England Prepare for Ashes Glory



England Prepare for Ashes Glory

Fourth Test Match Report by Neil Robinson 31/08/05

Fourth Ashes TestIn a third consecutive thrilling climax, Australia came within a whisker of stealing a game dominated by England. The fourth Test at Trent Bridge looked a foregone conclusion after determined batting by Australia, following on for the first time in 191 Tests, set England a victory target of just 129. But Shane Warne, who combines genius-level skill with a hunger for combat matched by few in any sport, produced one of his greatest spells, helped by the fiery Brett Lee, to give England a severe attack of the wobbles before the tail squeezed home by 3 wickets.

It was a finale few could have predicted, since Australia had been on the back foot for the whole of the game. After their narrowly-failed run-chase at Edgbaston and the valiant rearguard at Old Trafford, it looked as though this would be the match where Australian resistance finally crumbled. Even those pundits who pointed out that the target of 129 was just one short of that Australia failed to chase down at Headingley in 1981 were arguing against the facts; that Headingley pitch was a bit of a minefield, this was a belter from first ball to last. There were no demons in the pitch for England, but there were one or two in their minds once Warne and Lee got down to their incredible work. In the end, it seemed little short of a miracle that the tail-end pairing of Ashley Giles and Matthew Hoggard saw them home.

But this further example of the fighting qualities of this Australian side should not blind them, or their supporters, to the overall situation. In the words of Auric Goldfinger: ďOnce is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time itís enemy action.Ē For three Tests in a row England, and in particular their captain Michael Vaughan, have commanded and made Australia fight to stay in the game, let alone win it. This can no longer be written off as a case of an Australian side a little off colour against an England side playing out of its skin. We may well be witnessing a more fundamental shift in the balance of power. Australia, now 2-1 down and needing to win the fifth and final match at the Oval to save the Ashes, will have to draw deep on their diminishing reserves to overcome an England side which can now match immense self-belief to its undoubted talent.

Things did not start well for the Aussies. Before day one even started they lost Glenn McGrath to an elbow problem, and then they lost the toss and faced the prospect of England having first dip on a beautiful flat pitch. They followed this misfortune up with some indisciplined bowling, exemplified by a rash of no-balls. Poor line and length from Lee and Kasprowicz got England off to a flier and by the time Warne was introduced after an hour and fifteen minutes they were 74-0. Great bowler as he is, his effect is diminished if he comes on when two batsmen have settled, the field is set back and there is no McGrath to bottle up the other end. Trescothick greeted him with a hefty thump back over his head for six. As the runs began to flow, were it not for the outstanding ground fielding of Michael Clarke the situation would have been much worse for Australia.

It was bad luck that cost England their first wicket. Strauss, aiming to sweep Warne, bottom edged on to his boot from where it flew up to Hayden at slip. Vaughan then showed intent by cutting his first ball for four, and more sloppy cricket cricket cost Australia dear when a Lee no ball was cut into his stumps by Trescothick. That was the 17th no ball of the morning. The 18th followed immediately afterwards and Trescothick pulled it for four.

But this would be the end of Englandís dominance on day one. Rain came after lunch and interrupted both the course of the match, and the concentration of the batsmen. In the first over after the resumption debutant Shaun Tait sent down a superb inswinger which Trescothick, his feet planted in concrete, could only prod at and miss. Soon afterwards Tait produced another beauty to find Ian Bellís outside edge. It was an encouraging second spell from Tait, whose first burst had been pacy but lacking in rhythm and control.

Now, in dim light and constant drizzle, it was hard work for Vaughan and Pietersen. As play continued the rain freshened up the pitch and what was a slow, easy surface suddenly offered more carry and bounce. Both batsmen had escapes; Pietersen popped up a return catch that Kasprowicz couldnít quite grab in his follow through, Vaughan then cut low to backward point where Hayden spilled a more routine catch. But the batsmen battled on and soon the 50 partnership was up, the sun was briefly out and Ponting, instead of turning to Warne, brought himself on to bowl. (It later emerged that Warne had a niggle in his back.)

Who would have guessed that Ponting would make the breakthrough? Certainly not Vaughan, who after leaving a series of wide, tempting deliveries, finally flashed at a slightly shorter one and got a thin feather through to Gilchrist. Disbelief was written all over Vaughanís face. Pontingís smile was wider than any heís worn in recent weeks.

Bad light ended play soon afterwards, and there was another vital breakthrough early on day two when Pietersen edged a very full ball from Lee. Then came the partnership that set up the match. Flintoff and Geraint Jones put on 177, their fourth century stand in Tests. Add to that three further stands worth more than 50 and an overall average of 79.27, from just 11 partnerships and youíll work out that they bat quite well together. They began sensibly, keeping the scoreboard ticking over without taking undue risks. But on a clear, crisp sort of day, batting was soon much easier once the batsman was in.

Flintoff brought up his 50 with a swept 6 off Warne. The new ball was taken immediately, and Jones drove the first ball powerfully for four. Flintoff then hit three boundaries in one over from Tait, and the hundred stand was up in 126 balls. Lee was bowling well, with good pace and just a hint of outswing, but Tait was disappointing and was soon replaced by Kasprowicz, who forced an error from Flintoff when he popped one up just short of cover.

England lunched well at 344-5, then some poor stuff from Lee and Kasprowicz after the resumption brought 47 more in the first six overs. Flintoffís hundred came up from just 121 balls, and he hadnít even tried to be aggressive. Fine, controlled strokeplay, punchy drives and brutal treatment of the short ball confirmed his maturing into a batsman of genuine quality as opposed to the lower-order hitter of old. He finally fell lbw to a Tait inswinger with the score a healthy 418-6. Jones took the score on to 450, and himself to within 15 of an equally deserved hundred before he fell trying to hit Kasprowicz through the leg-side, the ball richoteting off his pad and back to the bowler.

This was the start of a mini-collapse in which England lost three wickets for four runs, but a last wicket partnership between Simon Jones and Hoggard took the score up to 477, Jonesís audacious strokeplay aided by a piece of fortune in which he took a short ball on the grille and it bounced down on to the stumps without dislodging a bail. This was the first of two cases in the match where the ball hit the stumps cleanly but the bail did not fall.

As soon as Australiaís reply began it was clear that Hoggard was swinging the new ball more than any of Australiaís bowlers had. Soon, Simon Jones replaced Harmison as England sought to exploit it, and not long afterwards Australia were in trouble. First Hoggard produced a beauty swinging back into Hayden and striking his pad in front of off stump, the big Queenslander not quite getting his weight forward. Two more lbw decisions followed, Ponting and Martyn both beaten by balls which nipped back sharply off the seam. TV replays later showed that in both cases an inside edge should have saved them, but in Pontingís case this was with a magnified slow-mo 25 minutes after the event, and both looked out on first viewing with the naked eye. Hoggard continued with a fine, marathon spell and in his 10th over had Langer (who had taken yet another blow to the helmet) caught at bat-pad with another inswinger.

At 58-4 Australia were already in trouble. Katich, troubled by reverse swing in the last two Tests, again looked uncertain, but Michael Clarke looked in fine touch and these two looked to be taking Australia to the close without further loss until, in the last over of the day, Clarke, having shown admirable restraint when confronted again by Englandís tactic of bowling wide of off stump to him, got one from Harmison which nipped back and he too was lbw.

Adam Gilchrist began day three with the idea that this would be the day when he finally imposed himself on the series. He launched a fierce assault in which he and Katich took 21 off one Hoggard over, Gilchrist swiping him through midwicket for four, then lifting a huge six over long-on. Katich joined in with a couple of well hit shots, until, in Jonesís first over of the day, he sliced a drive to the straighter of two gullies. Another beauty from Jones then turned Warne around and found a leading edge which looped gently to cover to get rid of Englandís arch-nemesis first ball.

Jones, bowling as well as any England fast bowler I can remember, then nearly took Brett Leeís nose off with one which lifted and left him. His awesome spell continued when Gilchrist edged wide of second slip where Strauss dived full length and just managed to grasp the ball in his left hand. A perfect outswinger splattered Kasprowiczís stumps and then, after Brett Lee had dominated a last wicket stand of 33 with Tait with a display of good old fashioned slogging, twice hitting Harmison out of the ground, Jones claimed his fifth, Lee going over the top once too often and well held down at third man by Bell. Australia 218 all out, an immense 259 behind.

After the match Michael Vaughan claimed he never had any doubts about enforcing the following on and batting against Warne in the final innings. In reality I have no doubt that the spectre of Warne bowling England out, which so nearly happened, must have been on his mind. But in the huddle he called at the end of the innings he got a positive response from his bowlers (although Jones was still claiming his sweater from the umpire), and the desire to make Australia follow on for the first time since Pakistan made them in Karachi in 1988 probably made up his mind for him.

He would surely have batted again had he known that just four overs into his spell Simon Jones would pull up with an ankle problem which prevented him from bowling for the rest of the game and may even keep him out of the final Test at the Oval. There was little sign of it on the field. Jones bowled a couple of overs during Australiaís awkward little session before lunch, then he was late onto the field after lunch, running well enough but with a grimace on his face. He bowled two more overs at reduced pace, then disappeared for good . It was a huge blow for England. It is all very well for Australia to lose McGrath before the game when he could be replaced, but they would rather have it happen that way than for him to go lame halfway through the match. For England to have enforced the follow-on and then straight away to lose a bowler, moreover their most consistently dangerous bowler in the series, was a blow which might have cost them the game. Jonesís strength in the series has been his ability to swing the ball both ways, either in reverse or conventional mode, at high pace and at will. On a flat pitch, against a determined opponent, bowling for two straight innings, it is a testament to his colleagues that they managed to do the job without him.

But for a while it looked like they wouldnít. Langer, despite another nasty blow from Harmison, this time on the elbow, and Hayden survived till lunch and carried on afterwards to a solid 50 partnership. But then Hayden, again failing to get his weight forward, drove at Flintoff and edged to gully. There followed some superb courageous batting by Ponting and Langer against some very accurate fast bowling from Flintoff and Harmison. That the two batsmen never looked comfortable is no criticism, that they remained there at all is the highest praise. Langer had one life, Strauss, after his stunning catch to dismiss Gilchrist before lunch, shelling a simpler one chest-high to his left. It was a rare lapse from Strauss, and a rarer one from Langer, who spent most of his innings bent almost double in his determination to keep his head right over the ball.

For Australia to get to tea for the loss of just one wicket was some achievement. But soon after tea the breakthrough came, Giles spinning one just enough to force a bat-pad catch from Langer, who hid his face in distress at being caught at short-leg for the third innings in a row. Three times is enemy action. While Ponting ploughed on, and looked like laying the foundations for another valiant innings as at Old Trafford, Martyn never looked comfortable. Early on Giles span one past his bat and just a fraction past off stump, nearly getting his wicket this way for the second time in the series.

By now Simon Jones had departed to hospital for a scan. His place on the field was taken by Gary Pratt, a young left-hand batsman from Durham whom I saw score a wonderful hundred for England under-19 a couple of years ago. He is also a fine fielder, something the Australians perhaps did not appreciate when Martyn played a ball to his left at cover and called his captain through for a single. Pratt sprinted, pounced and threw down the stumps with Ponting well short. As England celebrated, a furious Ponting aimed a torrent of abuse at their balcony as he strode up the steps of the Pavilion, for which he was later fined 75% of his match fee.

The Australians, it appears, have been concerned for a while about Englandís use of substitute fielders. It is true that Englandís bowlers are on and off the field more often than can easily be explained away, and that not all of these visits are likely to warrant the granting of a substitute under a strict interpretation of the laws. But England are far from the only offenders in this respect. As for the question of personnel, it has always been the case that England would choose their twelfth man from either the county hosting the match, or whichever county was not engaged in a match themselves. They are not alone in this either. In the first match of the last Ashes series in Brisbane Brett Lee was omitted from the final XI and sent back to his state; Australia did not, I presume, simply send for the nearest donkey to replace him.

Pontingís anger was probably meant for himself and perhaps for Martyn too. Martyn would surely have wanted a long stay at the crease, not only to make up for his lack of runs in the series, but also to make sure his skipper had a chance to simmer down. Unfortunately for him, he lasted only a few more minutes before edging a wideish ball to the keeper.

But now came Michael Clarke, that livewire, who seems utterly impervious to pressure and situation. He played with his typical, jaunty air, all fleet of foot and supple of wrist. He played as if this were a dance and he the star guest. Katich too, took heart from his longer stay at the crease in the first innings and looked refreshingly secure. As the day wore on England began to look weary and the absence of Jones began to count. Hoggard too seemed to be wincing with pain from some niggle. They were probably as pleased as Australia when the close came at 222-4.

Clarke and Katich went some way towards giving Australia something to bowl at. They batted much of the way towards lunch on day four, showing steely resolve and leaving the ball with outstanding judgement. If there was a fault in their approach it was that they carried it perhaps too far. Clarke did have one life, Geraint Jones missing a straightforward stumping late on the third evening. By the time Clarke finally lost concentration and nibbled at a Hoggard outswinger ten minutes before the break, they had added just 39 runs in the session, taking Australia into credit in the process. Had they married occupation of the crease with the desire to keep the score ticking over they could have hurt England far more severely. As it was they simply took up time, of which there was plenty left in the game.

Gilchrist came in once more with aggression in mind and straight away crashed two boundaries off Flintoff, but England bowled well at him after lunch and 13 minutes after the break Hoggard struck again, pitching one just on leg and straightening it to trap him leg before. It was the first time Gilchrist had been lbw to a non-spin bowler in Tests. Tension was beginning to tell now, and Katich nearly ran himself out before glancing Hoggard down to fine leg to bring up his 50 with his first boundary of the day.

Warne quickly overtook his partner in the boundary count. He took three off one Flintoff over, one hook, one cut and a punchy drive off the slower ball. The tiring Flintoff was quickly replaced by Harmison, who struck with his fourth ball, claiming Katich lbw. But this was more bad luck for Australia, if the two poor lbws in the first innings looked out at first glance, this one didnít. It pitched outside leg-stump and hit him above the knee-roll. Two balls later Lee had a wild drive at Harmison and edged, but Jones, diving in front of first slip, could not hang on to the catch.

Another error by Englandís wicket-keeper followed soon afterwards. Giles had a good lbw shout against Warne, and the whole England team went up, except for Strauss, who was pouncing on the ball at point as the batsmen took a single, his throw was good but Jones, still appealing, saw it too late and broke the wicket with his gloves before he could gather the ball. Fine though Jonesís batting is, his technical deficiencies behind the stumps remain a concern, not least the fact that he never seems to watch the ball into his gloves. When he missed the stumping off Clarke it was hardly surprising since his eyes were closed at the time.

Meanwhile Warne was once again proving a right royal pain in Englandís backside. Since Lordís, and with due deference to Pontingís magnificent innings at Manchester, he has held this Australian side together with bat, ball and fighting spirit. Here he smashed his way to 45 off 42 balls, hitting Giles over long-on with complete abandon, before he tried it once too often and Jones, with some relief, completed the stumping.

But now it was the turn of Lee and Kasprowicz to hold England up. Just as at Edgbaston their defence was solid and they seemed to have a way of keeping the score moving whoever was bowling or wherever the field was set. When the stand reached 30 there was another opportunity for Pietersen to break his catching duck, but he failed to hang on to the high chance Kasprowicz offered him at midwicket. It did not cost England however as with just one run added Kasprowicz edged a good ball from Harmison to the keeper. Lee added a few more before Harmison finished the innings off, bowling Tait as the young fast bowler moved so far across he exposed all three stumps behind his legs.

England needed just 129 to win. But in this series it was never going to be a cakewalk. Trescothick started off by carting Kasprowicz all over the park, and it began to look like Englandís run chase against Sri Lanka at Old Trafford three years ago, when they had 50 to make in six overs and did it in five. By the fourth over there was a sweeper out on the cover boundary already.

But it all changed as soon as Warne came on to bowl. Watching Warne bowl in Englandís first innings here I was struck by the way that the passage of time had made him easier to score off. There are more short balls than there used to be, or it seems that way at least. Ten years ago a batsman seeing Warne pitch short would be wary in case it was the flipper. Now the flipper is no more he knows he can cut or pull. Similarly the old drift and dip is no longer there, the dip being crucial as it often fooled a batsman into thinking he was getting a full toss or a half volley. Now he knows he is.

But, however age and injury has depleted his armoury, Warne is still a formidable opponent and this was the most accurate spell he has bowled in this series so far. His first ball was right on the money, spinning out of the rough on a good length. Trescothick pushed forward and the ball glanced bat and pad on its way to silly point. Warne then craftily left a big gap at midwicket, Vaughan took the bait and gave a leading edge to slip without scoring. 36-2, and the first signs of nerves from England.

Strauss and Bell rode a few torrid overs, then things seemed to quieten down a touch. Strauss got a couple of good shots away off a tiring Lee to bring up the 50. A short ball from Warne then got the treatment through cover. But at 57 Strauss tried to turn a ball from Warne behind square with the spin and Clarke took a fine low catch at leg-slip. At the start of the next over Bell then cracked under the pressure and hooked Lee straight down to long leg.

57 for 4. It was hardly possible. The whole of England now seemed to be facing the unpalatable prospect of defeat. The English fans in the ground were the ones covering their faces, the Australians the ones standing and cheering.

This run chase was always going to be about partnerships, and the 5th wicket partnership between Pietersen and Flintoff was to be the crucial one for England, and for the game. If Australia could break it quickly, with England still less than halfway there and only the tail to come, they would be on the verge of a famous win. Incredibly, Ponting still chose to hedge his bets with defensive fields. Flintoff got off the mark with a thick edge high through the vacant gully, and the two big guns were off. Before long, there wasnít even a slip.

The one ostensibly defensive move which seemed logical was Warneís bowling around the wicket at Pietersenís leg-stump. He reasoned, astutely, that Pietersenís ego would not let him simply kick away six balls an over. Pietersenís efforts at sweeping or swiping through the leg side failed more often than not, but somehow the ball always went to ground rather than up in the air. At the other end Tait replaced Lee and the inexperienced young paceman offered England a welcome chance to score runs. England crept ever closer. Flintoff survived a strong lbw shout form Warne, then struck him over mid-on for four. Just 34 needed now. Pietersen then cracked an attempted yorker from Tait through midwicket to bring up the 100.

It was time for Australiaís last throw of the dice. After a short breather Lee returned in place of Tait and immediately produced a fine outswinger which Pietersen could only edge to Gilchrist for 23. England 103-5. 26 needed. Flintoff added 8 more with Geraint Jones before he too got an unplayable ball from the wholehearted Lee, which nipped back off the seam and hit the top of off-stump. 111-6. 18 needed. It is at this point in procedings that the notes I was making become completely illegible.

Now, at last, the close catchers came in for Giles. But the first ball to him was a no-ball (Australiaís fatal weakness in this match.) 17 to win. Giles clipped two through midwicket; 15. Jones nudged Warne through square-leg for a single; 14. A Warne full toss was placed through midwicket by Giles; 13.

So close, and as the last recognised batsman Geraint Jones should have seen it as his job to see the job through. But, as with Bell before him, the pressure told. Coming down the pitch to give Warne a heave over extra cover, he miscued and holed out to mid-off. Now it was just the tail, just Hoggard, poor strokeless Hoggard, and Giles who had scored eight runs off Warne in the series and been out to him four times. Incredibly, Lee was bowling to Hoggard with just one slip.

Lee targeted Hoggard with yorkers, but the stubborn tyke was ready for him. He was off the mark with two driven through extra cover; 11 to win. A big lbw shout with the ball going well down leg-side, then a no ball; 10. Giles clipped Warne through midwicket for another two; 8 to win (and just 7 to keep the Ashes alive with a tie!) The most incredible thing of all is how secure Giles suddenly looked against Warne.

And now the final blows. Lee aims another yorker, but doesnít get it quite right, Hoggard meets it on the full and creams it away through extra cover for a boundary he will remember till his dying day. 4 to win and the nervous wreck on the edge of my seat still wonít believe the game is won. But then another attempted yorker flashes through midwicket for two and itís just 2 to win. A false alarm follows when Giles crashes a Warne full-toss into Katich at short leg. The next ball goes straight through him. But then thereís another ball on leg stump, Giles brings down his bat into the only scoring stroke he knows against this man and the ball is away into the wide open spaces between mid-on and midwicket and England have won.

There have been plenty of great Test matches in the history of this great game, and plenty of great Test series. But how many of those great matches have come three in a row between the same sides? How many of those series were full of matches which went right down to the wire? Looking back at the start of this summer to the one day internationals, I was worried that, although the series itself was unpredictable with England winning one match and Australia the next, the matches themselves were very one-sided. But perhaps that is the inherent weakness of the one day format. Although my blood pressure is soaring, my hair is turning white at an alarming rate, and my bare feet keep getting stabbed by the jagged edges of torn fingernail which litter my floor, this series must surely rank as the best ever. It has been a privilege to watch, and life will seem strangely, serenely empty once it is over.

Which will be all too soon. With the fifth and final Test coming up at the Oval a week on Thursday, the two sides have a little time to nurse their wounded back to health and plot another classic for us all. Having taken the bold step of introducing Shaun Tait for a reasonably impressive debut, Australia may consider the even bolder step of picking an all-rounder in place of a batsman for this game they must win. Just as Australia will be praying that Glenn McGrath can overcome his elbow problem, so England will be hoping that Simon Jonesís anterior impingement on the soft tissue of his ankle is less serious than it sounds. If not, they will have to make their first change of the series. The Oval is not the bouncy pace paradise of old, but it still offers a bit more than most pitches in England, so it might be the ideal place to give a debut to the Hampshire giant Chris Tremlett. As a one-off measure, however, I would not rule out the return of the experienced Andrew Caddick for a final performance on a stage that would suit him well.

A final warning for England. The Aussie juggernaut may be running out of gas, but it still has enough under its bonnet to run over anyone who gets in its way and doesnít step aside smartly.

And a final warning for Australia. In each of the last two years Steve Harmison has come out of a quiet patch and been irresistible at the Oval.

Scorecard Summary

England 477 (Flintoff 102, GO Jones 85, Warne 4-102) and 129-7 (Warne 4-31)

Australia 218 (Lee 47, Katich 45, SP Jones 5-44) & 387 (Langer 61, Katich 59, Clarke 56, Ponting 48, Warne 45)

England won by 3 wickets

Man of the Match

Andrew Flintoff


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