Pitch causes a dust storm
There's nothing quite like a pitch imbroglio to stir the passions, and even more so when that strip is playing host to an Ashes decider. Truth be told, Australia's dramatic second innings stagger was more attributable to England's disciplined bowling performance than a dodgy deck, but with tensions high and an urn on the line, the parched Oval wicket emerged as a major discussion point after the second day's play.
Michael Holding, Shane Warne, Scyld Berry and Peter Roebuck all waded into the pitch debate on Friday, variously describing the surface as over-baked, disappointing and even unethical. After stumps on the first day, Ian Bell commented that the surface played like a day three strip; a view shared by Stuart Broad who, on Friday, felt the footmarks, dust and general scarring were more akin to a fourth day wicket.
At best, The Oval staff erred in their predictions of a traditional, pacey pitch and at worst they were deceptive. A hot, dry week in London leading up to the Ashes decider no doubt contributed to the bone-dry centre strip, but whether groundstaff harboured an underlying desire to produce a result wicket, as has been alleged in some quarters, is unclear.
To the credit of the Australians, no attempt was made to use the abrasive wicket as an excuse for Friday's meek capitulation at the hands of Broad and Graeme Swann. Simon Katich, comfortably Australia's best batsman with a dogged 50, directed praise towards England's attack, rather than vitriol towards The Oval's groundstaff, when assessing the second day's play.
"I guess there will be a fair bit said about that, but the bottom line is England bowled well today and unfortunately we couldn't stop the momentum," Katich said. "A fair bit of credit deserves to go to Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann. The rest of the guys bowled well, but they obviously got the rewards. They deserve a bit of credit rather than talking about the wicket.
"There weren't a lot of balls that disturbed the surface. There were a few, you could see them on the slow-mos, but I think the bottom line is England got the momentum and after the initial partnership we had we just couldn't string another one together and stop that momentum. It only takes one partnership to stop that and unfortunately that was just the way the day panned out. I think the English bowlers deserve some credit. Both teams are playing on the same wicket."
There is little doubt that The Oval wicket deceived both the Australian and English camps prior to the fifth Test. The Australians would dearly love to be throwing the ball Nathan Hauritz's way from Saturday morning, while England would presumably have switched Steve Harmison for Monty Panesar if given another chance.
But to blame the pitch for Australia's woes is to miss the point. The tourists surrendered much of their Headingley advantage with an indisciplined first innings bowling performance at The Oval that yielded 38 extras and 44 boundaries. England, by contrast, never allowed the Australian batsmen a moment of respite on Friday, as reflected in the seven extras and 25 boundaries they conceded.
"What we found as a batting unit was you never felt particularly in on the wicket, it was quite hard to drive on and the ball popped on the odd occasion," said Broad, England's five-wicket hero. "Today it probably played a bit like a fourth day wicket but no ball particularly misbehaved. You can't look at the wicket and blame the wicket
"We found it quite hard to score on, to drive on. It was important to bring the stumps into play because it's not easy to leave on length like a normal Oval wicket. It's a bit more up and down. My plan was to really bring the stumps into play, and look for bowleds, lbws and caught at slips because it's quite a slow wicket."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo