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If ever there was a performance that laid bare a visiting team's intentions, it was the one that Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook produced on the most one-sided day of the series so far
November 28, 2010
Just as it was far too early to write off England's prospects during their long hard slog on the third day at the Gabba, likewise it is too soon to declare that Australia's Ashes have been reduced to cinders on the fourth. But if ever there was a performance that laid bare a visiting team's intentions, it was the one that Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook produced on the most one-sided day of the series so far.
In the course of their 188-run stand, England's captain and vice-captain happened to surpass Hobbs and Sutcliffe as the most prolific opening pair in their country's Test history - a quirky statistic maybe, but one that underlined the vast experience they bring to the top of the order. Both men played and struggled here four years ago, with Cook's Perth century their only innings of note in 20 attempts, and both men returned with a burning desire to make amends. The series is still young, and the Sydney finale isn't even close to the horizon. But two critical components of England's squad have risen to their first big challenge.
Strauss, it has to be said, came within inches of remembering this match for all the wrong reasons. The primal scream that he emitted in the 55th over, as he dabbed Xavier Doherty through third man for four to bring up his fourth Ashes century and his first in Australia, was as raw and passion-fuelled as the one with which Michael Hussey had deafened his team-mate, Brad Haddin, during the Aussies' triple-century alliance on Saturday. And like Hussey's, it was in part a recognition of the fine lines between success and failure on which matches, and series, can teeter.
For it was the same scream that had stuck in Strauss's throat in the very first over of the match, when his anxious attempt to get England's Ashes campaign up and running resulted in a cramped cut straight to gully, and a long, slow, agonised walk back for a duck. And had Ben Hilfenhaus's first-ball inswinger in the second innings struck him any lower on the pad, he would quite conceivably have marked his return to Australia with the most ignominious pair of his career.
"The third ball of the game was pretty much close to as bad as I've felt on a cricket pitch," said Strauss. "Getting out in the first over of such an important Test match wasn't the start I was looking for. Then the first ball in the second innings, I thought was a very good leave! My heart was definitely in my mouth. I did think it was a bit high - I was clinging to that hope anyway. Thankfully, it was the bit of luck sometimes you need. It wouldn't have been a particularly pleasant match if that one had been out."
Almost from the moment England had walked off the field at The Oval last summer with the Ashes in their grasp, Strauss had been rehearsing his contest, and those moments, over and over in his head, knowing full well the fate that had awaited England in Australia the last time they had gone down there to defend a hard-fought victory, and recognising that, as captain, the influence he exerted this time around would be paramount to the cause.
Australian teams always target the captain of any team that visits their shores. It is a fact of international cricket that Strauss has tried to play down as the product of too much talk in the media, but nevertheless, there is no escaping the extent to which tours become synonymous with their leaders. Jardine, Hutton, Illingworth, Brearley and Gatting trip off the tongue with greater ease than the dates of their triumphant campaigns, just as Flintoff's 5-0 remains an indelible fact on his CV.
And it's not just English captains to whom such epithets apply. In 2003, on the last occasion a visiting side avoided defeat in the Gabbatoir, it was India's captain, Sourav Ganguly, who produced the defining innings of the Test and arguably his life, a brilliantly doughty 144 that overcame his much-trumpeted weakness against the short ball and instilled in his team-mates the belief that they could face down the Aussies as equals. Sure enough, they won a sizzling contest at Adelaide and departed with a 1-1 draw - making them only the third side in 18 series to avoid defeat Down Under.
To call Strauss's innings on Saturday the most important of his life would be premature, and moreover it would also do a disservice to his other three Ashes hundreds - most especially his first-innings 129 in the decisive Oval Test of 2005, a performance of such ice-cool temperament in the midst of almost unparalleled pressure, it goes virtually unnoticed when the frantic final stages of that contest are recalled.
But not since Ian Botham clobbered his 14th and final Test hundred on this very ground in 1986-87 has an England gun player, to use the colloquial term, travelled to Australia and produced the performance of which he is capable at the first time of asking. Strauss needed his luck, as most centurions do, and when Mitchell Johnson spilled a scuffed smear at mid-off with Strauss on 69 and England still the best part of 100 runs in arrears, it took over from Hussey's referred lbw as the most critical flashpoint of the match.
"It was important I took my opportunity, and showed the way," he said. "That is one of your duties as captain. Any time you have an opportunity to score a hundred in an Ashes Test match, it is a very special thing." Only the manner of his departure let him down, as he gave the charge to the spinner Marcus North and was stumped for 110. "It was not the sort of dismissal that we were looking for quite frankly," he said. "It was not the sort of dismissal I was looking for as both a batsman and a captain. I picked the wrong ball to go down to and paid the price."
Nevertheless, as he walked back to the dressing-room with England's arrears reduced to a handful of runs, he took with him a share of a partnership statistic that is of far greater relevance than the topping of Hobbs and Sutcliffe. No visiting team has ever produced a higher first-wicket stand at the Gabba, and the previous record of 135 was set by Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge in 1988-89, in the last Test match that Australia lost at the venue, and one of only two five-Test series that they've lost at home in 22 years.
The former prospect is slim in the extreme - and it was a notion that neither Cook nor Strauss was keen to address at the close, mindful as they possibly are of how quickly the circumstances can change in Australia. After all, in Adelaide on the 2006-07 tour, England led by 97 runs going into the final day with nine wickets still intact, and no-one needs reminding of what transpired from there.
Without Warne, McGrath and a string of game-changing Aussie greats to contend with, however, the latter goal feels more tangible than ever before.
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