England only went and did it. In the days before the second Test there had been plenty of gossip that playing two spin bowlers was a valid option on a virgin strip of turf.
But gossip and modern convention are hardly bosom buddies. It was not quite a Star Trek decision – to boldly go where no man had been before – but still it was 22 years since England had picked two spinners in a Test in Australia, which made it highly unusual.
So it was that Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar played in a Test together for the 11th time. None of the previous 10 ended in an English defeat, six of them were victories, which offered immediate optimism.
The selection was vindicated not by spectacular achievements on the first day at an enraptured, brand spanking new but incomplete Adelaide Oval but by the sense of what might happen in the days to come. It was indubitably right.
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By default it also ensured that Ben Stokes, the Durham all-rounder, won his first cap as he was needed as the third seamer. Stokes is the fifth Test debutant since last winter which shows that England are casting around at present trying to find the appropriate players for three or four places.
Yesterday, England and Australia circled each other warily. There were occasional big shots but also abundant circumspection in between. Understanding what was at stake – the Ashes themselves with the third Test at Perth, Australia’s favourite ground, to come – England’s bowlers duly applied themselves rigorously.
They bowled straight and true for most of the day on a slow surface which offered some turn. The spin twins were each hit for sixes but they did not give the batsmen an easy ride.
Swann might have been spurred on by the return of Panesar, anxious to bowl better than he had in Brisbane and not to be outshone by his colleague and rival. For Panesar, it was a return that looked improbable when he was fined after urinating on a nightclub bouncer in Brighton last summer.
It prompted an immediate change of counties from Sussex to Essex and when England needed a second spinner at The Oval for the final Test of the summer they chose not Panesar but a horribly unready Simon Kerrigan. It was probably Kerrigan’s hapless performance in that match which sped Panesar’s redemption.
England played some good cricket yesterday but also too much indifferent stuff. Swann took an exceptional catch at square leg to dismiss George Bailey, one of three Australians to make fifty, but in a way it merely exacerbated the three that got away. On this pitch, in the tourists’ position in the series, such lapses could prove costly by Monday.
Two were straightforward, one and four out of 10 on the should-have-been-caught scale, the third was eight but in its way the most crucial.
Panesar, bowling with control and authority, had helped to put England in a splendid position in the afternoon. Three quick wickets had fallen and if Australia were not rocking they were no longer stable. Bailey, on 10, drove a catch at shin height back to Panesar. He failed to hold on.
Six overs later Michael Clarke, Australia’s captain, clipped Swann firmly off his legs in the air to mid-wicket. A diving Joe Root groped for the ball only to see it slip through his hands. That it saved four might not have been much compensation.
The third came in the day’s penultimate over when Brad Haddin cut Panesar straight to Michael Carberry at point. The ball bounced out of his hands and to his right but he failed to grab it at the second attempt.
Thus England’s daring choice was less successful than it might have been. Times have changed in the intervening decades since Eddie Hemmings and Phil Tufnell had been the last pair of spinners to play for England in Australia.
Almost all of England’s recent success had been based on a four-man attack of three seamers, a spinner and abundant skill among the lot of them. The selectors clearly determined that something had to be done after the heavy defeat at Brisbane, that the taking of 20 wickets to get back into the series needed some blue skies thinking.
When the skies over Adelaide yesterday morning resembled a Manchester grey there might have been a swift reappraisal. But they stuck to their decision. There were three early rain delays, a brisk and cold breeze swept across the field and it was possible to imagine it was a May Test at Old Trafford.
The early overs saw some characteristically belligerent batting from David Warner, which he rather spoiled by cutting Stuart Broad to point. Chris Rogers and Shane Watson assembled a careful partnership but if England were beginning to wonder where the next wicket might come from they never ran out of verve.
This was a day when Alastair Cook tried some sassy fields – two short mid-wickets for Watson and invariably with men close to the bat. It was not any of this that directly brought the breakthrough when the pair had put on 121. Watson essayed a version of his favoured straight drive but it bounced higher than he would have liked and Jimmy Anderson swooped low to take a sharp return catch.
In the next over Swann turned a ball past Rogers’ prod and found the edge. When Steve Smith played a limply constructed forward prop at Panesar and was bowled by another one which turned Australia were 174 for 4.
Clarke, the star player, and Bailey, needing an innings to prolong his Test career beyond two matches, rebuilt. They were cautious but used their feet adeptly to the slow bowlers and Bailey hit three sixes.
Stokes did not look out of place. His second ball in Test cricket was a half-volley struck for four through the covers but he responded with three maidens and did just the amount of work that England required.
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- Graeme Swann
- Monty Panesar
- Stuart Broad