The Ashes: England ride luck and turn screw on Aussies
When things are going your way, they are going your way. A smile might have been playing round Andrew Strauss's lips at 10am yesterday when he lost the toss in the Fifth Test match.
It was the sort of toss for which captains might wish to pack a double-headed coin or mention to their counterpart that this time, old boy, it's perfectly all right, consider it your call. Michael Clarke, Australia's 43rd Test captain, had no option but to bat given the prospect of improved conditions later in the day and deteriorating ones later in the match for the team batting last.
But the skies were cloudy, the ball was bound to move about appreciably, Australia had been dismissed for 98 in similar weather in the previous Test match, Clarke was in dreadful form. And still he managed to utter the words: “We'll have a bat.” Anything else would have been a craven act, an impossible way to start a leadership career.
What followed was an entirely understandable and occasionally unequal struggle whose terms Australia met more diligently than they might have done. The trouble was that three of their batsmen got in but none stayed in, the upshot being that their side finished a rain-marred day on 134 for four. Could have been better, might have been much worse.
England could be content with their work, on balance. Not every day do Test sides roll over and have their tummies tickled for under 100. They did not make the early breakthrough their efforts merited but four wickets in the 59 overs possible, with Australia barely rising above two runs an over, was an indication of the tough conditions and some taut bowling by the tourists.
The one dismissed batsman who did not stay around for at least two hours was Clarke. This has been a wretched series for him and anybody supposing the captaincy might be the catalyst he required for a revival of fortune was wrong. He was off the mark quickly and if his lack of fluency was forgivable in the circumstances, the shot which caused his downfall, a cut in the air to gully, betrayed his desperation.
In the days since their magnificent innings victory at Melbourne which secured the Ashes at 2-1 ahead with one to play, England had insisted that they were not done yet, that a series victory was what they had come for. When a wicket stubbornly refused to fall in the morning, they might just have begun to wonder if it was meant to be.
There was some playing and missing — there had to be for a bat double in width would not have been sufficient to counter some of the seam movement — but Shane Watson and Philip Hughes usually exhibited necessary caution. It was proper Test match cricket.
On the stroke of lunch, Hughes played at a ball he might have left alone, and was caught at third slip by Paul Collingwood above his head. It left Usman Khawaja, the debutant who was replacing the injured captain, Ricky Ponting, 40 minutes to think of what was to come. As he revealed later he spent most of it sleeping.
Khawaja's innings will come to be seen as a cameo but he did enough to show there should be more to come from him. He cut well, clipped off his legs well and deliberately eschewed the drive because it was not a driving day.
He lost Watson after the pair had put on exactly 50 and seemed as though they might be taking Australia to reasonable prosperity. But the pitch steadfastly refused to ease as it is supposed to do because the clouds remained, the sun never shone.
Watson had taken 89 balls to strike his first boundary, a reflection of his patience and his ability to leave. But then he had a fatal lapse against a wily ball from Tim Bresnan, wide but not too wide, leavable but inviting and he snicked it to the grateful hands of Strauss at first slip.
Clarke's stay was not happy and did not end well when he was tempted to flay a shot at Bresnan which Jimmy Anderson, himself wicketless despite 20 parsimonious overs, held at point.
His innings had spanned nearly two hours including the first break for rain, but occupied a total of 27 minutes and 21 balls, scoring just four.
As rain threatened again, Khawaja was out to Graeme Swann, undone by the flight, and top edging his leg side shot to square leg for Jonathan Trott to take the catch running back. It was to be the last ball of the day.