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Second Ashes TestEngland Square Series Against Australia

Match Report by Neil Robinson 08/08/05

Some Test matches pass into legend through startling individual performances, such as Laker’s match at Old Trafford in 1956, or Jessop’s match at the Oval in 1902. Others achieve that status by the closeness of the result, like the tied Test at Brisbane in 1960, or England’s 3-run win at Melbourne in 1982-83. Flintoff’s match, here at Edgbaston, was so nearly Warne’s match as the great efforts with bat and ball of England’s brilliant all-rounder were eclipsed by a nerve-jangling finish on the fourth morning that none who saw it will ever forget.

Starting the fourth day with just two wickets left and 107 runs still required, Australia looked gone for all money. But the brilliant batting of Warne, Lee and Kasprowicz got them agonisingly close to stealing a match they had always been behind in, until one last effort from Steve Harmison clinched England’s victory by a narrow 2-run margin. For England, this panic-inducing ending was a far cry from the previous day when Flintoff’s spectacular hitting and fiery fast bowling seemed to have earned them a decisive advantage.

“An attacking army is always more enthusiastic than an army on the defensive, and more likely to accomplish prodigies. This was particularly true of the German Army, which was organized to attack, and whose defence consisted of slowing the enemy by counter-attack.” So said Guy Sajer, writing of the terrible conflict on the Russian front in 1942. And it seems true of England’s cricketers, natural aggressors as they are, that to take on what can seem like an overwhelming Australian horde is the only way to prosper.

England came hard at Australia from the first over. And the momentum was with them thanks to some unexpected good fortune and a couple of uncharacteristic Australian mistakes. The loss of Glenn McGrath to a freak ankle injury picked up in practice was a major blow to the visitors. But in terms of demonstrable effect on the game the Australian mistakes were still more vital. First Ricky Ponting won the toss and chose to put England in on what turned out to be a good, if slightly dry pitch. This may have been a rare example of England winning a psychological battle with Australia. After several days of open speculation about a green seaming pitch, the brief call-up of Paul Collingwood, and the airing of statistical evidence that sides batting second here tend to win, perhaps Ponting made his choice with his eyes on the paperwork and not on the pitch. It is a decision he must surely rue. The last captain to make such a mistake in an Ashes Test, Nasser Hussain, has worn a broader grin than anyone these last few days.

Perhaps more unexpected was the shelling of Andrew Strauss by Warne at slip off the bowling of Gillespie with the batsman on four. It was a hard chance, low to his left, but the sort of chance we are accustomed to see Australians taking in recent times. By then Trescothick had already punched three half-volleys from Brett Lee through the off-side for four. Strauss too was soon motoring nicely and with none of the Australian seamers able to sustain line or length, it was no surprise to see Warne into the attack after just an hour.

Here we saw the first evidence of a deliberate policy of aggression by England. Strauss padded three balls calmly away, then advanced down the pitch and lofted him to the long-off boundary. In Warne’s next over Strauss added two more boundaries, a back foot drive through cover and a slog-sweep past midwicket. His next over brought a thumping straight hit for six from Trecsothick and sobering figures of 3-0-21-0.

The scene was set for a cat-and-mouse day that was more Itchy & Scratchy than Tom & Jerry. Warne, always another trick up his sleeve, used all his variety to fool the batsmen and ended up with four wickets for his trouble. But in the process he found himself on the end of some violent hitting from England’s batsmen, which made them four of the most expensive wickets he has earned in this country.

His first came just before lunch, a fierce leg-break out of the rough which beat Strauss’s extravagant cut shot. The old England might have had an uncomfortable few minutes before the break after that, but Trescothick just shrugged his shoulders and got on with it, taking 18 off Lee’s last over before lunch to head back to the pavilion on 132-1. It was a brilliant innings from Trescothick, who left the ball very well, defended with an admirably straight bat and crashed anything loose to the boundary. He deserved a hundred, and seemed to be cruising to one when a lapse in concentration saw him follow a wide one from Kasprowicz and edge behind.

Something of a collapse followed, and one largely of England’s own making. Instead of immediately building pressure on the new batsman, Bell, Kasprowicz allowed him an easy tuck off his pads first ball, then a wide long-hop second ball. The third was a good one, but Bell could have kept it out if he had got further forward instead of playing from the crease and edging to the keeper.

Kasprowicz’s greeting for Kevin Pietersen was even more disappointing, another leg-stump half-volley and a no-ball too, clipped easily way for four. Another tuck off the pads gave Pietersen a single, then Vaughan creamed a classy four through extra cover. Another wicket came, but thanks to another English mistake, Vaughan trying to pull a ball much too full, Lee taking a good tumbling catch at long leg. Vaughan was just starting to look good for his 26, but for the third time this innings a batsman failed to make the most of a good start. At 187-4 that could be said of the innings itself too.

The whole match almost turned on Flintoff’s first scoring stroke, a mistimed drive which cleared mid-off by just a foot or so. A terrific battle followed between Warne and England’s premier hitters. Pietersen was calm and secure, but Flintoff looked very shaky at first. A full toss on leg stump allowed him to feel bat on ball, and then the fun began in earnest with a solid strike over wide mid-on for six. He followed this with another beautiful, easy strike over midwicket. The 50 stand was up in 50 balls, and it was Flintoff making all the runnning as Pietersen showed good sense by playing a quiet supporting role rather than trying to match him.

More fun followed in a Brett Lee over. On 32, Flintoff top-edged a pull and was lucky that the ball fell safe. Next ball he was cramped for room by another bouncer, played the hook with his head down and it sailed for six. All of a sudden Flintoff had reached 50 off 48 balls and the 100 stand was up in 96 balls. A full house responded to the entertainment in lively fashion, and even the battered Australian bowlers could not help smiling in the face of the onslaught. England went in to tea well placed on 289-5. Just 54 overs had been bowled. It was a searing pace for cricket.

Two quick wickets fell after tea. Flintoff fenced loosely at the third ball, then Geraint Jones was surprised by some extra bounce and gave Gilchrist his fourth catch of the innings. Ashley Giles, not confronted at first by his Lord’s nemesis, Brett Lee, settled in and supported Pietersen in a stand worth 50. When Lee did return, Pietersen cracked three fours in his first over then pulled him for six off the front foot.

Even after Giles and Pietersen fell in quick succession, the tail continued to wag in positive fashion, Hoggard, Harmison and Jones all reaching double figures, the latter two both contributing to the innings tally of 10 sixes. Pietersen’s 71 was another triumph, although the manner of his downfall, caught in the deep with support from the tail still available, did open him up to some criticism. At the close of play he gave a lift back to the hotel to Geoff Boycott and Tony Greig. Boycott jumped into the front passenger seat and immediately began lecturing Pietersen on not throwing it away when a hundred is on the cards. The journey lasted 15 minutes and, according to Greig, the normally talkative Pietersen was unable to get a single word in.

Thrilling as England’s batting had been, there was a suspicion that on such a true pitch, against an Australian attack shocked by the loss of McGrath, a total of 407 was no more than par. It began to look that way the next morning when, after the early loss of Hayden to an airy drive, Langer and Ponting settled in against some mixed England bowling. Harmison was fast and accurate, but without reward. Hoggard and Jones bowled some good deliveries, but mixed in some half-volleys in the search for swing. Hoggard also struggled with no-balls. Ponting was gifted too much on middle and leg, easy pickings for a batsman of his class. Three fours in an over from Jones took him to 50 off 51 balls, two glorious straight drives and a full toss slammed through midwicket.

A concerned Vaughan now turned to his blockers, Giles and Flintoff. The reward was not long in coming. After a tight maiden from Flintoff, Ponting lost patience and tried to sweep Giles out of the rough, top-edging to Vaughan at fine leg. Martyn survived some early scares outside off stump, but fell when he pushed a single to Vaughan’s right at mid-on and made the mistake of assuming he was running to the safe end. Vaughan picked up, half-turned in the air and with his momentum still taking him in the opposite direction, scored a direct hit with Martyn barely an inch out of his ground.

The vital third wicket before lunch led to a tense afternoon session. Just as at Lord’s, England attempted to frustrate Michael Clarke by bowling well wide of his off-stump. The young batsman handled it better this time, and with Langer enjoying a return to his old limpet-like form England began to need another wicket. It was a while in coming. Giles was all accuracy and guile, but Clarke’s excellent hands still managed to work him into the gaps. Langer seemed completely unshiftable.

It was full credit to Giles that he kept plugging patiently away with his variations of flight and spin. He is never a great spinner of the ball, and to compare him with a bowler like Warne on that basis is unfair, but in the way that he used his head to work out each batsman and offer the right response to each new challenge in this match he did not suffer by comparison with Warne. The breakthrough he achieved with a quicker ball slanted across Clarke and finding a thin edge, was well deserved.

If there was a major difference between the teams in this match it was the way in which England’s bowlers now kept the pressure on each new batsman. Flintoff kept Katich on his toes by switching from over to round the wicket and back again. A touch of reverse swing, away from the bat, found an edge which was claimed by the keeper. After tea Giles then caused Langer and Gilchrist a few headaches by spinning the ball out of the rough at them, but the two experienced left handers managed to keep the strike rotating by working singles into the gaps off the seamers.

Once again things looked to be swinging back Australia’s way, when a fast inswinger from Simon Jones struck Langer’s pad and he was, perhaps unluckily, judged lbw. Jones then produced three gorgeous outswingers beating Warne’s bat by a fraction each time, but it was Giles who claimed the wicket when his fellow spinner lost patience and was bowled giving him the charge. Now Australia’s innings fell away, Lee held at slip off Jones, Gillespie trapped in front by a Flintoff inswinging yorker, Kasprowicz departing the same way first ball. Gilchrist, poised perhaps for some late order damage, was left stranded on 49, and Australia had conceded a lead of 99.

But Australia were never going to let England build on this without a fight. Shane Warne gave a hint of things to come with a ball to Strauss that spun sharply out of the rough. Strauss tried to cover it with his pad, but got nowhere near it and could only stand in bemusement as it spun past his legs to strike his leg stump. On the third morning Australia produced their best bowling of the match. Lee and Warne in tandem made it impossible for England to repeat their positive method of the first innings, but it was Lee who caused the initial damage, helped by a loose stroke from Trescothick who chased a wide one and was caught behind.

Vaughan soon followed, worryingly bowled for the third time in four innings, and when nightwatchman Hoggard prodded to gully England were wobbly at 31-4. It might have been much worse if Pietersen had been given out first ball, TV replays suggested he may have gloved Lee down the leg side to Gilchrist, but he survived and, together with an increasingly assured Bell, began to rebuild the innings. Australia made a point of saying before this match that they were working on a plan for Pietersen, but there was little evidence of his being incommoded here. Again he kept out Warne with assurance, and twice used his long reach to smash him over midwicket for six. Pietersen has two major advantages in playing Warne (apart from his experiences in the nets at Hampshire), firstly he is able to judge the length more quickly than any other England batsman, secondly he is tall and lithe enough to be able to get to the pitch of the ball in one stride. A shorter batsman like Bell, even if he could judge the length correctly in time, would have to take two or three strides down the wicket and risk being beaten by the turn and stumped.

Bell too played with increasing conviction and style, but before long England were hit by three sudden blows which looked like shattering their Ashes dream. First Pietersen was unluckily given out sweeping Warne out of the rough. The ball bounced and turned sharply, it appeared to strike him on the thigh, before cannoning up onto chest and elbow and then down into the gloves of Gilchrist, who reacted with great sharpness. Three runs later Bell also departed when Warne span one across the face of the bat into Gilchrist’s gloves. The replay could detect no edge and any noise may have come from bat scraping pad.

At 75-6 England’s last hope was Flintoff, and this too seemed in doubt when he played a back foot shot off Warne with rubbery arms then sank to his knees clutching his left shoulder. If this had been a serious injury it would have been curtains for England. It is all very well losing a key player in pre-match practice when he can be replaced, but to lose one in play with the match hanging in the balance and his role perhaps the crucial one is the cruellest blow of all. Fortunately for England the injury was not as serious as it appeared, although Flintoff’s batting was noticeably restricted for the next hour or so.

For such a big hitter Flintoff relies unusually on his top hand. Struggling now to lift his shoulder above the perpendicular, all the power was gone from his shots. But strangely against Warne this seemed to work to his advantage, his looser grip meant softer hands and a more secure defence. He looked more secure against the leg-spinner than ever before.

Further trouble came for England after lunch when Geraint Jones again found himself on the wrong end of some extra bounce and a real snorter from Lee flew off the splice to second slip. Giles helped Flintoff add another 30, before Warne disposed of him and Harmison with successive balls.

It was 131-9, the last pair at the wicket, England well short of offering a competitive target and Shane Warne on a hat-trick with number 11 facing. It might have been all over then, but the hat-trick ball was so wide it failed even to land in the rough, and suddenly England seized the initiative.

Jones creamed Warne’s next ball through the covers for four, then Flintoff was finally able to free his arms to thump Kasprowicz for two sixes. 20 came off that over in total leading Ponting to replace Kasprowicz with Lee. With Flintoff on strike there was now not a single fielder within 50 yards of the bat, every man was posted on the boundary. There was only one thing for him to do. Stepping away to leg he picked up a full length ball and smashed it high over long-on, over the pavilion where it bounced among the cameras on the TV gantry. The next ball was shorter and cut for four. Another straight six followed, not hit quite so well and only just clearing the boundary.

But the score raced on. Before Australia could stop to think 51 had been added and when Flintoff finally missed an attempted hoick over midwicket to give Warne his sixth wicket, England were 281 ahead. The highest succesful run-chase in a Test at Edgbaston was 211. This would be higher even than the highest unsuccessful run-chase. It is a testament to the powers of this Australian side that most judges thought the match was still very much in the balance.

But the momentum was surely with England. It didn’t look so for a while as Langer and Hayden settled in calmly. There seemed little threat from England’s bowling. Hoggard and Jones lacked consistency, Harmison was accurate but lacking in fire. The score reached 47 and the match seemed to be drifting when Vaughan turned at last to Flintoff. Until that moment, no-one outside the England camp had known whether he was fit to bowl. But he was in no way incapacitated - still on a hat-trick from the first innings he steamed in breathing fire. Langer kept the first one out, but the second produced extra bounce and bowled him off his elbow.

There was a big, rather hopeful, lbw shout against Ponting first ball, and another much closer third ball, but the last ball of the over was as perfect as you could wish for, just short of a length, a touch of movement away, sharp bounce and searing pace. The edge flew through to Geraint Jones and England were jubilant. England now made Damien Martyn very uncomfortable, probing away outside off stump. A few beat the bat, a couple of thick edges went to ground. By Flintoff’s fifth over England were already finding reverse swing, and with both batsmen becalmed the tension was incredible.

But Australia made England wait for the wicket. Then, with Flintoff out of the attack and the stand worth 33, Hayden chased after an away swinger from Simon Jones and edged to slip, where Trescothick held onto a superb catch high to his left. Sadly Jones let himself down by pointing Hayden to the pavilion at this point, a gesture for which he was fined 20% of his match-fee.

None of the England bowlers could really match Flintoff’s vigour though, and Martyn and Clarke were able to advance the score steadily to 107 until a lazy chip from Martyn flew straight to Bell at midwicket. Katich prodded his first ball to the cover boundary, a typical shot with no follow through, and another period of frustration began for England.

The pressure on both teams was now intense, but it was Australia who were next to crack. It was a good ball from Giles that started it, Katich playing back and allowing for non-existant spin, the edge juggled but held by Trescothick. The vital wicket of Gilchrist followed, trying to attack and mis-hitting Giles to mid-on. Australia now sent Gillespie out instead of Warne, desperate not to lose another wicket before the close, but a fast inswinging yorker from Flintoff removed him quickly and Australia were staring down the barrel at 137-7.

Little did they know it, but England were as comfortable here as they ever would be in this match. Warne came out to join Clarke in typically positive mood, and despite England taking the extra half hour, decided he was going to win the game. He bludgeoned two sixes off Giles, then had an abberation as he played Harmison straight back down the wicket and stood aside as the big paceman aimed a throw at the stumps, only realising as the ball whistled an inch past his wicket that he was standing out of his ground.

With Clarke also playing a gem of an innings, well judged and courageous, the eighth wicket pair managed to add 38 until Clarke faced Harmison for the last over of the day. At last running in with real pace and aggression, Harmison roughed up the young batsman with two well directed short balls, one looping up off the shoulder of the bat and falling just short of gully, the other striking him a painful blow on the glove. Then, quite unexpectedly, he produced a slower ball that no-one had seen before, a looping leg-cutter that totally deceived Clarke and struck his off stump. It was just the blow England needed to finish the day with. Australia still needed 107 to win, they had just two wickets left and no specialist batsman at the crease. All England (and perhaps parts of Australia) expected a swift conclusion in the morning.

A full house had gathered, quietly expectant, just for the satisfaction of saying they had been there. The roaring frenzy of the night before was no more, but neither was the reverse swing for the bowlers. And more than that, Warne and Lee played superbly. Before play began TV viewers had been reminded of that famous match at Melbourne in 1982-83 when Allan Border and Jeff Thomson had got Australia within a whisker of an unlikely win, but that was with a front line batsman at the crease. Warne can bat all right, but he’s no Border, surely.

Well just try telling that to Warney. They had a plan for the yorkers, get across the stumps and cover the swing. It worked; inside edges flew down to fine leg, good balls were kept out, the singles flowed and it was quickly apparent that Australia were having the better of things. At first there was no cause for alarm, but the breakthrough would not come. England did not bowl badly, but Australia batted better. 45 were added at rather too fast a rate until Warne made a fatal mistake and trod on his leg stump going back and across to a Flintoff yorker.

That would be it then. 62 needed and numbers 10 and 11 at the wicket. But no. Incredibly Australia fought on, the whole country seemed on the edge of its seat and those of a historical turn of mind were reflecting that Rasputin was finished off more easily than this. Lee took a peppering from Flintoff, a mighty blow to the upper arm, then later another to the left hand, but still they fought on. Thirteen came off one over from Giles and no matter where Vaughan placed his fielders he just couldn’t stop the singles.

The pressure began to tell. Aiming a yorker Harmison produced a wild full toss which flew down the leg side eluding Jones for four. And now just 20 to win. An inside edge down to fine leg for another boundary. Kasprowicz tipped Flintoff over the slips down to third man where Simon Jones failed to hold on to a difficult chance diving forward. Oh, how crucial that could have been. And then what seemed to be the clincher, another Flintoff yorker flew out of the batsman’s footholds over the keeper and away to the boundary. Just 9 to win now, and England was faced with the cruelty of defeat, casting around for hope in the face of despair, reeling against the unfairness, the injustice of it all. Surely it would be better for the series (not just for England, you understand) if England were to level it 1-1? Well as if that was likely to make a difference.

Now, with the narrowest of margins inevitable, it came down to singles. Soon Harmison was charging in with just 4 to win. The first ball of the over was a full toss, wide of off stump, which Lee played out to deep cover for a single. The second, a good length on off stump, was blocked. The third, a bouncer at the body, did not get up as Kasprowicz expected, he ducked but left his hands up, the ball took the glove, looped over his shoulder and in a flash Geraint Jones had pounced and pouched. All England fans rose six feet in the air, all Aussies sank into a pit of anguish.

At the non-striker’s end Brett Lee, who had played the innings of his life, sank to his knees. Before joining in the celebrations of his team-mates, Andrew Flintoff went up to him to shake his hand and offer his commiserations. It was a moment of simple human warmth which spoke volumes about the respect between these two sides and the bond which unites all cricketers. If this match showed again the greatness of Test match cricket as a game, this moment showed the greatness of its spirit.

For England the importance of this victory cannot be overstated. To go 2-0 down in this series would have ended it as a contest, to level it at 1-1 takes them into the next Test at Old Trafford on Thursday with a massive boost. They know now, beyond doubt, that they are good enough to beat these Australians. But is there also a nagging doubt that they are up against a side which, even with the deck stacked massively against it, will fight on with unbridled fanaticism until the match is won by sheer willpower. For all the training, skill, and tactical deftness of the German Army in 1941-45 was not enough to stop that human tide, the Soviet horde which rolled over it and sent it to destruction. Australia do not outnumber England, but at times in this series and many before it has felt as if they do.

Had Australia capitulated swiftly on the fourth morning, as England did at Lord’s, they might have struggled to pick themselves up in time for Thursday’s Old Trafford Test. As it is their magnificent effort here will send them there with almost as much heart as England. Their only headaches remain those of personnel. McGrath will not be fit for Old Trafford, he may even miss the rest of the series. In his absence Gillespie and Kasprowicz, while competent, held no terrors for England. On a spinning pitch they may consider the extra wrist-spin of MacGill, or even the rookie paceman Shaun Tait as a shock option. They will also be worried about the continued poor form of Matthew Hayden. His effort in the second innings was one of will alone.

England too will be worried about a batsman, captain Michael Vaughan. Top order players at this level do not get bowled three times out of four unless something is wrong with their method. Michael Slater has suggested that his trigger movement has gone awry. He has three days to work on it.

The other concern, for both sides, as this series progresses is exhaustion. The physical stress of back-to-back Tests is bad enough, another Test like this and players in both camps will be coming down with cricket’s version of combat fatigue. The ding-dong battle between England and India in 2002 fizzled out into a dull draw at the Oval when neither side had anything left to give. The prize of the Ashes may mean that exhaustion will not strike until the battle is over, but one way or another there are going to be some pretty knackered cricketers at the end of all this.

And some pretty knackered spectators too. Having tried to relax between Lord’s and Edgbaston by watching series 3 of “24” on DVD, I shall be spending the next couple of days locked in a darkened room on a laudanum drip.

Scorecard Summary

England 407 (Trescothick 90, Pietersen 71, Flintoff 68, Warne 4-116) & 182 (Flintoff 73, Warne 6-46, Lee 4-82)

Australia 308 (Langer 82, Ponting 61) & 279 (Lee 43*, Warne 42, Flintoff 4-79)

England won by 2 runs.

Man of the Match

 Andrew Flintoff.

 

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