments, individual triumphs that told of a human journey reaching its destination. Certainly the batting was impressive and a hat-trick was taken, yet to call the match exciting was to stretch a point. Ricky Ponting described it as "tremendous" while Andrew Strauss spoke about a "great match." Gentlemen, with respect, that is a delusion.

Players and media live inside a bubble. Those steeped in a game can ignore its weaknesses. Love is blind. No one watching bowlers easily repulsed on a fifth day deck could feel complacent. No one surveying the empty stands on the final days could be confident the game was on the right path. The Barmy Army enlivened proceedings with cheerful chants. Otherwise the ground might as well have been empty.

Cricket cannot afford many triumphs of this sort. Tests on the subcontinent often produce lop-sided scorecards so that they become a collection of figures leading nowhere. If the habit spreads then the game is digging its own grave. Results are important. The contest between bat and ball needs to be hard fought. Sport relies on the unwritten script, the power of the unpredictable. Tension is its lifeblood.

For all the excitement felt in both camps the fact remains that a draw was inevitable at The Gabba from a long way out. Between them the weather and the freshness of the track brought a flurry of wickets early in the match. Thereafter it went to sleep. The bat dominated the second part of an uneven contest. The scores were huge. England might have reached 1,000. Bear in mind that Don Bradman and Wally Hammond were not playing.

Recent Ashes series have produced lots of results. Some have been one-sided. Series played in England, though, have been close and attracted intense interest around the world. Stalemates were few and far between. It's difficult to recall any staged in the last quarter of a century. Even the draws were compelling.

However cricket need only look a little further back to find examples of sterility. In 1964 Australia took the series 1-0 and the other matches were dreary. Much the same happened in 1968 as Bill Lawry's side set out to avoid defeat. Meanwhile Carnaby Street and The Beatles were cheering people up. Recognising the problem, the game turned towards one-day contests and found not so much a saviour as a reviver.

Australia and England ought not to kid themselves about this current confrontation. If the pitches in Adelaide and Perth are docile and the matches peter out the game will suffer. A narrow audience might find the exchanges fascinating but the wider community will look elsewhere. The rivalry might interest connoisseurs and fanatics but others seek entertainment.

Australia needs to stage not only a tight Ashes series but also an eventful one. England has overseen two glorious editions, the epic of 2005 and the taut contest held four years later. On both occasions spectators were constantly on tenterhooks. Australia was slightly the better side but England enjoyed home advantage.

Now the tables are turned. England may be a little stronger. Accordingly the battle between the sides could be close and that is important. Alas slow pitches and soft balls can spoil the story. Does cricket really want to go to the Boxing Day fourth Test, with the score at 0-0?

Part of the problem lies with the quality of the bowlers and that is beyond cricket's immediate control. However the concern about matches lasting five days is foolish. Better five tense days than five laboured ones. Perhaps it is a bit early to start worrying about a dead series. But the warning signs cannot be missed. The Gabba Test was not great. In the end it was a dud.

Humble pie, Mitch?

* Mitchell Johnson talked a good game ahead of the first Test, saying he was going to target England captain Andrew Strauss ("You have to get your bouncer high. Just be an aggressive bowler to him"). And that bowling was as simple as just "wanging it down". But his performance could hardly have been worse. And now Australia's main strike bowler may be replaced by Ryan Harris, a 31-year-old journeyman for the second Test. Here are his stats:

First innings bowling figures: 0 for 66

Second innings bowling figures:

0 for 107

Runs scored: 0 from 19 balls

Catches dropped: 1 (Strauss)

who went on to make a hundred

Record breakers

517-1 was England's highest total for the loss of one wicket, easily ahead of the 264 for 1 they made against South Africa in the drawn match of 1929

329 The partnership between Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott was the highest for any wicket by England in Australia and the highest by any team at The Gabba.

329 The partnership was the ninth-highest for England and fifth-highest for the second wicket for any team.

235* Cook's innings of was the highest individual score by any player at The Gabba, beating Don Bradman's 226 in the first Test match at the ground in 1931.

235* Cook's innings was the third-highest individual score by an England player in Australia behind Tip Foster's 287 in 1903 and Wally Hammond's 250* in 1928.

10:25 Cook's was the longest occupation of the crease by an Englishman in Australia and the highest by an England batsman since Graham Gooch's 333 at Lord's in 1990.