Ashes update: Australians let the press hounds loose in rush to get their excuses in first

I wondered how long it would be before someone from Australia started to moan about the pitch having been favourably prepared for England and it’s the Sydney Morning Herald’s  Peter Roebuck, the anti-English former Englishman, who has got the ball rolling with the following:

“Although they are loath to admit it, England ordered and prepared a dodgy deck. As it turned out the talk about producing a typical Oval pitch was all smokes and mirrors. England provided a track as dry as a camel’s tongue and as eager to spin as Gandhi.”

And then Malcolm Conn, never one known for biting his tongue in a fit of impartiality, moans in The Australian:

“There is the danger of a slow death on a wicket manufactured to ensure the result England so desperately needs to regain the Ashes….Bill Gordon should get an MBE.”

To be fair after the events of the second day it was always going to be more entertaining to read the Australian press than the English. At least they’re getting their excuses in early so it won’t sound so much like sour grapes when the urn is earned on the third or fourth days. And then, of course, should Australia mount a stunning comeback (and pessimist that I am I still won’t rule that out), they’ll look even more heroic.

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Ashes update: It is all about Stuart Broad actually

When, after taking a Test “career-best” six for 91 in Australia’s innings at Headingley,  Stuart Broad left the field looking moderately smug – at least he showed enough humility not to raise the ball to the crowd – I felt more like slapping him across the face with a shovel than congratulating him. Unfortunately, from my position in the East Stand, I would never have got across to him before he got to the sanctuary of the dressing-room or I’d been arrested for impersonating a groundsman.

For that was one bad six for 91. I’d even go as far as to say it was the worst six for 91 I’d ever witnessed. And, to be fair, if that performance was to go on and define him as an international bowler for the rest of his days, simply because it was a “career-best” and therefore had to be recorded in the official statistics, then that would be a pity.

Well, after today’s display at the Oval, where he single-handedly blew away the Australia top order, there seems no danger of that (although, to be accurate, his five for 37 will appear only anecdotally as his career best, because those pesky stats from Leeds will still hold sway in the scorer’s lexicon).

But make no mistake: that was a stunning performance; stunning, mainly, because it was so unexpected. We expected Flintoff to get some life out of a testing pitch, we expected Harmison to crack a few knuckles, maybe feather a few gloves on the way through to Matt Prior and we expected (or maybe, more realistically, hoped) that Graeme Swann would find the turn that would rip through a bamboozled Australia line-up.

What we didn’t anticipate is that the bowler with the flowing blond locks and sweet looks that raise more questions about his gender than that of Caster Semenya, should play the macho role – especially after being left to linger at long leg for most of the morning session.

Maybe the rain that preceded lunch by only minutes helped uncross the wires that had engineered a change in Broad from promising, McGrath-comparisoned quick bowler at the start of the series to frontline batsman as it draws to a close.

Or maybe the moisture in the air disturbed so many atoms and molecules in the Oval environment that he discovered the art of swinging it late (his movement hitherto had usually started from the hand, negating its danger) to dismiss Brad Haddin and Michael Hussey, while still being able to rip the ball off the pitch sufficiently to nail Shane Watson and Ricky Ponting.

And if it was his idea to stick the short extra cover in for Michael Clarke, may he be awarded another brownie point, although Clarke must surely be regretting the arrogance of reaching so far for another drive before he was settled.

Perhaps, though, the plaudits should go to Andrew Strauss, the captain whose hunch to bring him straight on after the rain delay worked to perfection. And hopefully, if Strauss the batsman, one of the few to have looked comfortable on a pitch that is slow and now turning alarmingly even for an occasional off spinner, can continue where he left off this evening, it will be to Broad the bowler rather than batsman we will be turning to later in the day or early on Sunday.

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Ashes update: The most telling of statistics

One of the statistics to earn widespread coverage in this Ashes series is the fact that while England have notched up only one century amongst them in the five Tests so far, Australia have merrily danced down the pitch to claim seven. What has been generally overlooked is that four of those were wasted in one innings of a Test they didn’t even win.

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Ashes update: why it’s not all about Stuart Broad

Although today was all about Stuart Broad, by public demand it falls upon Reverse Sweep to return once more to the subject of Paul Collingwood.

Paul Collingwood, you may remember, is the gritty England batsman who had a Facebook group created in his honour – Paul Collingwood for Prime Minister – after his fine battling performances at Cardiff enabled England to escape with a draw which, in light of the extraordinary events at the Oval this afternoon, seems likely to prove crucial to the destination of the celebrated Ashes urn.

So what if since the second innings at Lord’s he’s looked like a man holding, in the words of the celebrated Duckworth and Lewis Method CD, a contrabassoon instead of a Slazenger I Blade, contributing only 42 runs from five innings, his limp plop to short leg this evening a ready reminder of his technical shortcomings?

His Facebook page has reached the dizzy heights of five members, which is approximately zero members more than it accrued immediately after it had been  established.

But there is still time for you to rectify that. And wouldn’t you rather have him running the country than the effete, prostate-gland challenged slimeball that is Peter Mandelson.

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Ashes update: First mission impossible accomplished, then England self-destruct

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.

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Ashes update: Why the Ashes will be decided at Headingley

I notice that another ticket broker – on this occasion viagogo – are offering vastly overpriced seats for the final Ashes Test at the Oval (those of you who are not familiar with my rant about seatwave should see my blog entry for July 16 https://sportwriter.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/seatwave-goodbye-to-your-hard-earned-cash/).

Their cheapest offer for Day 1 is £249 per ticket and to take a friend, with fees and handling charges of over £90, it will set you back the best part of £600.

However, my advice is to save your money and if you have no other way of securing a ticket, buy instead the much cheaper ones on offer for this coming weekend at Headingley (even if you’re venturing north or south from distant climes it will still cost you less). Because Leeds, mark my words, is where this series will be decided, short of a mass vole invasion under the strip in Kennington.

It is true that neither Surrey nor Leicestershire have strong bowling attacks but that surely cannot be the only reason that four days’ toil (give or take 50 overs for rain on Saturday) in the shadow of the gas holders in the division two championship game between the two counties produced only nine wickets at the expense of 1,224 runs.

That must be some batting track and, of course, those who are regulars at the Oval will know that over a course of a season there are plenty of those. People may point to last year’s victory over South Africa, in which the tourists were bowled out for under 200 on the first day. But that was after a series had been decided and featured Steve Harmison, until then ignored by the England selectors, out to prove a point.

Harmison, has, of course, only recently said that he has “unfinished business with Australia” and should the result go against us in Leeds, the selectors will probably be forced to give him his shot at redemption, but with the batting talent that Australia have at their disposal, it is hard to envisage him putting that business to bed when it really matters.

So Headingley, where England capitulated in four days against South Africa last year, is probably the venue at which the destination of the coveted urn will be decided – with victory for England ensuring a 2-0 success and victory for Australia tying the contest and an Ashes win by proxy.

Brett Lee is expected to come back into the reckoning and if he can immediately recover the form that he showed before getting injured against the England Lions, England’s still flimsy batting could find themselves in a bit of a showdown.

 It was the home team’s lower middle order that set up the prospect of a last-day victory at Edgbaston, with Prior, Flintoff, Broad and Swan making important contributions.

But it would be optimistic to expect them to do exactly the same again: England are in greater need of runs from the upper middle order and that, specifically, means Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell. Bell played some sumptuous strokes in the fifty that marked his comeback in Birmingham, but looks no nearer finding the solution to his problem of getting out when well set and could, some say should, have been out twice before he got to that landmark.

At least, though, he looks good, however brief his stay at the crease. Much more worrying is the return from Ravi Bopara – 104 runs from five innings at No3. The Essex player has batted like a man who begun to believe all the publicity he received after three hundreds against a fairly innocuous West Indies attack. He seems to be dining out on Graham Gooch’s repeated claims that “there is something a bit special about him” and has failed to realise that it’s his turn to do the cooking.

So the pressure will be squarely on them this weekend, especially if Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook fall to get us off to a good start. And with Australia’s own batting unlikely to fail for a third time in the series, my money is on the Aussies to claim victory there and bat themselves to safety in South London.

I can only hope I’m wrong.

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Ashes update, third Test, fourth day: Ian Bell, Andrew Flintoff, Matt Prior, Mitchell Johnson, Graeme Swann, Stuart Broad, Graham Onions and Shane Watson we salute you

Crikey; I can’t imagine a much better day’s Test cricket than that. Can you?

In fact, apart fromwhen Australia’s batsmen were thumping England’s attack to all parts of the Swalec Stadium on the second and third days of the first Test, I can’t remember a predictable session in the entire series so far.

Today was a perfect example of team cricket: by that I mean that picking an outstanding player of the day would not only be pointless it would be grossly unfair to the many who played their parts so well and ensured that a game rudely disrupted by the weather goes into its final day with at least two results on the cards.

First of all, there was:

Ian Bell: another delightful fifty, which he failed to convert into something greater, but there was enough sweet timing to engage the purist and then he had the decency, just as he was beginning to get bogged down, to get out and leave the stage clear for….

Matt Prior and Andrew Flintoff: Prior continued his bullish approach to batting in this series with a number of crisp strokes at a crisp rate, while Freddie, on his favourite ground for batting, at last played something more than a cameo, perhaps reminding Ricky Ponting why he left it 65 overs before bringing on Shane Watson. And when these two departed there was….

Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad: among the best No8s and 9s in Test cricket already, Broad played a series of magnificent shots, one down the ground off the back foot on the up to Mitchell Johnson coming round the wicket really taking the breath away and Swann matching Johnson boundary for sledge and word for word, but…..

Mitchell Johnson: had the last laugh, switching to round the wicket and fooling Swann with a slower ball which brought an end to the most entertaining over of the day and, by adding the Nottinghamshire spinner to Ian Bell as a victim, suggested his worst struggles are over and he will still have an important part to play in this Ashes. And continuing to make his mark was…

Graham Onions: who celebrated earning a partial central contract with another burst towards the end of the day which got rid of Simon Katich and troubled Mike Hussey after Australia had threatened to wipe off their deficit and opened the way for….

Graeme Swann: again, who bowled one of the finest overs of off breaks at Ricky Ponting which, had Rudi Koertzen’s radar not been out of synch would have resulted in the Australia captain being dismissed leg-before, but not allowing that disappointment to affect him my plundering his middle and leg stumps with a ball that turned perfectly between the stretching batsman’s bat and pad two balls later, and finally….

Shane Watson: who may not be experienced in the opening slot, but looks more comfortable than many in that position. He had a solid, attractive technique and he could steal the man-of-the-match at the last from any of the above if he can turn that into a long, long innings tomorrow

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