Trying to break in to a successful team is one of the most difficult tasks in sport but it must also be one of the most enjoyable.
With England on the brink of winning the Ashes series 3-1 and playing more confidently and efficiently than they have for years, the man who replaces Paul Collingwood in this side will be the envy of dozens of his peers.
Collingwood announced today that the Fifth Ashes Test here at the SCG would be his last, although he will continue to play for England in the shorter forms of the game.
His successor in the Test ranks — Eoin Morgan is the current favourite — can look forward to being part of a team that have world domination in their sights.
The ECB were actually caught on the hop by the stadium announcer, who broke the news of Collingwood’s retirement before they could do so themselves. It was one of the few times on this tour that matters had slipped from the control of this ruthless England machine.
England require three wickets for victory tomorrow after another day of merciless cricket. They looked like finishing the job today, when Chris Tremlett removed Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson in successive deliveries, enabling captain Andrew Strauss to take the extra half-hour, but Steve Smith and Peter Siddle managed to survive. At the close, Australia were 213 for seven and facing their third innings defeat of the series.
Earlier, Matt Prior scored 118, his first Ashes century, to help his team establish a first-innings lead of 364. England compiled 644, their highest score in a single innings in Australia to leave the chastened Australian bowling attack thoroughly demoralised.
Regardless of the batting conditions, which have been excellent on days three and four, it is tough for a team to regain the initiative after they have taken such a pounding. So it was for Australia, who are still 151 runs short of making their opponents bat again.
Although England have been the superior side for most of the series, perhaps it would have been contested more closely had Australia not been prone to silly mistakes. In Adelaide and Melbourne, Shane Watson was guilty of running out his partners and here he brought about his own downfall.
Despite his team’s enormous deficit, Watson had begun confidently, attacking both Jimmy Anderson and Tremlett and racing to 38 from only 40 deliveries.
But then, after Phillip Hughes had turned Graeme Swann into the leg side and taken a simple single, Watson decided to embark on a second. Hughes disagreed, meaning both batsmen were left at the non-striker’s end as Prior collected Kevin Pietersen’s throw and completed an easy run out.
Hughes has looked out of his depth since he replaced the injured Simon Katich and it was no surprise when Tim Bresnan accounted for him, tempting the left-hander to push forward and drawing a thin edge that was pouched by Prior.
Stand-in skipper Michael Clarke then played with aggression and fluency, sharing a 65-run partnership with Test debutant Usman Khawaja. Khawaja is clearly talented, as his dismissive pull through midwicket off Anderson demonstrated, but this is an unforgiving level of sport. The ball after he had played that shot, Khawaja was outwitted by Anderson, edging a delivery he should have left through to Prior.
Bowling from the Paddington End, Anderson was showing superb control of the reverse-swinging ball. Having dismissed Khawaja, he also produced a delivery that was too good for Clarke. Like his team-mates, the Aussie No4 played at a ball he might have left alone and Prior did the business once again. Mike Hussey, Australia’s best batsman in the series, could not hang around either. He square cut Bresnan to Pietersen in the gully before Tremlett had Haddin top-edging to Prior. He bowled Johnson next ball but Smith and Siddle clung on.
When the day began, Australia would have been hoping to take England’s remaining three wickets quickly. Their bowling is so erratic, however, that Prior and Bresnan were able to extend the tourists’ lead without truly extending themselves.
Prior missed out on a century during the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, where he made 85, but he was not to be denied here. From the moment he resumed on 54, the England wicketkeeper’s timing was superb and he played some splendid off-side strokes.Prior reached three figures when he drove Michael Beer through the covers for four. The Sussex man’s celebration was almost as memorable as the shot, as he leapt high and then trotted halfway towards the Barmy Army, waving his bat in the air. Prior had become England’s sixth century-maker of the series, with Collingwood the only member of the top seven not to score a hundred.
When Prior and Bresnan completed their century partnership, it was another milestone for England, for
this was the first time in a Test that a team have recorded stands of 100 or more for the sixth, seventh and eighth wickets.
Prior was the next to go, caught behind by Haddin off Ben Hilfenhaus but not before another umpire Billy Bowden had caused more no-ball confusion by asking TV umpire Tony Hill to check whether Hilfenhaus had overstepped. The delivery was legal by millimetres and Prior was on his way for 118.
Swann then took 12 off a single over from Johnson and continued to punish the left-armer, whose 36th over went for 22.
When Tremlett was the final man to fall shortly after lunch, England had made their highest total in Australia — another record in a tour bursting with them.
Johnson was ridiculed by the Barmy Army as he returned to his fielding position after that horror over, abuse which, to his credit, he took in good part by imitating one of Swann’s front-foot swipes.
When he and his team-mates reflect on the series, though, they will find few reasons to smile.
Tom Collomosse is the cricket correspondent for The Evening Standard.
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