NWC: Back in the Old RoutineNeil Pickup |
And so it’s proved. The pre-tour form guide has won the day, and Australia – at last – have overcome their recent travails to break through to a unit more resembling the legendary winning machine of recent years than the broken, bedraggled and beaten bunch that had slumped to England, Bangladesh and Somerset.
All the slumping that went on at the Oval in today’s third, final and decisive NatWest Challenge ODI came from the English batting order. Once again charged with the new ball by Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee resumed their torment of Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss, the veteran seamer inflicting four consecutive maidens while Trescothick flapped Lee to Michael Kasprowicz at third man. It took a woeful dropped catch – a skier as close to regulation as it is genuinely possible to come – from the embattled Gillespie at backward square leg to break McGrath’s stranglehold after 27 scoreless deliveries.
Incredibly, Adam Gilchrist reprised the act of skier-spilling, complete with keeping gloves, soon after as England led a charmed life – but Ponting’s athleticism and speed of throw in the gully put paid to his opposite captain, recordingd a direct hit run out. Kasprowicz reminded the Test selectors of the major weapon in his artillery when he induced Strauss to guide his off-cutter into Gilchrist’s once-more-safe gloves before repeating the treatment two overs later when Andrew Flintoff snicked a cut shot.
Gillespie’s shelled sitter earlier on signalled a new rock bottom for the mulleted paceman, but his introduction the attack bore the signs of a man possessed by a drive to prove himself once more, a drive to preserve his under-fire Ashes position. When Paul Collingwood, deceived by away-movement to miscue his leg glance, flicked a leading edge to Andrew Symonds at short cover, the first tottering step to recovery – to his teammates’ delight – had been taken. Gillespie then needed just nine balls to strike again as Geraint Jones flashed high and hard outside off stump to provide Michael Kasprowicz with a smart, running catch at third man – at 93-6, England had once again seen their top order fall around.
But Kevin Pietersen was still there – a man playing for a Test place, and a man joined by England’s super-sub Vikram Solanki – replacing Simon Jones, albeit altogether earlier than the English hierarchy envisaged. First stabilising and then aggressing, England moved from the brink of meltdown to a vaguely respectable total as Pietersen lofted Clarke over mid-on – caught brilliantly by Kasprowicz as the ball cleared the boundary – before swatting a charge-pull off Gillespie over mid-on of all places. It took a perfectly-executed slower ball from the seemingly rejuvenated Gillespie to end Pietersen’s 84-ball 74, but it didn’t end England’s revival as Ashley Giles joined Solanki – who struck several effective drives, both of the aerial and more ground-based varieties, on his way to 53* – to add 42 for the eighth wicket in better than even time.
Nonetheless, 228-7 was below par on a docile Oval track by the small matter of fifty runs – at a conservative estimate. Now Jones-less, England entrusted the new ball to the care of Steve Harmison – but Australia’s Gilchrist entrusted it to the care of the boundary ropes, advertising hoardings and spectators’ hands. Repeatedly. Matt Hayden, still looking uncomfortable and yet to regain previous years’ imperious veins of form, slashed Gough through to Geraint Jones with the score 91 as England briefly reduced the tourists’ run rate below six per over.
None of Michael Vaughan and England’s efforts could bring about any arrest in the Australian momentum as Ricky Ponting continued the dazzling strokeplay of Sunday’s Lord’s ODI – Australia adding 94 for the second wicket off just 80 balls before Ponting waltzed carelessly pitchwards to Giles, deflecting the ball off his front pad for Geraint Jones to complete a stumping so simple the batsman continued his two-step towards the pavilion.
Only Flintoff was able to keep the Australian scoring (rate) in check as Harmison haemorrhaged 81 runs from one ball shy of his ten over quota – a noball-bouncer being lashed to the square leg fence by Damien Martyn with fully 91 balls to spare, Gilchrist remaining unbeaten on 121* from only 101 balls, including 17 fours and two maxima.
And so the foreplay is concluded. The two pugilists wrestling for prime position, scrabbling for support and foundations before the main event kicks into gear, desperate for any factors to boost their rythym and kick-start their drive. Two questions remain – Bell, Pietersen or Thorpe against Lee, Kasprowicz or Gillespie. One match remains for the tourists to decide, a three-day warm up at Leicester’s Grace Road game this weekend, whilst England name their Test Squad tomorrow – but the date permanently inked into every cricketer’s diary is Thursday, July 21, when Lord’s see hostilities commence in the Ashes 2005.
Kevin Pietersen 74, Vikram Solanki 53*
Jason Gillespie 3-44, Michael Kasprowicz 2-46
Adam Gilchrist 121*, Ricky Ponting 43
Darren Gough 1-37, Ashley Giles 1-64
Australia win by 8 wickets
Australia win the NatWest Challenge 2-1
CricketWeb Player of the Match
Adam Gilchrist (Australia) – 121*