Category Archives: Test Cricket

Articles, match reports and opinion about the best form of the game.

The unravelling of the ‘brand of cricket’ myth


Cricket is going through a phase where aggression is interpreted as the by-word for success. Positivity brings victory. This was the shared ethos of both English and Australian camps prior to the first Ashes Test at Cardiff. It must follow, therefore, that the team that was most aggressive won the game… Apologies in advance for the subsequent massive rant, but I don’t think they did.

The Ashes Series approached. The world was brimming with Michael Vaughan articles pleading for an ‘aggressive brand of cricket’, with numerous outlets and individuals parroting the phrase. ‘Brand’ is a commercial phrase, ‘a feature that distinguishes one seller’s product from those of others’, rather than a sporting one, but given the closer association of sports and commerce in recent years it is hardly surprising to see a fusion of the two. I resent the idea that cricket is a product – it is a sport played to win. You can utilise different styles and methods in the course of a game of cricket, but that is being confused for representing a ‘brand’ of play. Just think about how the multidimensional approaches and techniques required to succeed at cricket can possibly be condensed into one solitary ‘brand’, invariably aggressive, which covers all aspects of the game. It is borne out of an inherent laziness to engage with cricket’s nuances, and merely indicates that the man speaking the phrase wishes his side to play positively. Australia won the 2013/14 Ashes series because they played ‘an aggressive brand of cricket’ is what the likes of Vaughan will tell you. So aggressive in fact that every time England started to score some runs at a reasonable rate (not that often, granted) Clarke would bring Shane Watson into the attack to keep it tight. Aggressive indeed. The desire to explain how Australia utilised excellent fast bowling to unsettle England gave rise to the phrase that blights the game, the ‘brand of cricket’. It was as if this was a revolutionary approach to winning games, and it needed a funky buzzword to explain it.

‘What if cricket could be a brand?’
‘Genius!’

Cricket can be approached in a number of different ways, but ultimately you either play it well, or badly. The Australian approach in 2013/14 was merely to play ‘good cricket’. But that doesn’t sound cool enough in this digital age of revolution.

Jumping back to the start of the summer, the New Zealand tour was a very entertaining one, which gave further credence to the ‘aggression is best’ crowd. Brendon McCullum was hailed a genius for his commitment to this previously unimaginable ‘aggressive brand of cricket’. New Zealand attacked all the time. It was so great that many analysts and writers seemed to crown them as one of the best sides in the history of the game! They drew the Test Series, and lost the ODIs. How could this be true? It was explained away by saying that England heroically matched the tourists’ aggression, signalling the dawn of a seventeenth ‘new era’ in as many months. (I’ve attacked buzz phrases enough, so ‘new era’ will escape unscathed for now.)

England persisted with the narrative. ‘Take the attack to the Australians’ was the rallying cry. In response, Australia also vowed to attack. The most aggressive would surely triumph.

Yet the Cardiff Test was won by England because they played better cricket, not more aggressive cricket. It is certainly true that in important moments England demonstrated more positive intent than they had done in previous years, not least because Joe Root is now a world class batsman. To summarise England’s win as merely being a product of this new aggressive mentality would be woefully inadequate, given the numerous facets of the game in which England proved themselves superior on this occasion.

What I hope would finally explode the myth of the ‘aggressive brand of cricket’ being the route to success is that Australia followed those principles and failed. Root scored at a free rate, but was not overly aggressive. Australia, on the other hand, felt it necessary at every opportunity to prove their intent in the first innings. Moeen Ali isn’t good enough, so he must be carted around the park. Steve Smith played some impressive shots that brought him runs, but in pursuing his aggressive approach he conspired to be dismissed in a comical and ungainly fashion. Clarke, too, fell into the trap, caught and bowled attempting to drive, and the second innings dismissal looks even worse. Voges played an ill-judged shot late in the day. It wasn’t that England had bowled aggressively, it was that they had bowled well. And in failing to exercise sufficient restraint, Australia found themselves behind the game from an early stage.

The Australian chase was a tough ask on a slow pitch, but they had two days in which to pace themselves. What they then demonstrated was a complete inability to occupy the crease for long periods of time. This is the other myth that needs exposing – that defensive approaches have no merit in the ‘modern game’. Root took the headlines and the man of the match award, but after losing three quick wickets on the first morning, it could have been a lot worse had he been caught on 0 by Haddin. His parter at the time, Gary Ballance, played an ugly but determined innings, making a half-century that not only allowed England to build a good partnership, but saw off the dangerous new ball which had already put England in trouble. Defensive cricket is not as glamorous, not as exciting, but I’m pretty sure that most cricket fans recognise the importance of it. Ballance succeeded where many Australians failed, in that he occupied the crease for a period of time that increased his team’s chances of success.

England’s bowling was also much better than Australia’s. It was cleverer and was executed more successfully. Broad and Anderson bowled consistently fuller than they had done for a long time, probing for drives to induce edges. Broad pointed out after the game that having seen the nature of the pitch, England realised they could not afford to offer width to the batsmen, so they stuck to a plan of bowling straight. (It seems odd that they’d never realised this before, but as an assessment of the pitch, it is fair enough.) Moeen’s greatest strength is his perceived inadequacy, which is met with aggression and subsequent errors. Mark Wood bowled with great discipline that was not matched by Starc or Johnson. Admittedly the pitch was produced with an intention of reducing the threat of the Aussie pace bowlers, but both sides had to bowl on it, and England did so far more successfully.

There remains a risk that England are swept up by the narrative that they themselves have helped create. Whilst Ian Bell’s fluent return to form was heartening, the rate at which England batted at times jeopardised their advantage. Often the pitches can be such that to score quick runs is better than trying to bat time when you could easily nick off. An article in the Daily Mail has focussed on how Mark Wood’s 32* off 18 balls tells us all about England’s positive approach to the Ashes. What it really indicates is a punchy lower order bowler made a vital contribution to nudge the target up – bowlers have hit quick fire runs before. England managed to score enough so that the target was insurmountable, and I realise there are few strategies that are completely risk averse, but they must not forget that aggression in all scenarios isn’t always the best strategy. Buttler chipping to mid-on late on day one was an error. It is true that England wouldn’t score the runs as quickly as they did if they didn’t play those shots, and Moeen’s counter-attacking 77 is evidence to support that. However, it is still important to play the situation, and recognise which balls to attack and which not to. There is a balance to be struck.

The cricket world, with it’s Twenty20 franchise tournaments and a love of entertaining batting, has fallen in love with aggression. A revision to all-out attack needs to be made, however. McCullum ceded strong positions with his attacking approach as it provided opportunities for England to score at a quicker rate. Australia too found that aggression without adequate control will not yield results. England showed a pragmatism that earned them a well-deserved victory, but with quicker pitches to come they will undoubtedly be tested in their capacity to defend and resist. At the moment, they seem better equipped to achieve this than their opponents.

Positivity may well be enhancing the ability of England’s players. But they won at Cardiff because they played good cricket. The key to that is not uniformity of approach, but a pragmatism that recognises when different tactics are required, and the skill to execute them. As for Australia, some might say that they simply weren’t up to the task of playing an ‘attritional brand of cricket’…

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Five Ways To Save English Cricket


England have failed. The following steps need to be taken in order to salvage this tour.

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Key not only offers dominance with the bat, but vicious turn with the ball

Key player: Alastair Cook has proven that he is not capable of leading England, and scoring runs at the same time. It is clear that this team lack a substantial amount of inspiration. There is one man whose appointment would immediately instill belief and turn the team’s performance around. Rob Key has been reappointed as Kent captain in our hour of need, and there is much evidence to suggest that he would be able to do the same fire-fighting job for the England team. Key is a hero. His passion for the game is evident every time he takes the field, and his ability to set a ‘silly field’ would go down very well with everyone who loves Michael Clarke’s scatter-gun approach. Not only is his tactical approach good, but he plays with passion. When dismissed, he is often seen to trudge off, turning round to stare at the umpire who incorrectly gave him out. His fight will immediately inspire this England team. Furthermore, if the Bob Key Fan Club turn up, Australian confidence will sink in the face of such an inspirational English institution.

Drop our best players and replace them with inferior ones: English cricket has suffered since the David Lloyd era in the 1990’s from an absence of random selections. Such was the success of those tours that England need to consider dropping all of their best players, and picking some inexperienced and inferior replacements. The need for a blood sacrifice at this point should be more important to fans and coaches alike than standing by the best players. They might be great, but the fact is that three defeats mean that, in the words of Bob Willis, “heads must roll”. Chuck a few players who aren’t ready into the fire – that should do the trick. They can’t do any worse.

Tell the Australians that they shouldn’t be enjoying this lack of a contest: In the English summer, there were many English complaints that the series was not competitive enough, and thus the enjoyment of victory was reduced. This is an entirely logical argument. Australia clearly aren’t enjoying this drubbing of England, so a gentle reminder that the Ashes should be more competitive will result in the home side taking their foot off the gas, and enjoying the win more after resisting an England fightback.

A ground full of people disappointed at England's comfortable 3-0 victory.

A ground full of people disappointed at England’s comfortable 3-0 victory.

Listen to everything the media suggest: One critical problem of English cricket is the absolute failure to ever listen to what the media have to say. For years, the men with the laptops sat in their free seats with free WiFi have been best placed to view the numerous English disasters. These men have no agendas, but act purely as impartial observers. They hate it when England lose, as it means they have to devote articles to criticising the team. They are very rarely wrong in their assessments. Many have been suggesting that we drop our best players, which is clearly the best way forward. Getting rid of a previously successful coach is also a good idea. Instead of leaving them to moan about the quality of the free food in the press box, we should give them an active role in the running of the England set-up. That Piers Morgan seems to talk a lot of sense. What could possibly go wrong with the likes of him in charge?

Send Pietersen back to South Africa: England’s highest ever run scorer in Test cricket is evidently not good enough for Test cricket. His methods have been shown to fall short of the required level, and as a result he has only scored 8,000 runs. Failing that, we should tell him to play in a different way than he has when scoring these 8,000 runs, because it suits the team better. We’d rather see Kevin scrap for a 150-ball 30 than smash a run-a-ball century which would only serve to massage his massive ego. Priorities, boys.

Failing those five steps, there is one further option available at this stage of the tour. Sail home. The boat leaves in two days. Unfortunately there isn’t time for the final two Test matches to take place. Shame.

The Ashes are gone, but with a man like Rob Key in charge, the only way is up.

If you have read this far and not realised that this is a terrible attempt at satire and sarcasm, then congratulations.

Test Match Diary: All-night Ashes


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Lord Bell

A series of unknowns awaits, both on and off the field. Can England win their fourth Ashes series in succession? How long before Shane Warne praises Michael Clarke for putting Australia in a losing position? Can Mitchell Johnson bowl straight? Will Stuart Broad manage to survive the hostility? Will Malcolm Conn ever praise England? Many more questions to ask, but the most relevant to those of us back in England is this: How long can we last?

The Ashes Down Under present a unique set of challenges for the English spectator. With play beginning at midnight for the first two Tests, and 23:30 for the final two, it is relatively easy to start watching a day’s play. I was at school the last time we toured Australia, meaning it was always a case of pushing boundaries. I didn’t manage as long as most, until Melbourne and the glories of day one. I witnessed many of the great moments of that series, and it really was special given the years of hurt endured before then.

Back in 2010, I watched the first hour of the series before going to bed, and leaving the radio on. I awoke randomly in the middle of the night, and focussed on the cricket. Cook, Prior and Broad were dismissed in consecutive deliveries. Essentially, I’d woken up to hear our worst over of the series. It was a crushing blow. Its a demonstration of how the events on the field are enhanced by the memories of the supporter off it. My personal recollection of England’s greatest (and worst) moments come alongside a location – where they were witnessed. In 2005, I was in a French bar packed full of English holidaymakers when Geraint Jones held on to that catch to win the Edgbaston Test – the room exploded, and the French were confused. Instead of spending my first lunchtime at secondary school that same year mixing with my new friends, I snuck into the sixth-form area and watched Kevin Pietersen smashing boundary after boundary off Brett Lee. When Katich was run out at Adelaide, I fell off the sofa, having settled down for what was supposed to be a relatively uneventful session. You can’t always go to the game, but you can often remember where you were.

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Surely this won’t happen again…

Ashes series in Australia are difficult to watch, but if you manage it, the memories will stick because of the ridiculousness of the task you’ve undertaken. You’ll be sat there, clock ticking towards 4am, whilst Shane Warne is spouting another one of his diatribes about how the defensiveness of Cook is going to lose England the game, despite the 200-run lead they have on the board. It will be a struggle, and there will be times where you look at yourself, then the time, and wonder why on earth you ever thought this was a good idea. But if and when those rare moments of joy arrive, it will all have been worth it. 

Supporting a side is about loyalty, and fortunately this series I’m in a situation where I can afford to lose many hours of sleep watching the cricket. Many can’t, due to work commitments, but that won’t mean the buzz isn’t still there. For every England fan this winter, there’ll be a different story of how the Tests were followed. That’s what I love about sport – the variety of experiences everyone has when witnessing the same event.

I’ve managed just the one all-night shift watching England – the heroic draw in Auckland earlier this year. After the adrenaline and excitement had finally dissipated, it was getting light outside as I made it to bed. But that was just one night. Five in succession? Madness. I doubt I can manage that.

Anything could happen this series, but when it does, I’ll definitely remember it. Unless I’ve fallen asleep…

England thoroughly deserve Ashes triumph


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Clarke had to be forcibly restrained by the umpire’s, such was his panicked desperation to spare his blushes and avoid defeat.

England could well have won the series four nil with a sensational victory at The Oval, but the ICC’s idiotic lack of common sense in umpiring meant that the capacity crowd were denied one of the most exciting finishes in recent years. Only cricket would do that.

Michael Clarke’s declaration on the fifth day was one clearly made with the expectation that England would tamely block out the draw. However, what followed was almost one of the most incredible day five chases in a long time, thanks mainly due to Kevin Pietesen’s blitz. As England batted themselves closer and closer to victory, it was clear that Clarke had realised what a fool he had been. He was seriously panicking out there, delaying the game with fielding changes, confronting the umpires incessantly about the light, and looking like he’d seen a ghost. He was spared his blushes in the end. A lot of praise has been directed his way for making a game of it, but once again I think its a case of him being viewed as this all-conquering, attacking captain. What Clarke did was careless, and almost cost Australia a Test Match. I would not want a captain who is so willing to throw away a match from what was a dominant position. If you can’t win, don’t lose. England haven’t lost in 13 matches now, and whilst it was an exciting evening at the Oval, for Australia a 4-0 defeat in the series would have been humiliating. The old argument that “4-0 doesn’t reflect the series fairly” is rubbish. If you set yourself in a position where you risk losing the game, and lose, it is not misfortune but idiocy. This was especially the case as the pitch was still very good for batting, as all the runs over the course of the day had shown.

In a way, England in their own unique way have demoralised Australia. Whilst the press and most of the fans wanted us to destroy them by an innings, instead England wound them up superbly by batting very sensibly on day three, to make sure they couldn’t lose the game – Clarke, take note. Then, on day four, as the rain incessantly fell from the London sky, the Australians had time to stew, moan, and complain about England’s tactics. The arrogance with which James Faulkner delivered his words in the press conference suggested they carried a lot of weight, or importance. Instead, he just appeared a little bitter about his side’s inability to make any inroads in their attempt to win the match. Day five was the perfect way to obliterate all that nonsense talk of ‘negative cricket’. England sailed along in the morning session, eventually being bowled out for 377. Swann hit a glorious straight six off Lyon, as well as an exquisite crunching cover drive off Starc. Prior too looked in better touch, with his aggression being rewarded with a solid score, after a poor series.

Australia’s response was to be attacking, and mess about with the batting order. Warner, Watson, Faulkner, Haddin, Clarke, Smith, Harris, Starc. After a decent start, Anderson and Swann removed the opening pair, before Broad ran through the rest with four wickets, including Haddin for a golden duck. Particularly enjoyable was when the irritating, jingoistic Shane Warne watched Steve Smith whack Broad down the ground, shouting “shot!”, only for Mike Atherton to wait and shout “its caught!” Nice one Shane.

Clarke declared at tea on 111/6, leaving England a target of 227 in 44 overs. A modest start saw Root caught behind on 11 attempting to cut. Trott arrived and played some very nice strokes on the legside, pushing up the run rate and suggesting England might go for an unlikely victory. With the score 86 in the 20th over, Cook fell lbw for 34, bringing Kevin Pietersen to the crease. He looked completely focussed as he set about bludgeoning the Australian bowlers around the park. He was at his brutal, belligerent, dismissive best. He hauled the rate down to just 6.7 an over, before taking on one shot too many and holing out to wide long-on off the bowling of Harris. Pietersen’s 55 ball 62 included 10 fours, and had set the game up wonderfully.

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Pietersen raises his bat after a magnificent half-century

Trott soon fell lbw to Faulkner, walking in front of his stumps whilst trying to work to leg, but only succeeding in being trapped lbw. That brought Woakes together with Ian Bell, and the pair ran superbly to keep the required rate an achievable one. Ian Bell skipped down to one of the seamers and cleared mid-off to score a boundary. At this point, the crowd was gripped. At the end of one over, there was an enormous roar, that built and built to a crescendo. Cricket has this wonderful ability to produce scenarios like this, where the entire nation is on the edge of their seat in anticipation of what could’ve been a sensational victory. Starc came on, and his over proved costly. His no-ball full toss was edged down to third man for four, to the delight of the crowd. At this point Clarke was clearly panicking ridiculously, realising that he was likely to have cost Australia a match where they should never even have been in a position to lose it. It was like a self-inflicted ‘Adelaide’. He was remonstrating ceaselessly with the umpires about the light, and constantly tinkering with his field. Starc even ran through and failed to deliver the ball, to waste even more time. The last ball of the over approached, and Bell’s shot down the ground was blocked by Starc’s boot. It bobbled nicely, and his turn-and-throw was enough to run Bell out, despite a spectacular dive to regain his ground. This cost even more time, and was enough for the umpires to decide to take the players off. An idiotic decision with 21 needed from 24 balls. The final nail in the ICC’s umpiring coffin, as throughout the series the decision making of the officials has been consistently dire.  Given the regulations, the umpires had to make the decision, which illustrates how inflexible and stupid the current regulations are. A capacity crowd denied one of the most sensational finishes in years.

I take exception to a few schools of thought that have emerged in the past few days:
1) “Australia did not deserve to lose 4-0.” Rubbish. As I said above, if you are willing to put the game at risk with a tempting delcaration, and lose, it is your own fault, not that of bad luck. England have been the better side this series, with one standout batsman, but all round a more successful bowling attack. Four first innings leads were held by Australia, yet England won three (and almost four) matches, indicating that England’s bowlers were seriously impressive. Australia crumbled when the pressure was on, hence they lost matches. They were fortunate at Trent Bridge to make it close, given that Ashton Agar was clearly out stumped when in single figures, whilst at Lords they were abysmal, and they collapsed under pressure at Durham. The right side won the series, and despite that they still weren’t at their best. If England’s batsmen click into gear over the winter, there could well be another series on its way to England.
1658752) “Michael Clarke is the world’s greatest captain ever.” He isn’t. He might set lots of impressive, eye-catching fields, but a captain must be judged on results. Andy Flower’s words after the game about Cook’s leadership on and off the pitch spoke volumes. Clarke has failed to command unity in the dressing room, made clear by the numerous incidents in the run up to the series. He looks like an attacking captain, but had to resort to exactly the sort of negative tactics he castigated England for the other day in a desperate bid to avoid a humiliating, self-inflicted defeat. People are praising him for almost being vindicated in his bold declaration. If I had a captain so willing to lose Test Matches, I’d be going mad. But the likes of Shane Warne seem to have elevated Clarke to a new level of worship. Warne was so quick to criticise England whenever the game was going their way. And yet the series was lost by Clarke with a comprehensive scoreline.  He is not getting results, which surely is one of the key criteria when judging a captain.
3) “England didn’t play the right way.” This is perhaps the most infuriating line. After day three, instead of praising England for their determined batting, to save the game and avoid defeat, the press launched an attack about our inability to play attacking cricket. It did not help that we made a poor overall selection decision, and did not have Tremlett, so when you start 500 behind, not losing is a valiant aim. Yet people were very critical of England not trying to win the game. It was almost the perfect wind-up, rounded off by England going ballistic on day five and almost pulling off victory. Yes, Cook may appear defensive, but the results he is achieving with this side speak for themselves. A 3-0 win in a home Ashes series is an incredibly impressive feat, even if it was against a modest visiting team. Results speak for themselves.

On the whole, it was an odd series. England couldn’t quite piece together a victory like those by an innings down under last time round, but they had enough to win at least three matches. A lot was said about how we got out of jail at Old Trafford, but as England showed in Auckland, you cannot simply suggest the game would have been lost. Trent Bridge was a game where both sets of batsmen seemed determined to lose. Australia were the definition of ‘village’ at Lords. This Australia side is one that needs to bat first, otherwise their batting order gets very exposed by the combination of scoreboard pressure and a more worn pitch. Durham was again saved by Ian Bell, and rounded off by a fearsome Broad spell. The Oval should always have been a draw, but Clarke’s willingness to lose was very much appreciated.

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Australia’s bowling attack was their most impressive area. Ryan Harris deserved his award, with his 24 wickets coming in four Test Matches – a run of games almost as impressive as his haul of wickets, given his well documented fitness issues. Whilst they bowled well, the batting remains seriously flawed. Clarke still hasn’t settled on his best team. The murmurings that Rogers may not be included down under is quite frankly ridiculous, as his century at Durham was one of the best seen all series.

One man stands head and shoulders above the rest after this series. Ian Bell. Once vilified for his cluelessness, now worshipped for his reliability. His three centuries were all vital to England’s cause, particularly those at Trent Bridge and Chester-le-Street. His success was built upon solid defence and beautiful strokeplay. Though in 2005 I was not a fan, I grew to like Bell for the player he was, and always felt criticism of him was unfair. “Only scores runs when it doesn’t matter.” Well, this series, he has 562 runs to refute that suggestion.  A masterclass from Bell, not just technically but mentally too, as he showed great resilience at the crease. Shane Watson’s attempt to sledge him after his first hundred in 47 Test matches was incredibly amusing, particularly as Pietersen then wandered down the pitch to tell Watson that Bell has scored as many hundreds in 6 weeks as Watson has in his Test career.

Player Mat Inns NO Runs HS Ave BF SR 100 50 0 4s 6s
IR Bell 5 10 1 562 113 62.44 1157 48.57 3 2 0 75 1

An odd series, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. England fully deserve their Ashes triumph.

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Man of the Series, Ian Bell

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Triumphant England hold the urn aloft

Ashes 2013: England Edge Thriller


On Sunday afternoon, one of the most unpredictable, turbulent and utterly captivating test matches reached its thrilling climax. It wasn’t quite Edgbaston 05, but it was undoubtedly a match that drew you in from the very beginning, and stubbornly refused to let you go for four and a half days. The match was one where the momentum was constantly shifting – as soon as you thought one side was ahead, minutes later things were back in the balance. It left everyone with a vaguely sound mind in no doubt that Test Cricket is the greatest form of the game. And we’ve got nine more Ashes Tests to come.

Timeline:

The events by this stage are well known, but I can’t resist reliving them. England batted first, and from a solid position of 98/2 at lunch, they fell apart to be bowled out for 215 – losing the last 4 wickets for just 2 runs. Then, in reply, Australia capitulated spectacularly on a sunny second morning to 127/9, thanks to some superb swing bowling by Jimmy Anderson. Yet from that position, Australia finished 280 all out, thanks to a fearless 98 struck by number 11, and Test debutant Ashton Agar. The fact that he was shown to be out stumped when still in single figures really rubbed salt into the wounds of England fans, who had seen a dominant lead slip away. Even more amazing was that Phil Hughes was the not out batsman.

England’s second innings attempted to bring calm to a match which had been ceaselessly frenetic from the start, and they did so despite losing two early wickets – the Trott DRS decision first ball enough to tip some England fans over the edge, given the unavailability of a hotspot camera that would probably have indicated a mark on the inside edge. Yet whilst the scorecard appeared to signal calm, the slow, attritional nature of the evening brought with it a new tension, something a Test Match is so brilliant at creating. Again, as England slowly moved forward, things looked positive, but a the double strike after the first hour on day three to remove both Cook and Pietersen suddenly made the lead look insignificant, and the situation incredibly perilous. Ian Bell strode to the crease with an hour to bat before lunch, and after a wonderful sustained effort he was able to walk from the field of play, undefeated on 95, at the close of play, with England in a much more promising position. The home side also had Stuart Broad (and Aleem Dar) to thank, with the duo having put on over one hundred together, unbroken thanks to the audacity of Broad to look completely innocent and not walk, having got a thick edge that was caught at slip after deflecting off Haddin’s gloves. No need to delve into the debate. He didn’t walk. Most people don’t walk. Australia had wasted their reviews hopefully, so ultimately they paid the price.

England eventually were prised out for 375, meaning the Aussies needed to score 311 to win on a dry, slow and dusting pitch. It was definitely getable, but I felt the current Australian line-up lacked the patience to survive long periods without scoring boundaries, combined with a technical inability to negotiate the reverse swing of Anderson, and the turn of Swann. As it happened, they coped with the latter well enough, but the former proved too hot to handle.

An 84-run opening partnership seemed to have steered the game in Australia’s favour, with Watson and Rogers coping well with what England could throw at them. The pitch was offering little, as were the atmospheric conditions, but England plugged away. Watson fell lbw having yet again gotten a good start. Cowan survived longer than his first innings stay of one delivery, but in trying to impose himself by attacking the part-time spin of Root, he edged to slip. Rogers chipped a slightly slower one from Anderson to mid-wicket, and the celebration clearly indicated that a plan had been formulated at tea with David Saker to try and create such a dismissal. After a partnership between Smith and Clarke began to build, the breakthrough England wanted arrived. Clarke nicked Anderson behind. The ball clearly carried, but was checked by the umpires. When they confirmed the dismissal, Clarke promptly reviewed, despite having followed the ball with his head in the way that most guilty batsmen do when they’ve nicked it (the audacious Broad aside). He had indeed made contact with the ball. Cheerio! Smith then went back to a Swann delivery that hit him right in front of off-stump. Another gone. Hughes came in and looked technically alarming against the spinning ball, and sure enough he was trapped lbw, with the ball narrowly being shown to have pitched in line after England reviewed. It was a superb delivery, but the way Hughes plays spin, it was made to look even better than that. Haddin and Agar – promoted to 8 – saw it through to the close.

4 wickets to take on day five for England, or 134 runs to win for Australia. As was seemingly inevitable given the momentum swings in the match, it went down to the wire. Agar and Haddin brought the target below one hundred, before Anderson’s magic was unleashed. From around the wicket, an away swinger at the left-handed Agar forced a forward prod, which was edged and well caught by Cook at slip. Starc survived 4 balls before he succumbed in similar fashion – Anderson slanting the ball across the left-hander from over the wicket, again pouched by Cook. Siddle was then dropped by Cook, waist high to his left, before he clung on to a spectacular diving effort to his right minutes later. Anderson had taken 3/6 in 24 balls and seemingly had won the match for England. But as had always been the case with this match, there was still another twist to come.

Pattinson joined Haddin, who was picking the deliveries to attack skilfully, and chipping away at the target. The run rate picked up with the last wicket pair at the crease, no doubt aided by Steven Finn being plundered for 15 off his first over, and his second conceding 9 (four of which were byes). Pattinson launched Swann for a six, and then Haddin was dropped by Finn running round from fine leg to square leg, the diving effort resulting in the ball being spilled for four. Lunch was delayed by half an hour, and by the time the interval was taken, only 20 runs were required.

The interval favoured England, undoubtedly, as Anderson could freshen up having left the field with cramp following his mammoth 13-over spell in the morning session. It took three overs after lunch before the decisive blow was struck. Somewhat fittingly, Haddin tried to whack Anderson over the covers following a tight over where Ian Bell had done extremely well to dive and stop a single from being taken. The ball reversed in towards the stumps slightly, and there was a faint noise. Anderson wasn’t convinced, and neither was Dar – hence the not out decision – but Cook and Prior soared into the air, pleading for the umpire to raise his finger. They quickly reviewed, and hotspot showed a mark on the inside edge of the bat, and the edge was definitely audible during the real-time replay. The crowd cheered having seen what they thought was an edge, but they couldn’t be certain. Aleem Dar adjusted his radio, crossed his arms to signal an amended decision, and then finally raised his finger. England had won by 14 runs.

That moment sparked some incredible celebrations, none more spectacular than the eruption of the England team. Having been huddled together, they all charged around in utter joy – and relief. Haddin and Pattinson stood in the middle, unable to bring themselves to move. Another Ashes defeat by the narrowest of margins. Around those two in despair, chaotic joy reigned supreme – leader of the attack was rightly the centre of the celebration. Jimmy Anderson’s name was gloriously chorused as he walked from the field. His incredible skill level and relentless effort had dragged England over the line, when it looked like victory may have cruelly slipped away.

The struggle to watch…

I was largely unable to watch much of the drama unfold over the course of the five days, but boy did I feel the tension. A stupidly arranged office job for the summer meant I was restricted to following the ball-by-ball coverage on Cricinfo, and flicking on TMS when I could get away with it. If I’d been exposed to that test match on TV for its duration, it’s unlikely I’d still have been alive to write this. What’s worse was having to go out to bat on Sunday at 1:30, and being boringly defensive enough to have lasted until the Test resumed after lunch with Australia needing just 20. It’s best I don’t list the chain of expletives I let loose when in the changing room listening on TMS to Finn spilling that catch at deep backward square. But we won. I nicked one behind about 20 minutes later (having only scored 23). Umpire shook his head, just as I tucked my bat under my arm and walked off. Well, it wasn’t like I was playing against Australia…

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England’s Heroes:

Plenty of talking points, but I will start with England’s two match-winning players. Jimmy Anderson and Ian Bell played a vital role in ensuring England emerged with a victory, and what determined performances they both put in. First, Bell. He played an absolutely superb innings which began on the fourth day before lunch. He was not his usual free-flowing self – it was not a pitch that let batsmen score that quickly – but he showed admirable calm and restraint. His wagon wheel indicated that during his entire innings he resisted playing any strokes down the ground, and instead focussed on scoring runs square of the wicket, as well as down to third man. The result was his second-slowest Test century, but by far and away his finest. What made it so wonderful was that at no moment throughout the day were England in a position where they could afford Bell to lose his wicket. He had to dig in and grind his way through the overs, managing it brilliantly. He more than deserved his hundred, which was brought up early on the fourth morning. For all the defensive strokes, one sumptuous shot sticks in the mind – he moved onto the back foot and played a wonderful drive through the covers for four. It was glorious. England needed all the runs they could get, and for that they have to thank Bell. And to think lots wanted him dropped. He hasn’t had the most prolific 18 months, but he now has 18 Test centuries. The thought of dropping one of England’s best batsmen is an alarming one.

Jimmy Anderson was described as the most skillful bowler in the world by his coach David Saker, and whilst many South Africans will be lining up to vent their righteous fury, I can see exactly why Saker said it. Anderson’s ability to bowl such accurate spells and make the ball swing have turned him into one of the best fast bowlers of recent years. His value was underlined in this Test, where his 10 wickets only cost 158 runs. Not bad, that. He dragged England across the line on the fifth day, taking all four wickets to fall when it seemed the game was drifting towards the Australians. His control of the ball is so good that he’s able to manoeuvre batsmen around and induce an edge, or a poor shot. He is going to be Australia’s nemesis this summer, such is the skill level he currently operates at (combined with the severe technical deficiencies of the visiting top order.) He fully deserved that man of the match. The 13-over spell during the morning session was a superhuman effort.

The DRS debate:

132233844_cricket_431204cObviously the Decision Review System is a good thing for cricket given it increases the number of correct decisions made on the field. But even so, there were a number of poor uses of technology, as well as the standard failings of human eyesight, that had big impacts on the direction of the match. None more so than Marais Erasmus’ baffling inability to give Ashton Agar out stumped on single figures – a decision that cost England in excess of 150 runs. If he’d been given, it might not have been one of the great Test Matches, as England would’ve been able to build a commanding lead. The shadow may have inhibited the view, but the toe of the boot is on the line, and not behind. It was out. Not given.

Aleem Dar missing Stuart Broad’s clear edge to Michael Clarke at slip was also very poor. The walk/don’t-walk debate is one I don’t need to get into, but the Australians claiming the English were cheating by not walking sounded a bit rich. The real problem was that Clarke had used his two reviews up. Cook is a clever user of the review, whereas Clarke is an emotional one. He will often base his decision to review on the state of the game rather than the likelihood of success. Hence, he was left in despair when Dar shook his head, and Broad stood his ground.

I’m usually a fan of Michael Atherton’s commentary, but the way he called the final moments of the game were disappointing. He tried to paint the picture of a DRS controversy handing England the Test Match, despite hot spot and audio both suggesting an edge, before Snicko later put the final nail into the coffin. He edged it, no doubt. It was the correct decision to overturn the not out call. The issues in this Test have arisen both because of a few poor calls by the umpires, and mainly Clarke’s haste in using up his referrals. Shane Warne was adamant that the Hughes delivery pitched outside leg. It didn’t. More than half of the ball was in line with leg, hence it was overturned and given out. The only issue with the system at the moment is that the ICC have set the parameters badly. The region of “umpire’s call” is far to large, meaning that when 49% of the ball is careering into leg stump, a not out call is deemed to be “correct”. Now isn’t the time and the place, but the error percentage of the predicted path of the ball should equate to the amount of the ball that has to be hitting the stumps for it to be deemed as “hitting”. Umpire’s call is currently being used to give the umpire’s the benefit of the doubt, regardless of whether it was a good or bad decision.

Lords:

Shane Warne believes that Australia have the momentum going into Lords, and that “England were lucky to win” despite conveniently not mentioning the Agar stumping incident, and subsequent benefit it gave to his nation. There were many things I tweeted about this article he wrote, but the description that it is ‘jingoistic tripe’ shall suffice. England under-performed, yes, but he willfully neglects the fact that the Australian top order was saved twice by the tail. England will improve, as they have tended to do after the first Tests in recent series. Australia remain a poor side with the bat, and with Jimmy Anderson bowling as he is, runs will remain hard to come by (unless we pick Finn again). I would select Bresnan – he might not have the attacking threat, but he has a far greater capability to control the ball, and with it the flow of runs. The plan to strangle the Aussies worked in 10/11, and should work again with their fragile batting line-up keen to score runs. Personally, I think Root is of better use at 6 this series – it isn’t the best time to be introduced to opening in Test Cricket, and the success of Compton against this very attack in the warm-up matches indicated that he was more than up to the task at hand. But making that call would involve the selectors admitting they were wrong – and they won’t do that. Bairstow will continue at 6. He looks a bit too fragile to me, despite Michael Vaughan’s desperate attempts to claim he performed adequately with the bat. Yorkshire mafia and all that…

What a brilliant start to the series, and here’s hoping for an equally thrilling game at Lords – with an England win at the end, again, of course…