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There’s a headline on the BBC site today saying “Same old story”. It’s true that England are once again in a losing position, two sessions after being in a promising one. But as soon as you look at how it happened, there’s nothing same old about it. The way the game turned was new: a different and rather unlikely story.
Twelve wickets fell yesterday, followed by another three this morning. And it could easily have been more: Australia dropped a few catches, probably because of the vile weather, and England had those excellent lbw shouts against Matthew Hayden which Rudi Koertzen, perhaps subliminally influenced by the huge crowd, couldn’t quite bring himself to give. So in the first four sessions, the bowlers created at least 20 chances, and the two teams together scraped 270 for 15. Since then, it has been 261 for two.
What changed? Some of the bowlers got tired – Andrew Flintoff had given his all. The ball got older, and there was no Shane Warne to weave a little hair-replacement magic on it. The fielding was ordinary: somehow, Steve Harmison found himself in the covers early on, where he played the part of a record-company PR man – handing out free singles.
Hayden was well set, and unlike Andrew Strauss, he was able to turn his 50 into something immense. Andrew Symonds blossomed under Hayden’s wing: the Queensland fishing-mates connection visibly helped, and made you rue the fact that England have had no two batsmen from the same county playing in the series. Symonds went from scratchy to domineering in double-quick time, as if he was playing for one of his many counties. England have suffered most forms of violence at Australian hands in the past decade and a half, but here was a new one: being hammered by an Aussie allrounder, a species that had been thought to be mythical, like the Aussie metrosexual. The different story turned out to be a lurid tale of horror: Attack of the Bright Pink Bat Handles.
The pitch had something to do with it too. Drop-in pitches aren’t bad exactly, but they are eccentric. Five years ago in Christchurch, New Zealand, England benefited from this. The pitch started as a minefield and a hundred by Nasser Hussain, a bad-pitch master, was the only score above 45 in either side’s first innings. Going in again with a lead of 80, England slumped to 106 for five, before Graham Thorpe and Flintoff put on 281. Flintoff, just like Symonds, made his first Test hundred. England declared when the lead reached 550 – and very nearly lost the match, as Nathan Astle produced one of the great do-or-die performances, walloping 222 off 168 balls.
This pitch hasn’t flattened out as much as that one did, and the MCG boundaries are not as short, and there was nobody in that scenario like Warne or his scriptwriter. But funny things can happen on drop-in pitches. Poor old England are going to need some tomorrow.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Tim de Lisle
Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden. He fell in love with newspapers at the age of seven and with cricket at the age of 10. He started in journalism at 16, reviewing records for the London Australian Magazine, before reading classics at Oxford and writing for Smash Hits, Harpers & Queen and the Observer. He has been a feature writer on the Daily Telegraph, arts editor of the Times and the Independent on Sunday, and editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, where he won an Editor of the Year award. Since 1999, Tim has been the rock critic of the Mail on Sunday. He is deputy editor of Intelligent Life, the new general-interest magazine from the Economist. He writes for the Guardian and makes frequent appearances as a cricket pundit on the BBC and Sky News.