Total disaster averted by Broad and Swann

Eighth-wicket partnership of 108 helps England to avoid worst ever home Ashes defeat
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The Independent Online

Most came expecting to bury England within an hour or so. And who could blame them after those hopeless batting efforts on Friday and Saturday? Instead, spectators rose to applaud first Stuart Broad and then Graeme Swann.

The expression "too little, too late" – generally used when a football team scores two goals in injury time after being 4-0 down – springs to mind, and not even the most patriotic home supporter here yesterday would have been fooled into thinking Australia were starting to panic.

It is not unreasonable, however, for England followers to cling to the hope that the addition of 181 runs in 30 overs may have done a touch more than simply enable Andrew Strauss's team to avoid an Ashes defeat of record-breaking proportions.

Losing by an innings and 80 runs still borders on the horrendous, even if it cannot quite compete with the innings and 181 run hammering that Allan Border's Baggy Greens handed out at Trent Bridge 20 years ago. But at least Broad and Swann restored the merest flicker of smile to home faces while dishing out a bit of pain to Australia's bowlers.

The first thing their boundary-laden stand of 108 did was to make sure that lunch was served yesterday when it looked as though Headingley's caterers would not need to worry about much more than elevenses once Jimmy Anderson and Matt Prior had joined the procession to 120 for 7.

The second bonus was that it probably spared Strauss the embarrassment of becoming the first England captain to be roundly booed on home soil since Nasser Hussain received the bird, on behalf of his team, at The Oval following a series loss to New Zealand 10 years ago.

That result dropped England to the foot of the fledgling Test table. This one simply left them with a mountain to climb if they want to regain the Ashes. And, right now, it really does look like a challenge along the lines of trying to scale Everest in flip-flops. Strauss did not try to play down the extent of England's predicament when he spoke during the after-match presentation ceremony, but at least his words were not drowned out by jeering from the stands.

There have already been plenty of twists and turns on the field throughout this series. So many, in fact, that it is not unreasonable to think there could be a few more sharp changes of direction before the imitation urn is held aloft at The Oval a fortnight from now. And the bottom line is that England desperately needed to take something positive – anything positive – from a two-and-half-day nightmare in Leeds.

A Ravi Bopara century would have been ideal, of course. And something substantial from either Ian Bell or Paul Collingwood might have enabled the selectors to sleep a little easier between now and when they name their final Test squad of the summer on Sunday. Instead, England must cling to the crumbs of comfort supplied by Broad and Swann.

The spinner was one of the England players mentioned in Justin Langer's dossier that has supposedly helped Australia's Ashes newcomers to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their hosts. "I'm not sure he likes short-pitched bowling," was Langer's verdict. "He goes hard with the bat but will give lots of chances as he hits the ball in the air a lot." Australia tested out the bouncer theory in Cardiff, with a fair bit of success. And yesterday Swann hit the ball into the sky on a good number of occasions, too – usually, most of the way to the boundary and, on one occasion, clean over it.

Broad's striking was even cleaner than that of his partner and, between them, they took just 79 deliveries to put together England's best stand of the match. True, the pair did not have much to beat – 58 between the openers Strauss and Alastair Cook on Saturday evening had been top of an exceedingly dire list to that point – but at least they forced Australia's bowlers to scratch their heads and captain Ricky Ponting to wave his arms.

Until then, Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle, Stuart Clark and Mitchell Johnson had figures to leave the likes of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Terry Alderman and Glenn McGrath feeling envious.

Not much to get optimistic about, is it? But if England had been bowled out for 130 yesterday, as had seemed perfectly possible, then the cloud currently hanging over Strauss's head would have been jet black in colour instead of steel grey.

Gloom but not yet doom, you could say.