Report by Neil Robinson 13/07/2005
With one comprehensive victory each in this three-match Natwest Challenge Series, most people expected the deciding match between England and Australia at The Oval to be something of a special contest. In the event, a resurgent Australia put on their best show of the summer so far to steamroll a bewildered England, thrashing the hosts soundly by 8 wickets.
If this match was supposed to be a demonstration of the kind of contest we are likely to see in the Ashes series, just a week away, then it was a bitter disappointment. And not just for England fans, but also for Australians, many of whom have waited years for the chance to beat the old enemy without secretly feeling sorry for them at the same time. Mind you, there were few signs of regret from Aussies on or off the pitch here.
Slowly but surely the juggernaut has been clicking into gear. At the beginning of the tour the engine struggled and spluttered into life in a cold start, the windows were steamed up and the suspension didnít seem to be handling the terrain too well. Too put it plainly, there were several players who werenít playing anywhere near their best. One by one, they have found form and confidence flooding back. A magnificent hundred here from Adam Gilchrist, together with an improvement from Jason Gillespie and the first flickering of form for Matthew Hayden, means that Australia will go into next Thursdayís first Test with most of their players on a high. The notable exception will be Justin Langer, who will have just one three day game against Leicestershire to find his feet before the Test.
For England it was a chastening experience, reminding them just how far they still must travel before they can challenge the number one one-day team in the world. But in terms of the Test series to come the outlook need not be so bleak. It is worth remembering that this England side which held its own against Australia for so much of the one-day series is broadly the same one which was thumped by South Africa a few months ago Ė several majestic thrashes by Kevin Pietersen notwithstanding. Until the last few weeks it was accepted that England had many more improvements to make in the one-day game than the Test game. The last two matches have shown the truth of that. Australia must still be the favourites to win the Ashes, but in doing so they will have to beat a better England side than this one.
Once again the match was decided in the first few overs of Englandís innings. Marcus Trescothick hit an uppercut straight down third-manís throat before he had scored. Then, a promising partnership between Strauss and Vaughan was cut short by a run-out, which could either be called foolish or unlucky, depending on how charitable youíre feeling. They might not have lasted that long anyway, as both had let-offs when top edging pulls, Gillespie and Gilchrist the offenders.
Flintoff, Collingwood and Geraint Jones all fell cheaply, leaving the skipper no choice but to use his substitute and bring Vikram Solanki on in place of Simon Jones, who thus took no part in the game. It was an understandable decision, since England needed some sort of target to bowl at (they were 93-6), but it also meant that they would be defending that target with a weakened bowling attack. This three-match experiment with substitutes has already exposed their fatal flaw; the side winning the toss will usually get to use twelve men, the side losing just eleven. As if the toss did not already give enough of an advantage to the winning side.
But it would be unfair to suggest that the substitution rule had anything to do with the result here. The fact was that Australia bowled magnificently. Although Glenn McGrathís figures of 10-4-40-0 donít look anything spectacular, he bowled those four maidens consecutively at the top of the innings, setting the tone for an Australian performance which, a few fumbles in the field apart, gave England little to play with.
A crushing defeat would have turned into humiliation had it not been for the fabulous batting of Pietersen and Solanki. They put on 93 with considerable style, Solankiís driving adding a touch of elegance to the unorthodox power-game of Pietersen. This was Pietersenís last chance to make an impression on the Test selectors, and he took it well. There were the usual big, lofted hits over midwicket and in the V, as well as a few crunching drives which echoed the style of Robin Smith. A clever slower ball from Gillespie finally accounted for him, but even if he had stayed to the close he could not have raised Englandís total to anything like a challenging target.
In the field, this was the first time for a long time that I have seen an England side look as if it did not expect to win. This only made Australia beat them harder. Gilchrist was on fire, he hit the ball as if wishing to do damage every time; to the bowler, the ball and whatever the ball flew into. Gough and Harmison were taken apart. The old Tyke Gough looked a tired man, and it would not surprise me if this were his last game for England. Harmison was clearly on the end of an attempt to rough him up in preparation for the Test series. It was a predictable tactic, but I think the image of him as a confidence bowler in the Caddick mode is overstated, and this one match is unlikely to be of greater importance to him than the superb way he has bowled for most of this series.
On a beautiful pitch with a lightning outfield there was little England could do to stop the slaughter. Trying to manage the run-rate was, however, probably futile, and it was disappointing that Vaughan did not go all out for attack and set aggressive fields. After Ricky Ponting had been neatly stumped by Geraint Jones, new batsman Damien Martyn edged through the vacant slip area at catchable height. It might not have made any difference to the result, but any extra wickets would have made the defeat less overwhelming.
Gilchrist celebrated his hundred like a man who had just heard heís won the lottery while attending the birth of his first child at the reunion of his long-lost family. The joy of success is often doubled for sides like Australia, so close are they that the joy of personal fulfilment is almost surpassed by the joy of making a telling contribution for the team. He was there to the end, hitting the winning boundary off a Harmison no-ball with more than 15 overs to spare.
So now the focus turns to the main business of the summer (anyone who needs telling what that is has probably stumbled onto the site by accident.) By the time you read this the England selectors will probably have announced their team for Lordís. The exact results of a doctorís report into Graham Thorpeís back condition have not been made public, but despite the veteran left-hander having received three cortisone injections already this summer, Chairman of Selectors David Graveney says he is confident Thorpe will be fit. Pietersen, too, should be fit despite leaving the field at the Oval with a groin strain.
The selectors will have a tough job deciding which of those two will occupy the number five slot; Thorpeís experience and proven record, versus Pietersenís youthful vigour and vast potential. With Thorpeís fitness record being what it is, it seems likely that Pietersen will get his chance some time this summer, but for the moment the value of an experienced left-hander in the middle order to combat the spin of Warne gives my vote to Thorpe. In another injury worry for the selectors, Michael Vaughan was withdrawn from a county match to be played this weekend, in order to rest his injured groin (which kept him out of two matches earlier in the Natwest Series) before the Test. Injuries to key players have dogged England in recent Ashes series. It is to be hoped, for the quality of the series itself, that such problems are not about to return.
England 228-7 (Pietersen 74, Solanki 53*, Gillespie 3-44)
Australia 229-2 (34.5 overs) (Gilchrist 121*, Ponting 43)
Australia won by 8 wickets.
Man of the Match
Man of the Series