Nothing in cricket, nothing at all, stirs the emotions like a fast bowler in his pomp. It was true when Frederick Spofforth, the Demon himself, was terrorising English batsmen at the start of international cricket more than 130 years ago and it was true again yesterday at Lord's.
Shaun Tait, from the Adelaide Hills, delivered the quickest recorded spell in the history of the game. It derailed England's innings in the fifth and final match of the NatWest Series and tingled the spines of everyone who watched. One ball was clocked at 100mph, most of the rest were above 95mph.
It went a considerable way (at considerable speed) towards ensuring Australia won by 42 runs despite a valiant England fightback led by their senior player, Paul Collingwood. The series thus finished at 3-2 after the tourists had been 3-0 down. On the balance of play it was just about the most appropriate outcome. Australia were out of the series until Tait entered it for the third match.
For four ferocious initial overs in the sunshine from the Pavilion End, his slinging action, which makes the ball seem as if it is coming from a catapult, was brutally incisive. He took the wickets of England's captain, Andrew Strauss, and their stand-in No 3, Michael Yardy, bowling both of them with frightening pace – officially 95.4 and 96.7mph.
Strauss was trying to play a regulation forward prop but the ball burst through his defences and sent the off stump on a 15-yard cartwheel. Yardy, oddly promoted because of an injury to Kevin Pietersen who was later out for a duck, made the mistake of shouldering arms two balls later to one which moved, rapped him on the pads and went on to the stumps.
If that fatally undermined England's pursuit of 278, Tait was to return later when it seemed Collingwood might be about to conjure an improbable win. Collingwood alone had stood up to Tait and taken him on, pulling him for one six and top-edging him over long-on for another. Drawing on all his bloody-minded experience, England's leading one-day run-scorer dragged his team back into the match. With Tim Bresnan he was stewarding them towards their target. But Tait, thrilling still, was brought back.
Bresnan, until then as poised as a debutante with a book on her head, pushed into the covers and set off for a single. England needed the runs; maybe he was happy to allow Collingwood to see off Tait. If so, it failed to work as Ponting made a direct hit.
With his sixth one-day hundred in view and, who knows, perhaps an England victory after that, Collingwood essayed a drive at another Tait thunderbolt. It was a mere 93.7mph but it took the inside edge of the bat and ricocheted into leg stump.
That really was that. Graeme Swann pirouetted awhile as the match concluded, striking 26 off two overs, making typically merry. But Tait fittingly ended the affair by having him caught in the covers. He had taken 4 for 48.
Tait was called up as an unlikely replacement for off-spinner Nathan Hauritz, who went home to Australia with a foot injury. He happened to be in England playing Twenty20 for Glamorgan and the Australians recognised, belatedly, he might provide the cutting edge they had been missing.
Watching his compelling bursts yesterday, it was obvious that he could have a part to play in the Ashes this winter. But Tait has withdrawn from Test cricket, citing a rickety body. The game at the top level has also played havoc with his mind before now, but what his bowling can do to batsmen's minds was evident from the faces on the England balcony yesterday.
They would, and should, have been disappointed that it came to that. They continue to insist they are a work in progress and precisely reflected their own assessment. Australia were rather let off the hook. Constrained for most of their innings, the tourists were rampant in the closing overs. From 107 for 4 at the end of the 30th, they added another 170. Most of the damage was caused when the second ball was compulsorily introduced after 34 overs.
If England muddled their bowling strategy and failed to bowl with sufficient skill or intelligence, Australia judged it perfectly. In veteran Mike Hussey and relative newcomer Shaun Marsh they found a pair who refused to panic and recognised that the closing overs can yield untold bounties.
The ball was one factor, the batting power play was another. Hussey and Marsh took it at the end of the 39th, giving them five overs to take advantage of the reimposed fielding restrictions. It was what making hay in the sun is about: Hussey made 79 from 60 balls having not struck a four until his 38th ball; Marsh made 59 off 50. It was the best batting of the day after England had bowled beautifully early on.
Neither Swann (eight overs for 32) nor Yardy (five for 19) were permitted their full allocation. Strauss's one-day captaincy is also a work in progress.
Australia won toss
Runs 6s 4s Bls
S R Watson c Anderson b Broad 14 0 3 26
T D Paine b Swann 54 0 4 90
*R T Ponting c Kieswetter b Broad 15 0 3 27
C L White c Yardy b Swann 20 0 2 31
S E Marsh c Morgan b Swann 59 3 4 50
M E K Hussey c Anderson b Broad 79 2 5 60
S P D Smith c Anderson b Broad 15 0 1 13
J R Hopes not out 12 1 1 3
R J Harris not out 0 0 0 0
Extras (lb 3, w 6) 9
Total (7 wkts, 50 overs) 277
Fall: 1-27, 2-55, 3-104, 4-106, 5-213, 6-263, 7-265.
Did not bat: D E Bollinger, S W Tait.
Bowling: J M Anderson 10-0-75-0, T T Bresnan 10-1-48-0, S C J Broad 10-0-64-4, L J Wright 6-0-32-0, M H Yardy 5-0-19-0, G P Swann 8-0-32-3, P D Collingwood 1-0-4-0.
Runs 6s 4s Bls
*A J Strauss b Tait 6 0 1 11
C Kieswetter c Hussey b Harris 11 0 1 23
M H Yardy b Tait 0 0 0 2
P D Collingwood b Tait 95 2 7 121
E J G Morgan c Marsh b Hopes 9 0 1 18
K P Pietersen b Smith 0 0 0 4
L J Wright c Marsh b Smith 21 0 1 37
T T Bresnan run out (Ponting) 34 0 5 30
G P Swann c Harris b Tait 33 0 5 21
S C J Broad c and b Bollinger 3 0 0 8
J M Anderson not out 5 0 1 4
Extras (b 4, lb 6, w 8) 18
Total (46.3 overs) 235
Fall: 1-14, 2-19, 3-44, 4-72, 5-73, 6-129, 7-194, 8-194, 9-229.
Bowling: S W Tait 8.3-0-48-4, D E Bollinger 8-0-26-1, R J Harris 8-1-38-1, J R Hopes 10-1-42-1, S P D Smith 10-0-49-2, M E K Hussey 2-0-22-0.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and N J Llong (Eng).
T V Umpire: R A Kettleborough.
Match referee: J Srinath (Ind).
Australia win by 42 runs
England win series 3-2
Man of the Match: S W Tait (Aus).
Man of the Series: E J G Morgan (Eng).Reuse content