Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

The Ashes: England captain gears up for a final flourish

England captain Andrew Strauss salutes the crowd after reaching his half century during the fifth Ashes Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground

Shortly before the Ashes started, when the funny phony war was at its height, it was suggested that the England captain might crumble.

The cunning plan was that Andrew Strauss would wither beneath a barrage of fast, short-pitched bowling and that his team would soon follow. Ha.

When Strauss was putting each member of Australia's attack to the sword on the second day of the fifth Test, it was possible to doubt the wisdom of that little flurry of verbal artillery. He was out for 60, still in full flow (and what a ball it took to despatch him) but he can rarely have batted with more authority and assertion for England.

Clearly determined to put his stamp on proceedings after Australia's first innings reached rather more than he would have liked, Strauss plundered some indifferent bowling. It was a personal statement that England were not settling for mere retention of the Ashes if he had anything to do with it.

Strauss cut and pulled with his usual dexterity but his driving — when virtually no batsman had driven in the match before — marked out the innings.

If he was dismissed in his pomp by a ball from Ben Hilfenhaus which held its own from round the wicket and then jagged past Strauss's bat at the last second, it was hardly the work of a man who was intended, in the menacing words of Mitchell Johnson, to crumble.

The first wicket pair of Strauss and Alastair Cook put on 98, their fourth opening stand above 50 in the seven partnerships they have shared in the series so far. Their average in this Ashes is 78 and when the history of this rubber continues to be written that is a statistic to be taken into consideration.

Cook, as he has done from the first day in Brisbane, looked impassable. This is a winter he will never forget and there seems scope now for plenty more where this has come from. It seems odd (he will certainly greet it wryly) that some of those who were doubting his capacity to continue in the side are now paying homage to his powers of grit and concentration.

The captain and the vice-captain of England did what they did in front of the American television actor, David Hasselhoff, star of Knight Rider and Baywatch, who walked round the outfield with Shane Warne. In front of the Bradman Stand while play continued, Warnie bowled to the Hoff. It was a case either of Test cricket losing its soul or finding it.

Unlike his captain, Cook saw out the second day with his fifth score above 50 in an Ashes in which he has now scored more than 600 runs.

On the way he overtook Michael Vaughan's total of 633 runs in 2002-03, the fifth highest aggregate by an England batsman in Australia, and when he had scored 59 became the second youngest player after Sachin Tendulkar to score 5,000 runs in Tests. But it was a near thing.

When Cook was on 46 he had a stroke of fortune when he essayed an ill-advised slog sweep against the debutant left-arm spinner Michael Beer which steepled high to mid-on where it was caught by Hilfenhaus. Beer celebrated his first Test wicket, Cook trudged off, but suddenly his partner, Kevin Pietersen ran after him.

The umpire Billy Bowden wanted to check for a no-ball and replays duly showed that Beer had overstepped the line. Cook was brought back. If the correct decision was reached — a good thing — it seemed ridiculous that an umpire of Bowden's experience had not noticed the no-ball when it was initially committed — a bad thing.

By his oversight, Bowden merely brought the day close when Test matches are run by slow motion replays and nobody watches. In the previous Test in Melbourne, Matt Prior had been similarly spared when Aleem Dar decided to check a no-ball bowled by Mitchell Johnson.

Cook survived intact to the close. Having already lost the transiently rampant Strauss he was also to shed Jonathan Trott soon after when the almost equally prolific No 3 played too far away from his body and was bowled off an inside edge of his bat by Mitchell Johnson.

It was Trott's first duck in 30 Test innings. Pietersen announced himself with a boundary and then crunched an extra cover drive for four off Beer's first ball in Test cricket. Welcome to the big time. As it happened, Beer responded pretty well and did not allow either batsman to dominate on a surface starting to offer a little reason for hope in spin bowlers' households.

He was to have the last word when Pietersen, with characteristic chutzpah took on Johnson's bouncer and Beer held the catch at deep square leg.

It was another untimely stroke to place in the manual of Pietersen's book of nonsensical shots, a volume that threatens to have no end.

Australia kept their vim in the field and the day was notable for Michael Clarke staking his claim to be his own man as captain. He had stipulated that when it got to decisions for the game he would be taking them, not the injured Ricky Ponting and the fact that Ponting was having surgery on his broken little finger instead of hanging round the changing rooms probably helped.

Clarke promoted Brad Haddin to number six in the batting order and asked Mitchell Johnson to open the bowling — Haddin had done the job before but he is a natural Test number seven and his promotion merely confirmed the paucity of Australia's selection.

Johnson has largely been an undercard rather than new ball bowler since his embarrassment at Lord's in 2009.

Perhaps it was good that Clarke announced in this way his intentions to be his own man (“when I said that Ricky was my mentor I meant to say he knew bugger all,” you could hear him explaining afterwards”) but neither ploy worked.

Haddin was out to the worst short of the day and Johnson was innocuous in his brief opening burst. Clarke probably felt he had to try something and at least Australia made a fist of it after losing early wickets.

Johnson made a bludgeoning fifty and a ninth wicket stand of 76 with Hilfenahus was much needed by the home side.

Jimmy Anderson finished with four wickets to bring his total for the series to 21.

Everything had come a long way since the phony war.

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