Ponting gambles as openers put England on the back foot

England 373 Australia 112-0
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The Independent Online

With the fate of the Ashes on the line, and every decision being analysed to the nth degree, only time will tell whether Australia's decision to leave the field for bad light was brave, foolish or, indeed, ultimately correct. The runs Langer and Hayden could have added to their overnight score of 112 for 0 would have been beneficial but this had to be weighed up against the the possibility of losing a couple of wickets as well as the advantage they had gained.

Opinions on the wisdom of the decision vary. Why a team would opt to take time out of a game they have to win surprised most in a capacity crowd of 23,300 - Australia's faith in meteorologists, who have forecast reasonable weather for the final three days of this thrilling series - is obviously far stronger than those of us who have spent our lives mistrusting their predictions.

After an 80-minute delay rain began to fall, and this meant Australia's call to go off for bad light cost them approximately 20 of the 37 overs that remained at tea. Twenty-four of these overs can be regained during the rest of the Test as 30 minutes of play will be added to the end of each day.

Ricky Ponting would have sat on the dressing-room balcony pondering the circumstances, but had Australia lost two or three wickets in far from perfect conditions the "little urn" would now be within touching distance of the England captain, Michael Vaughan.

Australia will want to bat once in the game and they will feel that, on an excellent pitch, they can make up the time lost with aggressive strokeplay this afternoon. In 98 overs they will expect to score at least 350 runs, which would give them a lead of 100. They will hope to extend the lead on Sunday morning and leave themselves four and half sessions to bowl England out for a second time.

England's objective is to prevent this scenario evolving and they will need to take wickets this morning to avoid the prospect increasing.

The first thing England need to do is break the Langer and Hayden partnership. This contrasting pair of left-handers have had a disappointing tour of England, but they are the second most productive pair of opening batsmen in the history of Test cricket. Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes scored 6,482 runs for the West Indies when they batted together, while Langer and Hayden have compiled six partnerships of more than 200 and scored almost 5,000 runs in each other's company.

Langer is a nuggety little so and so who continues to make the most of his ability. The innings he plays are rarely pretty but he has a game plan that works and an unquenchable thirst for runs. Langer has probably been hit on the head on more occasions than any other batsman in Test cricket but this has not prevented him from scoring 21 Test hundreds.

And, after reaching 75, he is well on his way to achieving No 22. He gave one difficult chance to Marcus Trescothick when he was on 53, but England's first slip only succeeded in palming a Paul Collingwood delivery to the boundary.

Langer, like most small men, is a very good cutter and this shot, along with the extra cover drive, brought him the majority of his eight boundaries. He also hit two huge sixes off Ashley Giles in the first over the spinner sent down. After dispatching Giles into the Alec Bedser Stand for the second time the 33-year-old ran a quick two off the final ball of the over to bring up his third half-century of the series.

Australia have been attempting to get after Giles throughout the series, but prior to this over they have failed. Giles' style, aiming for the foot-holes caused by the bowlers, is not as sexy or imaginative as Shane Warne's, but it has allowed him to compete in a game where orthodox spinners struggle.

And Vaughan, being the considerate captain he is, quickly moved his mate to the Vauxhall End, where the security of a longer straight boundary allowed Giles to regain his composure.

Hayden has spent his entire career bullying opposing bowlers. He is a brute of a man who gives the ball an almighty whack. Hayden is particularly strong on the front foot, but the ability of England's bowlers to keep him on the back foot has left him desperately short of runs.

The 33-year-old knows that he is playing for his Test future here, and he batted accordingly. It is hard to believe Hayden has ever had to work harder for 32 runs in his career, and the only authoritative shot he played was in the over before tea when he pulled Andrew Flintoff for four.

England added 54 useful runs to their overnight score before Giles was adjudged lbw by umpire Billy Bowden. Warne's leg-break would have missed off stump but, after his heroics on Thursday, it would be unfair to begrudge him a teeny bit of good fortune.

Giles rued his luck but he should have been given out on 24 when he edged a catch through to the keeper. Umpire Rudi Koertzen sig-nalled that he did not hear the sound of leather touching willow, yet he could not have helped but hear Glenn McGrath's chuntering as he stomped off to fine leg.

Brett Lee gave Australia the perfect start when he bowled Geraint Jones with the ninth ball of the morning. With only Matthew Hoggard and Stephen Harmison remaining, Australia would now have expected to dismiss England for less than 350. But Hoggard gave Giles 46 minutes of stoic support, and 20 runs were added before the fast bowler chipped a McGrath slower ball to Damien Martyn at mid-off.

Harmison chose to take a more aggressive approach and it came off. McGrath was pulled for four and Lee had three consecutive boundaries hit off one of his overs. But the fun ended in the following over when Warne claimed his 33rd wicket of the series.

It took his tally in Ashes Test matches to 166 and leaves him needing only two further wickets in England's second innings to overtake Dennis Lillee, the current record holder with 167.

Scoreboard from the Oval

England won toss

ENGLAND - First innings

(Overnight 319 for 7; Strauss 129)

ÝG O Jones b Lee 25

59 min, 41 balls, 5 fours

A F Giles lbw b Warne 32

119 min, 70 balls, 1 four

M J Hoggard c Martyn b McGrath 2

47 min, 36 balls

S J Harmison not out 20

26 min, 20 balls, 4 fours

Extras (b4, lb6, w1, nb7) 18

Total (470 min, 105.3 overs) 373

Fall (cont): 8-325 (Jones), 9-345 (Hoggard), 10-373 (Giles).

Bowling: McGrath 27-5-72-2 (w1) (7-1-21-0, 4-1-8-0, 4-0-15-0, 3-2-4-1, 9-1-24-1), Lee 23-3-94-1 (nb3) (4-1-21-0, 6-0-23-0, 6-2-20-0, 6-0-17-1, 1-0-13-0), Tait 15-1-61-1 (nb4) (2-0-15-0, 2-0-7-0, 1-0-11-0, 4-0-14-0, 6-1-14-1), Warne 37.3-5-122-6 (18-3-55-4, 16-1-63-1, 3.3-1-4-1), Katich 3-0-14-0 (one spell).

Progress: Second day: 350: 448 min, 100.5 overs. Innings closed 11.52am.

AUSTRALIA - First innings

J L Langer not out 75

148 min, 105 balls, 8 fours, 2 sixes

M L Hayden not out 32

148 min, 96 balls, 4 fours

Extras (b 0, lb 2, w 0, nb 3, pens 0) 5

Total (0 wkt, 148 mins, 33 overs) 112

To bat: *R T Ponting, D R Martyn, M J Clarke, S M Katich, ÝA C Gilchrist, S K Warne, B Lee, S W Tait, G D McGrath.

Bowling: Harmison 8-1-21-0 (nb1) (5-1-14-0 3-0-7-0), Hoggard 7-1-21-0 (nb1) (one spell), Flintoff 7-2-20-0 (nb1) (4-1-11-0 3-1-9-0), Giles 7-0-31-0 (1-0-14-0 6-0-17-0), Collingwood 4-0-17-0 (one spell).

Progress: Second day: Lunch: 19-0 (Langer 16, Hayden 2) 7 overs. 50: 80 min, 18 overs. 100: 134 min, 29.5 overs. Tea: 112-0 (Langer 75, Hayden 32) 33 overs.

At 3.30 the players took the field after tea, then Australia accepted the umpires' offer of bad light. Play abandoned at 5.48pm.

Langer 50: 85 mins, 63 balls, 6 fours, 2 sixes.

Umpires: B F Bowden (NZ) and R E Koertzen (SA).

TV replay umpire: J W Lloyds.

Match referee: R S Madugalle.

First Test: Lord's: Australia 190 & 384, England 155 & 180. Australia won by 239 runs.

Second Test: Edgbaston: England 407 & 182, Australia 308 & 279. England won by two runs.

Third Test: Old Trafford: England 444 & 280-6 dec, Australia 302 & 371-9. Match drawn.

Fourth Test: Nottingham: England 477 & 129-7, Australia 218 & 387. England won by three wickets.

England lead five-Test series 2-1.