Ashes November 30, 2010

Brilliantly underperformed, boys

England are a fifth of a way to a glorious 0-0 Ashes scoreline

The Brisbane Test was, in football terminology, A Game Of Two Halves – the first an intriguing old-fashioned Test match of wrenching tension, shifts of momentum, and hard-fought battle between bat and ball; the second a trademark 21st-century run glut on a featureless pudding pitch that appeared to have been rolled with Mogadon and told that if it did anything naughty it would have its Christmas presents taken away.

The first 130 overs brought 403 runs for 15 wickets (figures courtesy of ProperTestCricketTM Inc.). The next 284 overs gave the world 962 runs for seven wickets − two of which were tail-end hoicks, and two of well-set centurions trying to hit a six. There was some outstanding batting by the five hundred-makers, spectacularly, record-shatteringly dogged resistance by an England team ideally suited to digging in to save a game, some schoolboy fielding by Australia, and some pedestrian bowling and passive captaincy by both teams.

England claimed one of their greatest Ashes moral victories. Given that these have been as rare as actual victories in recent jaunts Down Under, this is not to be sniffed at. Reports are that those Australians who have tried sniffing at it sneezed violently and took themselves off to bed with a headache.

The real winners were the pitch and the slightly baffling Kookaburra ball, which rendered decent, if not world-class, bowlers utterly toothless, gumming away at Cook, Strauss and Trott like a somnolent baby on a week-old rusk. So much so that they must have ended the match feeling that having a medieval dentist yank their incisors out with a pair of rusty pliers, having used a crowbar to the face as an anaesthetic, would have been a preferable means of achieving toothlessness than bowling for two days on that Brisbane track. Indeed Mitchell Johnson ended the match seeming to be bowling like Shakespeare’s seventh age of man – not merely sans teeth but sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Not one of the seven billion people or so on earth today would claim that this Australian bowling attack (for want of a better word) is the greatest in baggy green history, but even some of the greatest bowlers from Australia’s cricket’s pantheon would have been left tweaking their moustaches in frustration on this surface, which provided further evidence that the currency of the heroic rearguard has been seriously and artificially devalued in recent years. Indeed, a spokesman for the estate of 19th-century bowling whizz Fred “The Demon” Spofforth issued a statement saying that his client is “delighted to be dead, rather than bowling at Brisbane”.

Thus the game drifted from cricketing fascination to statistical curiosity and psychological point-scoring, the pointiest of which were scored by England.

It all added up to a curate’s omelette of a Test, which was ultimately glorious for England, agonisingly ominous for Australia, and, presumably, skull-crushingly tedious for the neutrals; and which, whilst confirming that there is little on paper between two teams who justified their current mid-table world rankings, will have left Australia far more concerned than England.

This is partly because Strauss’s men are now 20% of the way to a triumphant 0-0 series final scoreline, and the evidence of this Test suggests that both bowling attacks may struggle to upgrade their 0 into a 1. Fortunately for Australia, the evidence of the 2009 series also suggests that the evidence of any Test between these two sides is of absolutely no relevance to the next match. The evidence from which should equally be shredded and buried before the following game. Eighteen months ago, “having the momentum”, the much-prized, much-claimed momentum, proved to be almost entirely counter-productive, and ultimately for Australia, going to The Oval after obliterating England at Leeds, lethal.

Nevertheless England will be buoyant, having once again brilliantly underperformed in their first innings in order to make their ultimate avoidance of defeat all the more psychologically boosty. Only Collingwood of the England top six did not show form, and, given that Hussey (almost caught at slip) and Strauss (fractionally not lbw) demonstrated how fine the line is between first-ball nought and match-changing century, golden-duck victims Prior and Broad can both claim to have essentially scored brilliant centuries in the first innings.

England’s bowlers all performed creditably if not penetratingly in their one innings of relevance, and with more luck, or a differently regulated umpiring review system, could have snipped off the Hussey-Haddin megapartnership much more quickly.

They may struggle to dismiss Australia – other than double successes in Bangladesh early this year and in swinging conditions in New Zealand three winters ago, England have now taken all 20 opposition wickets in just one of their last 19 overseas Tests (a spectacular horsing of South Africa in Durban a year ago), dating back to the start of the last Ashes in Australia. However, the official Confectionery Stall hunch is now that if they do so once to secure a victory, it should be enough to ensure at least a drawn series, as it was against South Africa.

For Australia, only Siddle really threatened in England’s first innings, and the second was a slow, surgical dismemberment, albeit in those meaninglessly lopsided conditions. Australia should bring it at least two, and arguably three, physically and mentally unscarred bowlers for Adelaide.

And how refreshing it was for English cricket followers to see an Australian team ready, willing and able to drop simple catches at critical times. This traditional staple of cricket at all levels has been largely eschewed by the baggy greens for two decades. With one notable exception, when Warne shelled Pietersen at the Oval in 2005, rocketing to the top of the Player Who Least Deserved To Cost His Team A Series chart.

How refreshing also for England to see their own unspectacular left-hander grind out a massive double-hundred, rather than suffering the southpaw ploddings of others – take that, Gary Kirsten. And Justin Langer. And Allan Border. And Mark Taylor. Cook, freed from the summer torment of Amir and Asif, scored more runs in one match than he had in either of his two previous Ashes series. He might have played more awkward-looking strokes than you would see at the average Overcome Your Lifelong Fear Of Dogs group on an outing to an Alsatian petting zoo, but as statements of intent go, it was majestic.

It was all set up, of course, by Strauss. In the first innings. His third-ball duck may have been greeted with horror by many Northern Hemisphere fans, but it was exactly the start England needed, as it constituted a blaze of relative glory – his team had lasted a 21st-century record three balls before encountering disaster in Australia. After Harmison’s first-ball horror four years ago (a delivery that put the “miss” very firmly into “missile”), and Hussain’s noughth-ball flat-track insertion in 2002-03, Strauss’s third-ball duck represented a discernible, arguably exponential, stride of progress. Boosted by the surge of confidence those first two wicketless balls sent coursing through their non-baggy blue veins, England comfortably romped to their first non-rain-assisted Brisbane non-defeat for 24 years.

Roll on Adelaide. And hopefully some cricket where wickets fall more often than once every 48 hours.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer