A record-breaking partnership and a second-innings total of 517 for one were excellent ways to lift English spirits at the Gabba today. So were Alastair Cook’s unbeaten 235 and Jonathan Trott’s second century in as many Tests against Australia.
Yet the rows of empty seats in this bullring of Australian sport should encourage England as much as their achievement in overcoming a 221-run first innings deficit to leave Brisbane with the Ashes series still level.
Yes, it was the fifth day, the game’s likeliest outcome was a draw, and this was the start of the working week. Yet even though England had nine wickets in hand when they resumed today, they were only 88 runs ahead of Australia.
Had the remaining batsmen been knocked over for about 100 runs, Australia would have had close to two sessions to reach a target of 200 and go 1-0 up in the Ashes. Improbable, yes. Impossible? Certainly not — but clearly the Queensland public thought so, with the official crowd figure recorded as 7,088.
As the Barmy Army sung themselves hoarse, former Australian leg-spinner Kerry O’Keeffe said on ABC radio: “England must feel good playing at home.”
A sweet note on which to move to Adelaide, where the Second Test begins on Friday. Such apathy from a home crowd might unsettle devotees of Test cricket but if the trend continues during this series, it will suit England just fine. The Australian fans showed unusual pessimism about their team’s Ashes chances before this series and it is important that England do not lift the Aussies’ gloomy mood.
One useful way to keep those spirits low is to put on 329 runs for the second wicket. The unbroken stand by Trott and Cook was the highest by England in Australia, surpassing the 323 by Jack Hobbs and Wilfred Rhodes in a timeless Test at Melbourne in February 1912.
When Andrew Strauss declared 40 minutes before tea, England were
517 for one. That’s 517 for one — the first time that England have ever scored so many runs for the loss of only one wicket.
When Cook returned to the pavilion, he had batted for more than 15 hours in this match — longer than any England player has managed in a single Test in Australia — and could reflect that he was only the fourth Englishman to make a double century in this country, after RE Foster, Wally Hammond and Paul Collingwood.
Peter Siddle was superb in taking a hat-trick on day one but on this evidence, the remainder of the Aussie bowling attack would struggle to knock the skin off a rice pudding, never mind frighten a Test batsman. It is no surprise that pacemen Doug Bollinger and Ryan Harris complete the 13-man squad for Adelaide and Strauss must have been tempted to ask his team to bat all day and grind them into the dirt.
Instead, he tried to bowl them out in 26 overs and secure a remarkable win. Even though Strauss caught Simon Katich at first slip off Stuart Broad for just four, this surface was too true to permit victory.
It might have been interesting had Collingwood not grassed one at slip after Shane Watson had edged Graeme Swann, but England bowled far too short at Ricky Ponting, the Aussie skipper motoring to a 40-ball half-century before the players took the opportunity to call it a draw with 15 overs still to be bowled.
The quality of a team’s fielding says much about their state of mind and body, and for years, Australia excelled in this area of the game.
Today, though, the home team continued to make the mistakes that had cost them yesterday.
Strauss, Cook and Trott had all been dropped as England began to construct their incredible total and both Cook and Trott were reprieved again today. Michael Clarke, who had also spilled the chance to dismiss Trott on Sunday, failed to hold a simple edge at slip off Watson when Trott had made 75.
To the delight of a raucous Barmy Army, Cook and Trott reached their personal milestones shortly before lunch. The Essex batsman turned Xavier Doherty into the leg side for the single that brought up his first Test double century, a landmark that made his difficulties against Pakistan last summer seem a lifetime ago. And in the final over before lunch, Trott made it two hundreds in two Tests against Australia after his decisive effort on debut at The Brit Insurance Oval last year. England’s No3 eased Doherty into the leg side, turned to complete the third and carried on running towards the Barmy Army, leaping, waving his bat and yelling his delight.
Trott followed that by rocking his bat in his arms, a reference to his first child, daughter Lily, who was born last month. On a Gabba pitch that was excellent for batting and against bowling that lacked any menace, Cook and Trott were able to make calm progress. They passed the 300-run mark for their partnership after lunch but before Strauss finally declared with his team 517 for one, Australia were made to suffer more pain.
Ponting claimed he held a low catch at short midwicket off the left-arm spin of Doherty when Cook had 209. The opener stood his ground and umpire Aleem Dar referred the catch to TV umpire Tony Hill, who could not make a conclusive decision and Cook was allowed to continue.
Ponting made clear his frustration to Dar and to make matters worse, the Aussie skipper then could not hang on to a tough one-handed chance when Cook edged Watson into the slip cordon on 222. There is too much cricket left in this five-match series to suggest that Ponting might find it similarly difficult to grasp the Ashes again.
Yet Ponting’s exchange with Dar betrayed a man who is worried about his team.
With five weeks of this fascinating contest remaining, perhaps the man known as ‘Punter’ is beginning to think he has been dealt a poor hand.
Tom Collomosse is the cricket Correspondent for the Evening Standard.