England set for oddest Ashes win
He had taken more than three wickets only twice in 35 Test innings, so Australia’s backroom cricketing seismologists could be forgiven for not having detected the pre-rumblings of Broad’s extraordinary eruption of intelligently hostile swing and cut. He was ably aided by Graeme Swann, on a stupidly helpful surface, and Swann was unably aided Umpire Rauf, with two stupidly helpful lbw decisions.
England will have to pull off something spectacular to lose from here, which, on the patternlessly inconsistent form both sides have shown this series, is not out of the question. They seem set, however, to complete one of their oddest Ashes victories. They began this Test having been poor-to-hapless for large swathes of the first four games. No single player had compiled a properly good series – no batsman was averaging over 50, no bowler under 30, and even Strauss, comfortably England’s best player, had failed in two games out of four.
Australia statistically had most of the top batsmen and bowlers, but it now looks as if their irresponsible collapse at Lord’s, and less culpable but still carelessness-assisted one at the Oval yesterday will have decided the series.
The pitch for such an important match has been an embarrassment (although, as a general rule, one like this is preferable to a featureless featherbed), making the toss disproportionately important. Both sides appear to have selected their teams wrongly, Australia more wrongly than England. Jim Laker would have fancied beating his own 19-wicket record on this pitch. Even Nathan Hauritz might have come close to it.
However, a feature of the series has been how both sets of batsmen, products of an era of predominantly pancake-flat wickets, have proved totally unable to adjust to even mildly unhelpful conditions and moderate movement of the ball. I suppose it is inevitable that, if you live on a diet of pancakes, suddenly being served an unshelled crab will be a major test of your knife-and-fork technique.
In this decisive game, England’s batsmen and bowlers have so far been more disciplined. Ponting and Clarke, Australia’s two best batsmen, were out playing attacking, good-wicket shots early in their innings. Strauss by contrast has simplified his already simple technique, and scored some of his most important runs. And Ian Bell received almost no praise from a media that has become so obsessed with his supposed mental frailties that they failed to notice him chiselling out his toughest and arguably best Test innings after an unpromising start.
And, if England fail to pull off something spectacular and do complete the series win, Monty Panesar can clear his throat and prepare to deliver his Man of the Series acceptance speech.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer