Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Old Trafford Ashes Test match

As published in "The Emirates Evening Post"

Old Trafford Ashes Test
Paddy Briggs

Day One

After the frantic pace of the First Test at Lord’s, and the unequalled excitement of the Second Test at Edgbaston, we were back to something like normal Test cricket at Old Trafford yesterday. Modern Test cricket, that is – not the sort of grinding stuff that we used to see. There was an Ashes Test on the same ground 41 years ago when Australia scored 253-2 on the first day, and that was pretty swift for those times. Today’s Test cricket is played at a far faster pace and although England’s 341 off 89 overs at 3.83 an over was slower than we have been accustomed to in this series, it was still entertaining stuff.

The Old Trafford wicket looked firm and true, with a bit of bounce, and it was a good toss for Michael Vaughan to win. That Glenn McGrath was fit to play was a surprise, and it seemed to be a justified risk for Australia to play him as he was soon in the groove. Indeed he was extremely unlucky to finish the day wicketless with Trescothick being dropped by Gilchrist and later beating and clean bowling Vaughan, but off a no ball. Brett Lee, who spent two nights in hospital with his knee infection, was also declared fit and with 3-58 was the pick of the Aussie attack. Gillespie had another woeful day and conceded 89 runs in his 15 overs, and Shane Warne (for once) toiled a little on a pitch which offered him little assistance. Warne’s delight when he became the first bowler to take 600 Test wickets when he got Trescothick caught behind was justified and it was also good to see the knowledgeable and generous Old Trafford crowd give him a standing ovation.

If England could have selected two prizes to take from the day at the start it would have been the return to form of Vaughan and the coming of age of Bell. Both happened and, most importantly, Vaughan played as well as he did when he scored 633 runs at an average of 63.3 during the 2002-03 Ashes series. Vaughan’s overall record against the Australians is rather weird. He has been dismissed eleven times for 160 runs (average 14.5 top score 41), but in his other four innings he has scored 177; 145; 183 and now 166. He certainly looked back to his best yesterday and he will be disappointed to have mishooked a full toss from the part time bowler Katich down Glenn McGrath’s throat - a tame dismissal. Kevin Pietersen also mishooked and was caught in the same way near the close of play and he may need to limit his shot making a bit in such circumstances in future. Bell, on the other hand, was circumspect through most of the day, although a couple of lusty boundaries off Warne showed his attacking ability. He played the sort of innings that England have missed since Thorpe left the side - 59 runs off 146 balls – and he, unlike Pietersen, he will start again tomorrow.

If England can add another hundred or so tomorrow and reach a total of 450 plus then they can put Australia under pressure. But with the weather (as always at Manchester) a little uncertain, and the pitch still playing well, the outcome of this Test match might just be that rare thing a draw – but there is a long way to go.

Day Two

The true test of greatness of any player or team is not seen when they keep on winning and carry all before them on a roll, when they are in adversity. We saw how the Australians did this at Edgbaston and so nearly pulled off a sensational victory, so anyone who is ruling them out of the Old Trafford Test would be well advised to keep quiet for a day or two! But the looks on the faces of the Aussie team (shown towards the end of the day’s play on the big screen at the ground) showed how unfamiliar the “backs to the wall” situation that they now find themselves in is to most of them. At 210-7 Australia are 234 runs behind England and 35 runs short of avoiding the possibility of a follow-on.

In the run up to this Test we had the saga of Lee’s knee infection and McGrath’s recovery from his ankle problem and whilst both bowled heroically they could have done with support from Jason Gillespie in England’s innings, support which was sadly absent. A three pronged pace attack comprising two recently injured players and one dolefully out of form was hit for 300 of England’s 444. Contrast this with the performance of England’s four pronged attack all of whom were fit and raring to go. Surely the form of at least two of the four would be good and so it proved with Flintoff (as ever) - and Simon Jones sharing four of the seven Aussie wickets that fell. Significantly it was Ashley Giles who took the other three and it looks as if the pitch suits him nicely! He has 3-66 in 21 overs so far and, for once in his life, his performance can be spoken of in the same breath as that of Shane Warne (4-99 in 33.2 overs). Giles’s ball which bowled Damien Martyn was one that even the great man would have been proud of.

For Michael Vaughan the fact that he has four quality pace bowlers in his side will be a crucial factor if he does have the opportunity to force the follow on. Certainly his attack will be fresh in the morning and with the weather still a bit iffy he may ask Australia to bat again if he gets the chance. If this happens it will be Australia’s first follow-on for an amazing 17 years! If not, I don’t think that Vaughan will be too unhappy because a lead of around 200 should be sufficient to provide England with a platform from which to set Australia a very tough total to get in the fourth innings on a crumbling pitch and with Giles bowling well.

But cricket’s history is illuminated by improbable recoveries from dire circumstances (Headingley 1981 and Calcutta 2001 for example). So I’m making no predictions!

Day Three

Only 14 overs were possible at a very damp Old Trafford, but they could prove to be the most important overs of this match. Australia added fifty runs without losing a wicket, and they saved the follow on. A missed stumping and a dropped catch by Geraint Jones (both from Warne) have cost England dearly. With the confident Warne still at the crease, and in sight of his first Test century, the Aussies could significantly close the gap with England’s first innings on Sunday morning. If they can narrow the gap to what it was at Edgbaston (99 runs), which would mean a total of 345, there would be some real nerves when England come out to bat again. Can Warne and the numbers 9, 10 and 11 again add another 80 runs or so? Don’t bet against it.

Those who know Shane Warne well always attest to the brilliance of his cricketing brain. That he would be on the team sheet of the “All-time-great XI” for his unique bowling talent goes without saying. But his batting and his all round feel for the game, combined with his ebullient self-confidence, make him a more than valuable team member in other respects as well. Had his private life been a little more conventional he would probably have been Australia’s captain after Steve Waugh, but then a “conventional Warne” is not really very likely. Few would begrudge him a hundred tomorrow, providing, that is, that England can still get a lead of at least 150!

If we have two full days (the weather forecast suggests that we might) there is still time for a result in this match. England will be desperate to avoid the nail biter of Edgbaston so will be looking to set Australia at least 350 in their second innings and also leave themselves enough time to bowl them out a second time. Early wickets tomorrow, a lead of 150 and then two good session scoring around 200 runs could set England up to make inroads before the close. But Australia will be unlikely to accommodate them in this ambition and we can expect a further sting from the tail with Warne relishing the possibility of being the fourth cricketer in history to score a hundred and take ten wickets in a match (the others were Alan Davidson; Ian Botham and Imran Khan).

Day Four

One of the reasons that Test matches presents the ultimate cricket challenge is the need for Captains constantly to be reassessing their options throughout the match, especially in the field. In a one day match you pretty much know who you will bowl and when and what your field placings will be. There is some room for innovation and for conjuring up the odd surprise, but not much. In Test cricket there are few restrictions on the Captain and within the Laws of the game he can pretty much bowl who he like and when he like and place his fielders where he likes. This adds greatly to the interest that the game creates and, in modern times certainly, creates an absorbing spectacle when the two sies are evenly matched.

In the Old Trafford Ashes Test, which enters its final day tomorrow, I would award most of the captaincy prizes to Michael Vaughan who has not only led from the front with his wonderful batting in the England first innings but also showed an originality both in his filed placings and in his handling of his bowling attack that has set him ahead of Australia’s Ricky Ponting. There is also the small matter of leadership and here Vaughan also has the edge. Obviously it does help if you are playing well, as England have throughout this match, but when the heads fall it is up to the captain to try and get them up again, and Ponting is struggling to do this. When Steve Waugh led Australia there was not the slightest doubt who was in charge on and off the field. Ponting is a little less authoritative and not quite as driven as Waugh (who is?) and this has perhaps frustrated some of the old pros in the Australian team. And, Clarke and Katich apart, they are all old pros in the Australian team! So although the tabloid stories of a rift between Ponting and Shane Warne are probably greatly exaggerated there is a sense that all is not quite what it might be in the Australian camp. This shows itself on the field with sloppy fielding and at times wayward bowling, and it has shown up as well in the Aussie batting where the main contribution in recent innings has come from Warne and the tail rather than from the front line batsmen.

If Australia is to force a draw( or an improbable win) at Old Trafford tomorrow then it must come from the top line batsmen who have in the main underperformed in the Ashes series to date. It is worth reminding ourselves that five of Australia’s top six in the order in the first innings of this match (Langer, Hayden, Ponting, Martyn and Gilchrist) are in the top 17 in the ICC world Test rankings – but these players scored only 122 runs between them. It was only Shane Warne’s marvellous 90 and the back up he received from Gillespie that gave Australia a half respectable total of 301.England built on the lead of 142 with some skilful batting in their second innings - to score 280 runs at 4.5 an over was an excellent effort, with Andrew Strauss scoring a century and showing, for the first time in this series, the form that has given him such a great start in Test cricket.

Some in the Australian camp will feel that if they could be (say) 130-1 at lunch and then (say) 260-2 at tea then they could push on to a world record setting victory in what will be a long final session tomorrow. On the other hand there will be those who will think that a more realistic ambition is to bat through the day and go to Trent Bridge all square. The England camp will all believe that if they continue to play with the intensity and confidence that they have shown throughout this match then England can certainly force a win. The improbable headline in one of the Saturday papers here in Manchester was “Giles leaves Australia in tatters” (following his first innings haul of the wickets of Langer, Hayden and Martyn). Such a headline would have seemed inconceivable a few weeks ago but if it was repeated in a day’s time it would not really be a surprise - the Old Trafford pitch may give him help and he is (crucially) full of confidence.

Day Five

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American and therefore unlikely to be a cricket enthusiast, who said “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” And that was, really, the story of the final day’s play in the epic Old Trafford Ashes Test match. The hero was the Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, who played one of the very greatest rearguard innings in Test history to hold England at bay and to create the possibility of a draw with honour. It was not that Ponting survived; but that he did it with style and that he endured until almost the end of the Final Act of the drama. The statistics of the innings, whilst impressive, are almost trivial because this was an innings not measured by the cold banality of the scorer’s pen, but in the character of the man who achieved so much. The figure tell of an innings which lasted 275 balls, which was 42% of all the balls that England bowled; they tell of an innings of 156 runs, which was 42% of the runs that Australia scored and they tell of an innings that lasted over seven hours on a day of nearly eight hours of extraordinary tension. But the character, for this observer at least, came not just from the fact that Ponting’s effort was ultimately successful but from events an hour or so before the close.

Ponting and Warne had put on about 65 runs and at 325-7 around about the 90th over they were beginning to run urgently between the wickets. A quick calculation showed that with 108 overs to be bowled in the day, and with 423 runs needed to win, a scoring rate of a little over 5 an over could bring them victory. Suddenly the commentators who had written off Australia’s chances throughout the day were beginning to muse that perhaps Ponting and Warne thought that a win was possible. The England fielders picked up the vibes as well and what had seemed destined to be a match with only two possible results turned into one where the chasing of a record target became a real possibility. That Warne’s dismissal when the score had reached 340 put a stop to that adventure was, for the neutrals at least, a shame - but there was no doubt that for a few sparkling moments the impossible seemed possible.

When Ponting himself was finally dismissed with five overs to go it seemed that England would force a win. But Lee played skillfully and England was allowed to direct only nine of the remaining thirty balls at McGrath. He survived them, and with his survival Australia held on to a remarkable draw.

Many years ago I took an American friend to Lord’s and tried to explain to him the intricacies of the noble game. Some of it he picked up quite quickly, but there was one statistic that he couldn’t cope with. “Let me get this right,” he said “You can play this game for five whole days and at the end it can be a tie?” Without illuminating him too pompously that “ties” in cricket were rare but that “draws” were common I said something like “Oh yes, cricket mirrors life – you might not always be able to win, but you fight like hell not to let the other chap win either.” Australia and England fought like hell for five days at Old Trafford, no quarter given or asked. As at Edgbaston the ultimate margin between the two sides was thinner than the varnish on a stump. It was a game which England could, and perhaps should have won. But when the handshakes took place between the two sides although England were deflated, as Australia had been only a week earlier, there was pride amongst all who had taken part that they had given the public another great sporting spectacle. And for “man of the match” Ponting, who handled with dignity last weeks loss and with pride this weeks fight back, there will be the satisfaction that the doubters must now salute him as an authentic Australian hero.