Weather aids England’s quest

The storm clouds that had interrupted play so rudely on two previous days finally lifted a little and allowed a prompt start to play on the fourth day of the final game of this fascinating, dramatic and quite wonderful 2005 Ashes series. Australia’s overnight 277-2 was a position from which they could post a huge total, but with the new ball just moments away, a circumspect approach was called for.

The options for the visitors were many, but whether they were to look to bat all day or to declare behind, it came down to this simple equation – if England could bat for half of the time that remained in the match, they would win The Ashes. If not, the big prize would probably remain in Australian hands. Either way, a solid start was called for from the not-out batsmen Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn.

After a relatively quiet first over and with the new cherry due but not taken, Andrew Flintoff produced a real ‘effort ball’ to Martyn (10) that reared in front of the batsman’s face. An awkward-looking pull shot was half pulled, half prodded, straight to Paul Collingwood at midwicket, and it was England who had got out of the block-holes quicker.

A couple of overs from Ashley Giles that produced little to alarm the batsmen saw Flintoff take the new ball, and Michael Clarke got off the mark with one squeezed past cover. Matthew Hoggard was brought on to bowl from the Vauxhall End in conditions that seemed made-to-measure for his brand of conventional swing.

So murky was it that the umpires offered the light to the batsmen, but recognising the situation, for almost the first time this summer the chance to head for the dressing-room was declined, a decision Matthew Hayden almost regretted immediately when an expansive drive narrowly avoided a confrontation between ball and outside edge.

Clarke threw everything at a Hoggard out-swinger and the regulation chance to Andrew Flintoff at slip was uncharacteristically dropped, then Hayden signalled his own intent to get on with things with a glorious straight drive past the bowler, a sight we had seen so rarely earlier in the summer.

A lovely cover drive brought Clarke a boundary through the covers to raise the Australian 300, then Hayden profited to the tune of four overthrows when Flintoff attempted to hurl down the stumps at the bowler’s end with the batsman struggling to make his ground.

The unappetising prospect of facing England’s fastest bowler in indifferent light didn’t phase Hayden for one moment, as two splendid pull shots from Steve Harmison’s rather loose solitary over of the morning bore witness. The first hour had brought Australia a less-than-urgent 42 runs for the loss of a solitary wicket as the atmospheric conditions removed all thoughts of an early declaration from the equation.

Matthew Hayden’s brilliant, fighting 138 finally came to a close with Australia on 323 and, inevitably in the context of this series, it was Andrew Flintoff who saw him off. Two balls slanting across the left-hander tempted the drive, but the third nipped back off the seam and precipitated the slow, agonising finger of death from umpire Rudy Koertzen.

The conditions were proving to be equally difficult for batsman and fielder alike, and when Clarke lofted Hoggard square on the off side, the ball landed a yard short of Ian Bell who never picked the ball up until the fleeting opportunity had gone. Clarke continued to chance his arm and enjoyed further good fortune when he dragged the ball off the inside edge for four down to fine leg.

Flintoff’s magnificent series continued in the way it had gone all summer, and Simon Katich became his fourth victim of the innings for just a single, trapped as plumb as they come for just a single, to the extent that Katich was almost walking off even as the umpire sent him on his way. Australia had slumped in alarming fashion to 329-5, although in the context of the match the loss of wickets was not at this stage affecting Australia’s chances of victory, just reducing their options.

Adam Gilchrist came as close as they come to edging his first ball from Matthew Hoggard, but a perfectly timed on-drive followed by a club that would have felled an ox signalled that whatever was to follow was destined to happen at breakneck speed. Flintoff troubled Gilchrist from over the wicket before another brutal drive suggested that the Australian wicketkeeper was in one of ‘those’ moods.

Gilchrist’s helter-skelter start continued in fortuitous manner when he flashed hard at a Hoggard delivery outside his off stump, but the ball was already well on its way to the fence at third man before the diving Strauss met the ground once more.

As Australia moved within 20 of England’s total, brilliant fielding by Collingwood kept Gilchrist down to a single, then Hoggard, receiving a huge roar from the crowd every time he ran in, gave Clarke a torrid time for the rest of the over. It was Gilchrist, though, who had progressed to just 23 before he became Hoggard’s first victim of the match in the last over before lunch when the Yorkshireman’s signature in-ducker left Billy Bowden in no doubt that the batsman’s leg was most definitely before wicket.

Australia’s desperation to press ahead, inevitably brought on by their precarious situation in the series, had been reduced to a decidedly unhealthy 356-6 at lunch by some quality swing bowling, something that had troubled the visitors all summer long. For much of this match, it had looked that Australia were looking to bat once – something that at this stage seemed to be little more than a pipe-dream.

The afternoon session looked at least a little brighter overhead as Shane Warne walked out to face the final five balls of Hoggard’s over. A leg-bye brought Michael Clarke on strike and once again he profited from a glaring error by Geraint Jones, spurning an eminently catchable chance in front of the eyes of first slip.

Any profit to Clarke and Australia was minimal, though, as Hoggard’s next over saw him defeat the defensive lunge to good effect, rapping the batsman on the pad in front of middle stump. Clarke’s desperately scratchy 25 had occupied the crease for the best part of two hours, but he had looked no more in at the end than he had at the beginning of his innings.

Brett Lee joined Shane Warne in the middle, a partnership that had proved to be a major thorn in England’s side all summer long, but on this occasion their time together was less than fruitful. Flintoff beat Warne three times outside off stump before producing a wicked bouncer that was on to the batsman just a little too quickly for comfort. The resultant pull went high off the top edge, straight to Vaughan at mid-on. It looked straightforward but the England captain still needed two efforts to grab the ball, but grab it he did and Warne had gone for a duck.

Australia, having once been in a position to dictate the course of the game, now looked in danger of actually failing to have any sort of lead whatsoever. Another out-swinger from Hoggard proved more than enough for Glenn McGrath who simply helped the ball into the hands of Andrew Strauss at second slip, and Australia’s ninth wicket had fallen with the total on 363.

Shaun Tait turned his back on a short one from Flintoff, risking life and limb, then he gambled his wicket on a scrambled single to give the more senior Brett Lee the strike. Fortune favoured the brave – or foolhardy – on this occasion as the resultant throw missed by inches with the batsman yards shy of safety.

It fell to Matthew Hoggard to remove the last man and give England the luxury of a lead of just six runs. Brett Lee, one of the few Australian heroes with the bat this summer, smashed the ball in the direction of deep midwicket and Ashley Giles, a couple of yards inside the boundary, took a very clean catch to see Australia all out for 367.

Flintoff and Hoggard had bowled unchanged for nearly two and a half hours save for a single Harmison over, picking up the last eight Australian batsmen at a cost of a paltry 90 runs. As it was, with the conditions perfect for seam bowling, one could argue, perversely, that in doing so they had actually increased Australia’s chances of victory. The question remained, could the visitors make the same sort of use of the conditions that England had been able to so successfully, and would those same conditions prevail?

A watchful Marcus Trescothick faced Glenn McGrath at the start of the England second innings, and it wasn’t until the fifth ball that the opportunity arose for the Somerset opener to steal a single wide of point. Brett Lee shared the new ball from the Vauxhall End and started with an accurate maiden, but it was a maiden that had batsmen blinking and umpires gazing skywards.

The umpires seemed to be paying an inordinate amount of attention to the light, but McGrath was given the nod to continue, and Andrew Strauss dropped the ball in front of himself before scampering a quick single to open his own account. It seemed that Lee and Tait were deemed too quick for the conditions, though, and Ricky Ponting immediately turned to Shane Warne to bowl the fourth over.

Predictably, it took Warne a mere four balls to make his first decisive contribution to the afternoon’s proceedings. Strauss, faced with a ball spitting out of the rough outside his off stump, edged on to his pads and Simon Katich at short leg held a comfortable catch to reduce England to 2-1 and set the nerves of the home supporters jangling.

Glenn McGrath, perhaps unwisely, bowled a bouncer to Michael Vaughan that the England captain seemed to see late, and a signal promptly went from the umpires to the Australian captain that the light was sufficiently poor that even McGrath’s pace was considered excessive. Three balls from Warne later, the light had deteriorated to such an extent that Messrs. Koertzen and Bowden offered the sanctuary of the dressing-room to the England batsmen. Vaughan and Trescothick needed no second invitation.

After half an hour’s delay and an early tea, play resumed with Shane Warne continuing to Marcus Trescothick. The first ball following the resumption saw the batsman cracking a half-volley through the off side. It looked like four all the way, and would have been but for the telescopic arm of Brett Lee who made a simply brilliant stop at extra cover. Who said fast bowlers can’t field?

The marginally-improved light saw McGrath called upon to bowl from the Pavilion End, and his first over contained two lacklustre deliveries that invited sumptuous square drives to the cover boundary from Michael Vaughan. Shane Warne, though, was a different kettle of fish, causing Trescothick immense trouble out of the rough, but the canny leg-spinner was even getting alarming amounts of lift off the stumps when he bowled around the wicket to the right-handed Vaughan.

McGrath seemed to find his amazingly metronomic rhythm quickly, giving Trescothick food for thought with one that ripped away off the seam, but McGrath’s spell was brought to a premature end by the umpires who reminded Ricky Ponting that the light was still very poor indeed.

So it was that Ponting was obliged to turn to the left arm spin of Michael Clarke – either that or risk the batsman being offered the light again. Clarke’s test match bowling average stood at a remarkable 7.6 before this game, thanks in part to a sensational spell of 6 wickets for 9 runs at Mumbai last year, and both English batsmen treated his first over with a suitable degree of respect.

Once again the umpires grew twitchy, and once again we were faced with the frustrating sight of batsmen trooping off from the field of play, on this occasion with the farcical situation of spinners operating from both ends. It soon became obvious that, this time, there would be no quick return for the players as the lowering clouds deposited a sprinkling of drizzle on proceedings, a drizzle that did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the English supporters who cheered every raindrop.

England had reached 34 for the loss of Strauss when, following a frustrating couple of hours for those in the baggy green, the inevitable decision was taken to abandon play for the day. Australia will not concede The Ashes lightly, you can be quite sure of that, but with just one day to go, it will take something quite extraordinary for them to capture the remaining nine English wickets with sufficient time left in order to knock off the runs. But then again, “something quite extraordinary” is totally in keeping with everything else we have witnessed so far this summer in this, the greatest Ashes series of them all. Why should tomorrow be any different?

Match Summary

England 373 all out
Strauss 129, Flintoff 72
Warne 6-122

and 34-1
Vaughan 19*, Trescothick 14*

Australia 367 all out
Hayden 138, Langer 105
Flintoff 5-78, Hoggard 4-97

England lead by 40 with 9 second innings wickets standing.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Eddie Sanders