August 9, 2013

Can Australia defy the history of third Tests of the Ashes?

Or will they be squashed like bugs by the weight of the past and by England, who they squashed mercilessly all these years?

I wrote earlier in the week about how Donald Bradman's Invincibles had clinched the Ashes in 1948 with a soggy, drawn, Mancunian 2013-precursoring third Test - the first post-war Ashes Test in which England had held the upper hand. The Don's team rebounded to clobber England in the final two Tests, and earn their eternity in the annals of the game.

Michael Clarke's Australians are unlikely to be remembered quite as fondly, and will be anxious to avoid a similar false dawn as the one Norman Yardley's England team briefly enjoyed. They even managed to stretch the false dawn as far as a full English false breakfast, with a good performance in the first four, tightly contested days of the following Test. Then, before their false bacon had even settled in their stomachs, Australia chased 404 in a day to win, with 15 minutes and more importantly seven wickets to spare. (There is no way that Clarke's Australia could do that to this England team. Yardley's team naively sent down 21 overs per hour through the day. The more streetwise 2013 side would, shall we say, "manage the over rate" rather more "professionally".

Whether Australia can maintain their Old Trafford improvement may depend largely on the performances of the top three batsmen in each side. Of the many instructional DVDs that will not be released after this series (including: Flawless Umpiring For Beginners, How To Know When You Have Edged A Cricket Ball - A Guide For Young Batsmen and The Spirit Of Cricket, And How To Uphold It Relentlessly, With An Almost Evangelical Zeal), both sides will be holding back on bombarding the shops with A Masterclass In Top-Order Batsmanship In The First Three Tests Of A Series.

Seamer-friendly Chester-le-Street will further examine the fragilities shown by both sides in this area, and, I think, Australia will need reasonable productivity from their top three to have realistic hopes of repeating their Old Trafford dominance.

History suggests it will not be easy. (History, it should be noted, suggests some pretty crazy things, and often talks outright nonsense when it comes to cricket.) England became seasoned masters at drawing the third Test after sinking to a 2-0 deficit - they did so not only in 1948, but also in four consecutive Ashes from 1989 - before being splattered once more by the end of the series.

In 1989, there was no false dawn. It was barely anything even resembling a glimmer of light. Only unremitting night, and a sense that the end of the world would be a merciful relief. The drawn third Test was severely rain-affected, and Australia dominated what play there was. They clubbed England again in the fourth and fifth Tests, before the weather again had mercy on the hosts at The Oval. The smallest first-innings deficit England conceded in the six Tests was 171.

In 1990-91 and 1994-95, the relative resurgence lasted for the third and fourth Tests, before the series ended with an illusion-shattering final-Test power-spanking for England to mull over until the next Ashes.

In 1993, there were discernible green shoots in the now-traditional third Test non-defeat, at Trent Bridge. After two hefty tonkings, England selected half a new team - four debutants (Lathwell, Thorpe, Ilott and McCague), plus the recalled Nasser Hussain.

They played a good match. Hussain made 71 and 47 not out in his first Test for over three years, the talismanic Robin Smith returned to form with 86 and 50. In the second innings, Thorpe scored a superb debut hundred- the first by an England player for 20 years - and captain Gooch, batting as low as five for the first time since his disastrous debut series 18 years previously - scored a masterful 120. England then had Australia six down at tea on the fifth day, despite having a four-man attack with a grand total of four previous Test caps between them (212 fewer caps, and 806 fewer wickets, than the bowlers Cook was able to call upon in Manchester). Brighter Ashes days seemed to be just around the corner.

And indeed they were. The only problem was that it took 12 years to get around that corner. And those 12 years involved enough thrashings along the way to keep even the most sadistic 19th-century headmaster scouring his stick catalogue for some back-up whacking implements. Trent Bridge proved to be far from a watershed. In the next Test, Australia posted 653 for 4 declared, won by an innings, retained the urn, and precipitated the end of the Gooch captaincy era. Atherton took the reins, and was promptly whooped by eight wickets in the fifth Test. He led England to a stirring consolation win at The Oval - with another entirely new bowling attack - but, nevertheless, Australia had reasserted their total superiority, and everyone knew it.

There are certain similarities between the 1993 Australians and the current England side. The Australians had had some big wins, but had also recently lost a series to the world's leading team. They had a team with proven Test seamers (McDermott and Hughes, approaching 200 wickets, averaging under 30), a core of hardened batsmen averaging over 45 (Taylor, Boon, Border; plus the Waughs, who were soon to head in that direction); they had an experienced keeper (Healy) and a promising new opener (Slater). The major difference was that Warne was a decade younger than Swann is now, and had laid the foundations for a 13-and-a-half-year reign of slow-moving terror with one single delivery.

Can 2013 England re-establish their Lord's chokehold in the fourth and fifth Tests, as 1993 Australia were able to? Can 2013 Australia stop them, as 1993 England could not? (The answers: yes; and yes.)

● Graeme Swann may be less of a threat to Australia at Chester-le-Street than elsewhere. In six first-class matches this year, tweakers have taken 29 wickets at an average of almost 43, whilst seamers have 169 victims and average 22. In the four previous Tests there, between 2003 and 2009, pacemen have taken 96 wickets at 29, and spinners just 14 at almost 52 (even including Monty Panesar's 5 for 46 against the tweak-averse 2007 West Indians).

It is still likely, however, that Swann, who has taken 19 wickets at 27 in the first three Tests, will overtake Derek Underwood's 20-wicket total in the 1968 Ashes to become England's highest-wicket-taking spinner in a home Ashes since Jim Laker's 46-scalp series in 1956. Laker averaged 9.6 that year - Swann could still match that figure, if he returns match figures of 18 for 0 in both of the next two Tests. The highest Ashes tally by an England spinner since Laker's stellar year was Geoff Miller's 23 in the 1978-79 series.

If Swann takes one more wicket in the series - the smallest "if" in cricket since Imran Farhat tattooed his initials on his lucky ladybird with a microscopic insect pen - it will be his fourth 20-wicket series. Only three times in the 32 years before Swann's debut had an England spinner dismissed 20 batsmen in a series - Panesar against those hapless 2007 West Indians; Ashley Giles against their 2004 predecessors; and Miller. (Shane Warne, in his four series in England, took 34, 24, 31 and 40 wickets.)

Swann will become the seventh England bowler with four or more 20-wicket series, after Trueman (who had 9), SF Barnes, Bedser, Willis and Botham (5 each), and Caddick (4).

● Alastair Cook has scored two half-centuries this series - only the second time in England's last nine series that he has passed 50 on more than one occasion (the other being his three-century tour of India late last year). However, those two innings have been modest - 50 and 62. He had converted his previous six half-centuries into hundreds, and, since March 2010, had scored at least 79 on 20 of the 22 occasions when he had reached 50 (including 15 hundred-plus scores). In those 22 innings, he went on to score, on average, 145. Over the same period, all other opening batsmen in Tests, in innings when they reached 50, went to score, on average, 91.

His two fifties in this series have come from six innings. You do not need to be a rocket scientist to calculate that that equates to one half-century per three innings. Those previous 22 scores of 50-plus were made in 69 innings (one every 3.1 innings); and the 32 he had made up to March 2010 (with ten centuries, and a 50-plus-innings-average of 89) were scored in 94 innings (one every 2.9 innings). So Cook has maintained his overall rate of reaching 50 - but been unusually ineffective after reaching that milestone. So far. What can be read into this? Choose one or more of the following options:

(a) Nothing. It's a temporary glitch
(b) Impending Armageddon
(c) Cook is less good when good bowlers pitch it up and swing it. In common with, for example, almost all other batsmen
(d) Australia - and Australian spectators - had better brace themselves for his return to Baggy Greenland
(e) It's Trott's fault
(f) Cook has been so preoccupied by the Egypt crisis that he has found it hard to concentrate on mundane ephemera such as cricket
(g) He is still struggling to come to terms with (i) the increased demands of captaincy during the media hypestorm of an Ashes series; and (ii) the death in May at the age of 92 of the pioneering American stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen
(h) England will not win the Ashes again for another 30 years
(i) Cook is obsessed with averaging in the 20s or 120s in Ashes series - he averaged 27 in 2006-07, 24 in 2009, and 127 in 2010-11. He is back at 24 in this series. It is probably code for something.

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