McGrath Rocks, England Rolled

Resuming at 53 for 3 in reply to Australia’s nine declared for 602, England were ripped out for a dismal 157 in a performance which went some way to resurrecting the ghosts of pre-2005 Ashes humiliations. Only the improved Ian Bell with an even 50 provided any resistance to McGrath, who finished with an immaculate six for 50.

Despite leading by an almost unbelievable 445 on the first innings, Australian captain Ricky Ponting opted to twist the knife into England by not enforcing the follow-on, and by stumps his team was 181 for one, with Justin Langer not out 88 and Ponting on 51. The only batsman to fall in Australia’s second innings was Matthew Hayden, run out for 37 chancing a second run to James Anderson. By stumps, Australia’s lead was an Everest-like 626 runs with two days to play.

All Australian winter McGrath had been promising that he was in the best physical shape of his career. After returning to international cricket via a one-day tournament in Malaysia and the Champions Trophy in India, many doubted whether Test cricket’s leading paceman would be able to regain the pace and zip which has tormented batsmen around the world for over a decade. While the critics asked questions, McGrath promised that he was simply timing his run for Brisbane.

The doubts, however, persisted. Last evening and today, McGrath delivered a 23.1 over master-class and answered every question which had been asked of him as well as making a pointed statement of his own.

After removing Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook yesterday, McGrath set about his work this morning against Kevin Pietersen and Bell on an increasingly cracking pitch. One crack in particular was right on a good length for the batsman at the end from which McGrath was bowling. Perhaps no fast bowler in the history of the game was more likely to hit that spot so consistently.

Upon resumption, Ponting immediately placed two men on the hook shot for Pietersen, yet the bouncer was used sparingly by both McGrath and Brett Lee, who again demonstrated his new-found maturity in a probing spell of genuinely fast bowling.

Ponting’s astute field placements, combined with the tights lines of his opening bowlers led to Pietersen in particular playing in a more circumspect manner than normal. It almost seemed as if he was sweating on the short ball, which the Australians had promised to bombard him with since the start of the tour. Pietersen’s play was so introspective, it was not surprising that he eventually fell lbw to McGrath without offering a shot. It was a tame dismissal for such a domineering character.

All morning McGrath teased and tormented his prey, landing the ball consistently on or near the perfect length. If he did not hit the edge of the widening crack, he landed the ball so close to it that the batsmen were reduced to examining his offerings with the morbid fascination of a condemned man watching the erection of his own gallows.

Following Pietersen’s departure, captain Andrew Flintoff joined Bell, however, Lee produced a perfectly pitched delivery on off-stump which his great mate was drawn into edging to wicket keeper Adam Gilchrist for a third ball duck. Replays suggested that Lee may have over-stepped when bowling the ball which dismissed Flintoff, but the wicket was in any case just reward, as Lee had played a large part in building the pressure which wore England’s batsmen down and had by then reduced them to 79 for 5. Lee and the Australians’ celebrations on Flintoff’s dismissal reflected both the importance of the scalp and just how much they had been straining to throw themselves into this contest after the disappointment of 2005.

England ‘keeper Geraint Jones then joined Bell in an attempt to right England?s ship. The introduction of Stuart Clark and Shane Warne gave little respite for the batsmen, however, Bell again demonstrated improved technique and temperament against Warne, despite surviving a couple of close shouts from the champion leg-spinner.

After taking the score to 126, the re-introduction of (who else?)McGrath ended the doughty partnership when he trapped Jones for a patient 19.

Next to go was Bell, smartly caught by Ponting at second slip from the metronomic Clark, who produced a ball which angled into Bell before straightening and catching the outside edge. Many thought that either Mitchell Johnson or Shaun Tait ought to have played ahead of Clark, but his accuracy and bounce proved a potent weapon for Ponting, who could rely on the tall New South Welshman to maintain pressure while McGrath rested. His eventual return of three for 21 from 14 overs justified Clark’s inclusion and continued the stellar start to his Test career.

Warne, for once went wicketless, despite bowling well. No doubt he will have a say in this match on days four and five.

Once Clark had removed the usually stubborn Matthew Hoggard, it was left to McGrath to attend to mopping-up operations which he duly did in nipping out Steve Harmison and Ashley Giles. Having let his bowling do the talking, McGrath then revealed that he does read the newspapers by imitating the gait of an aged man as he led his buoyant team-mates from the field.

Once Ponting decided to bat a second time, Matthew Hayden returned to his bully-boy ways, ensuring that England gained no confidence with a better new ball effort second time around. The muscular Queenslander looked set to flay an under-done attack to all parts of the ‘Gabba until he erred in taking on Anderson for a second run, being given out by the third umpire for 37.

Langer and Ponting then saw Australia through to stumps; nine second-innings wickets in hand, the lead unassailable and with only a Hurricane Andrew-type deluge or a Lazarus-like come back between it and victory. And all on the back of a man considered by many to be too old and well past his best.

Match Summary

Australia (1st innings) 602 for 9
Ponting 196
Hussey 86
Flintoff 4/99

England 157
Bell 50
McGrath 6/50
S Clark 3/21

Australia (2nd Innings) 181 for 1
Langer 88*
Ponting 51*

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