It was fairly obviously to those even with only half a cricket brain that England’s sole hope of reclaiming the Ashes was to win the toss and bat on the first morning at the Oval. First mission accomplished, Andrew Strauss making the correct call, the second was to put as many runs on the board as possible and, with a wearing pitch and the surface expected to take some spin, put the pressure on Australia and hope that they would succumb. Those by necessity were fairly optimistic appraisals because typical Oval pitches normally take a considerable time to wear – sometimes, as Surrey and Leicestershire could testify from their recent county championship match that produced more than 1,200 runs for the loss of just nine wickets, not until after the final ball of the match has been bowled.
Yet this does not quite seem the archetypal Oval pitch, the ball several times going through the surface, and with the part-time off spinner Marcus North getting some purchase on the first day – notably when he rotated the ball between Jonathan Trott’s driving blade and the off stump, and left Brad Haddin rooted to the spot as well – there were signs that every first innings run would be even more important than usual.
So it was a great disappointment to see the England batting order again unable to profit sufficiently from a good start. The statistic is stark but sums up the extraordinary failing of this line-up: in 10 innings so far, only Andrew Strauss – and he only once – has passed the 100 mark, while the Australians have seven centuries to their names.
At tea, on 180 for four, England would have snatched an offer of 300 for six by the close from whomever was tendering it. Alas it proved to be worse than that, but only because Australia, despite the 1-1 scoreline going into the decider, stuck superbly to core skills, from where they were perfectly placed to add the odd embellishment: Mitchell Johnson’s slower ball that did for Matt Prior, Simon Katich’s stunning reactions at short leg that left Trott stranded.. That is what the better teams do.
Unfortunately, they were also able to take advantage of England mindlessness, which had Andrew Flintoff as its flagbearer. Having been forced back by three straight, short deliveries from Johnson, it shouldn’t have taken the experience of 78 previous Tests to have worked out what was coming next: a full, widish one that should have been left alone. Sadly Freddie could not resist temptation and it was the ugliest of ends to the all-rounder’s penultimate Test innings.
In the end, thanks to another impressive performance with the bat from Stuart Broad – surely a batting all-rounder in the making – they made it to past the 300 mark, but with only two wickets remaining, their chances of reaching a minimum 350 seem slim. But crease occupation for the remaining batsmen is critical this morning as it would be to England’s advantage to have Australia batting when even more damage has been done to the surface.
As it stands, the tourists’ line-up has enough about it to surpass England’s first-innings total, unless Graeme Swann., on whom great expectations will rest, bowls to his potential and the seamers back him with the discipline shown by Hilfenhaus and Siddle. And if England have to return to a deteriorating crease in arrears it could signal carnage on a Headingley scale.