Monday, August 08, 2005

Edgbaston Ashes Test Match

As published in "The Emirates Evening Post"
The second Ashes Test match - Edgbaston 4th - 7th August 2005


The last time that England played Australia in a Test match at Edgbaston in 2001 England made a decent start on the first morning of the match (despite having been put in) and were 106-1 just before lunch. Steve Waugh threw the ball to Shane Warne who, with his second ball, had Mark Butcher caught by a diving Ricky Ponting. England's innings then fell apart. Roll forward four years to Lord's 2005 when England again made a solid start in their second innings (80-0) before Warne came into the attack and immediately got rid of Trescothick - the rest of the innings then fell away to Warne, McGrath and Lee.

In looking at the prospects for the second Test which begins tomorrow it is clear that once again the key to the outcome will be how the England top and middle order copes with McGrath, Warne and Lee. Having said that, even if the England batsmen do find a way of dealing with these three fine bowlers, it would be no surprise if it were Gillespie (or Kasprowicz) who came to the aid of the Australians' party. It is in the nature of the Aussies to work as a team and very often the less heralded players are the ones who chip in if one or more of the stars has an off day. It was, for example, Clarke and Katich who set up the Australians' win at Lord's with their 155 partnership in the second innings which came at a time when England threatened to get back in the match.

England's move up to second place in the world Test rankings has also been based on teamwork and leadership. In the West Indies eighteen months ago the key to success (apart from Steve Harmison) was the solid middle order of Butcher, Hussain and Thorpe. If one of the openers was out early, and if further wickets fell, one or more of these experienced batsmen would help rebuild the innings. With all three now gone England really struggle to recover from early setbacks. At Lord's three of the middle order (Vaughan, Bell and Flintoff) scored a total of 24 runs between them in the two innings. It is this frailty which has led the selectors to call up Paul Collingwood for the Edgbaston Test, and it is likely that he will play ahead of Ashley Giles. Collingwood is a talented and gutsy cricketer, but it is asking a lot of him to perform a rescue act if once again England get into trouble.

The Australians are not unbeatable and England, with the inspirational Pietersen in the side, have the ability to put them under pressure and force a win. But for this to happen England need to play at 110% and luck needs to run their way. For the good of the remainder of the Ashes series let's hope this happens!

Day One

Psychologists tell us that there are two conventional human responses to threat or fear - the first is to flee (to hide until the threat has gone away) the second is to fight. At Edgbaston yesterday the testosterone count in the England dressing room must have broken all records as the England team responded to the disappointment of Lord's by fighting like caged animals suddenly set free. It was an exhilarating and quite extraordinary day's cricket which saw 407 runs scored in 79.2 overs - a scoring rate of more than 5 per over. To put the score in perspective if it had been a One Day match England, at this rate, would have scored 257 runs - a potentially match winning total. That England were all out in the same 79.2 overs might beg the question as to whether a slightly more measured approach could have given England a more impregnable position - but what the heck, to have the famed Aussie attack on the back foot most of the day, having lost the toss and been asked to bat, is something that most of us at Edgbaston would have settled for at the beginning of play!

The day started with the news that Glenn McGrath, the star of the Australian attack from Lord's (where he took nine wickets for 82 runs) would take no part in the match following a freak warm up injury. This seemed more to concern Australia than it boosted England who knew that Gillespie, Lee, Warne and Kasprowicz would present enough of a challenge. But the Aussie body language showed that the loss of the totemic McGrath so unexpectedly had got to them. Lee and Gillespie opened the bowling and looked almost innocuous as Trescothick and Strauss took charge. Inevitably it was to be Warne who broke this assured opening partnership at 112 just before lunch with a fizzing leg break that deceived Strauss and seared into his stumps. After lunch Vaughan looked in fine form with three elegant boundaries and he and Trescothick took the score comfortably to 164 before Trescothick edged one to Gilchrist for a brilliant 90 off only 102 balls. Immediately Bell (who continues to look out of his depth) fell to Kasprowicz and then Vaughan, letting his adrenaline levels boil over, played an appalling shot to Gillespie and Lee took a fine catch on the boundary. From 164 -1 England were 187-4 and there were some frowns on the England balcony.

When Kevin Pietersen forced his way into the England Test side to bat at 5 ahead of Flintoff at 6 many wondered what would happen if these two hit form together. Now we found out. In just over an hour at the crease they put on a hundred runs with Flintoff scoring 68 at more than a run a ball and hitting six fours and no less than 5 sixes. He fell immediately after the tea interval but Pietersen continued to play brutal but cultured cricket. Although Geraint Jones failed, Giles, Hoggard, Harmison and Simon Jones came to the party scoring 75 crucial runs between them bringing England above the psychological 400 runs total. In less then six hours of scintillating cricket England had put the ghosts of Lord's behind them.

This match has started with a mighty bang and there is every likelihood that the excitement will continue tomorrow. Australia have the fire power fully to match England's score, or more - the Ashes has come alive!

Day Two

If the definition of genius is to have the ability to do something that nobody else could do then Shane Warne is touched with that art. It was, no doubt, in anticipation of Warne bowling an over before the close of play that all the spectators stayed glued to their seats towards the end of an absorbing day's cricket at Edgbaston. Andrew Strauss must have thought that he had already had the one unplayable delivery that Warne would bowl to him in the match when he was clean bowled in England's first innings. So when Warne's second ball fizzed and turned nearly ninety degrees and uprooted all of his stumps last night Strauss will now be convinced that that Warnie has a hex on him. Whether this spell can be turned on again sufficiently on Saturday is the key to this match. On a pitch that looks like it is taking spin Shane Warne can win the match for Australia even though, overnight, they have a deficit of 124 runs and England still have nine wickets in hand.

Australia are never beaten until they are beaten and this match still has a long way to go. Nevertheless for the second day running most of the momentum has been with England. In an innings of only 3.2 overs less than England's Australia scored 99 runs fewer. Their run-rate was still a hugely respectable 4 per over but England's onslaught of the first day has given the home side a slight advantage, not least because Australia will have to bat fourth on a deteriorating wicket. The contrast with the first Test match was huge. At Lord's England had fielded as sloppily as they batted and this never gave them a chance to get back into the match. On Friday at Edgbaston England caught their catches and even achieved a superb run out when Vaughan athletically threw down the stumps to dismiss Damien Martyn. Giles, so ineffectual at Lord's, bowled well and took two crucial wickets (Ponting and Clarke, both when they were well set). Giles also took the wicket of Warne who batted as if he had an urgent appointment in the back of the pavilion with somebody and didn't want to miss it by lingering at the crease.

Whilst the Australians were in most cases victims of their own downfall that takes nothing away from a mostly aggressive and disciplined performance by the England bowlers. That these bowlers work well as a team was shown by the fact that Harmison, who bowled capably on a wicket that didn't quite suit him, was only needed to bowl eleven overs in the day. Giles (3-78), Flintoff (3-52) and Jones (2-69) did the bulk of the work and were duly rewarded.

For Australia both Langer (82) and Gilchrist (49 not out) played well within themselves whilst Ponting (61) and Clarke (40) played their natural games. Had one of these players gone on to a really big score the overnight position would be very different; that they didn't is a tribute to England's perseverance.

The weather seems set fair for day three of this intriguing battle. England will have to bat well and set Australia around 350 to be in the pound seats at close of play tomorrow. This, of course, means finding an answer to the magical spells of Australia's sorcerer in chief!

Day Three

The breathtaking pace of this extraordinary Ashes Test series continued on the third day at Edgbaston when the advantage swung back and forth between the two sides throughout another pulsating day. At stumps that advantage was firmly with England with Australia at 175-8 in their second innings still requiring another 107 runs for victory. For the second time in the series 17 wickets fell on a day - but these bare statistics tell little of the drama and the tension that held the rapt attention of everyone lucky enough to be at the ground. This was cricket at its supreme best with multi-coloured skills on display for 88.5 spellbinding overs during which no quarter was given by either side. That England finished the day on top is almost entirely attributable to one man - the remarkable Andrew Flintoff who gave one of Test cricket's greatest ever all-round performances.

The morning belonged to Australia who by lunch had England in disarray at 95-6. This was an overall lead of only 194 and had England folded early in the second session Australia would have had a target that they would have believed to be easily gettable. Warne and Lee were in fine form; Lee fired up to put his indifferent first innings bowling behind him. The England top order folded first to Lee (who accounted for Trescothick, Vaughan and night watchman Hoggard) and then Warne who first won his personal battle with Pietersen and then easily outthought Bell.

In the afternoon Flintoff, although unable initially to find an enduring partner, took the game into his own hands hitting 73 off 86 balls with ten boundaries, four of them sixes. The key to Flintoff being able to give England a tolerably respectable total of 182 was a last wicket partnership of 51 with Simon Jones who batted sensibly - as well as hitting a few good blows himself. The near doubling of England's score in the post lunch session was crucial to giving them a chance to put Australia under pressure in their second innings.

Twelve overs into their innings Australia looked to be under no pressure at all. At 47 without loss, with Langer carrying on from where he left off in the first innings and Hayden looking in some sort of form, it seemed that they were building a platform from which the Aussies could push on to victory. Michael Vaughan then brought on Flintoff who was on a hat trick having taken the last two Australian first innings wickets yesterday. The hat trick eluded Freddie, but his second ball clean bowled Langer and his sixth had Ponting caught behind for a duck. Flintoff had taken four wickets in eight balls, this success only being interrupted by his remarkable batting! As in the Aussie first innings England had then to fight hard for their wickets but all the bowlers chipped in as the Australians increasingly began to feel the pressure.

At the scheduled close of play Australia were 137-7 and then Michael Vaughan claimed an extra half hour to try and finish the job on the day. This looked to be a mistake as Shane Warne and the excellent Michael Clarke added 38 runs before Vaughan called up Steve Harmison to bowl the final over. Harmy has had an ordinary match and was well below his best pace earlier in the innings. But Vaughan must have set "Give it a real go Steve" and Harmison responded with four fast and well-directed balls the last of which destroyed Clarke's stumps.

If England, as they should, wrap up the match early tomorrow it will be their most important Test victory for years. And with only a few days to go before the Old Trafford Third test they will have the momentum. If England win it won't just be the admirable Barmy Army who will be dancing in the stands - the members might do a gentle foxtrot in the pavilion as well!

Day Four

If the cardiac unit at the Birmingham Royal Infirmary didn't have an unexpected upsurge in business around lunchtime yesterday I would be very much surprised. My cricket watching stretches back fifty years, and whilst there have been some nail-biters along the way, nothing can compare with the tension of the fourth day of the second Ashes Test at Edgbaston. There have been some tight ones - the MCG in 1982/83 (which England won by 3 runs) and again in 1998/99 spring to mind. The latter match was my first visit to the great Melbourne ground and England's win (by 12 runs) was comparatively comfortable compared with yesterday at Edgbaston - and Australia had already retained the Ashes anyway. The key point about Edgbaston 2005 was that it really mattered to both sides. If Australia had won the likelihood of England winning back The Ashes would have been small indeed. But England's win levels the series and all is to play for. This context, combined with the quality of the cricket, the fierceness of the competition, the closeness of the final result and the packed ground throughout makes this arguably the greatest, as well as the closest, Ashes Test match of all time.

For all the fierceness of the contest the game was played in a wonderful spirit. Simon Jones would be well advised to reflect on his inappropriate gesture when pointing Matt Hayden back to the pavilion, not least because it was a rare lapse of taste on either side. Perhaps Freddie Flintoff should have a quiet word with him. There was a moment just after Harmison had taken the final Australian wicket to give England the win that brought tears to my cynical old eyes. It wasn't the cavorting of the England team, but the sight of Freddie going up to Brett Lee, who was on his knees, and comforting him. Lee patted Flintoff on the back to show how much he appreciated the gesture. There is a lot of nonsense talked about "The Spirit of Cricket", much of it anachronistic hogwash. Cricket's spirit comes not from administrators and law makers but from players like Freddie and the two Captains each of whom spoke well at the end of the match, not just about the guts and talent of their own team, but also admiringly and genuinely about their opponents.

The eight days of this Ashes series so far has been cricket at its very best and there is every expectation that when the teams gather again at Old Trafford on Thursday this will continue. Australia's perfomance at Edgbaston (when they were, let's not forget, without Glenn McGrath) will not have dented their self-confidence much. But England will know that the last time they squared an Ashes series from one down (in 1981) the momentum carried them on to further improbable triumphs. History is bunk? We shall see!