England's understated craftsman
The battle for the 2010 Ashes was won on the playing fields of Chittagong. That is the extraordinary conclusion that can be drawn from the performance of Tim Bresnan, a man whose unassuming demeanour and appetite for hard labour transformed him into England's weapon of choice for an MCG wicket that lived up to its dour reputation. By the end of a day that he cautiously conceded was his best in England colours, Bresnan had transcended the conditions to bowl England to the brink of their first series win in Australia for 24 years.
That's quite some achievement for a man who, at one stage on this trip, was the squad's fifth-choice seamer, with Ajmal Shahzad close to a call-up at Adelaide, and Chris Tremlett eventually plumped for in Perth. Today, however, he became the go-to man - a bowler with the stamina, skill and accuracy to make something from next to nothing on a wicket offering little swing for James Anderson and no reward for an excellent spell of bang-it-in old-ball bowling from Chris Tremlett.
"We've had a good day of Test cricket," said Bresnan, with habitual modesty. "We've done a lot of hard work, hopefully we'll do the rest tomorrow and wrap up this win. I don't know if I've played a major part, but we've bowled well again, bowled well in partnerships, and it doesn't matter who really takes the wickets, it just happens today is my day. It's a very good feeling."
It suits Bresnan's style to be under-estimated, because beyond the flat Castleford vowels lies a serious competitor, and one who has been at the forefront of England's thoughts ever since his unstinting performances on the deathly flat decks of Bangladesh back in March. Though he claimed just seven wickets at 32.28 in the two Tests, his stamina alone in sapping humidity and on soul-destroying surfaces impressed Andy Flower, who recognised the value of a player who would never allow himself to hide behind excuses.
"You use the conditions you get given," said Bresnan. "You go around the world and you get these wickets and you're expected to do a job on them. I'm not saying this one is anywhere near as slow and has less bounce than Bangladesh, because when it kisses through it kisses through nicely and you could actually bowl a bouncer on it. But today the pitch wasn't doing a great deal, so we had to rely on our skill, and the abrasiveness that came into play."
That was very much the case on a pudding of a pitch against Victoria a fortnight ago, where Bresnan was the only England seamer to claim a wicket in 78 overs. Despite that, he maintained his discipline at all costs, attacked the stumps with a hint of reverse swing on a still-lush outfield, and conceded his runs at barely three an over. It was all the evidence that Flower needed to give the promising but expensive Steven Finn a break from the front line, and bring in a man who could not have been more ready for action.
"The way we've been preparing, especially me and the lads who haven't been playing in the series, we've played the warm-up games and prepared as if we were going to play," said Bresnan. "Andy sat us all down and said: 'Listen, I'd be very surprised if we go with the same team through five Tests'. Obviously with it being so hard fought and close together, we knew there would be a chance for at least two or three of us playing, so we had to prepare as if we were playing."
Subtlety is not a trait that one associates with a personality as blunt as Bresnan, whose reaction on seeing the MCG for the first time a fortnight ago was to say: "S'alright. Headingley's bigger..." But he's a tradesman who knows how to use his tools, and the manner in which he chiselled England into a formidable position in both innings could not have been more perfectly carried out. All told in this contest he has the figures of 28-13-51-5, figures that any fast bowler in Ashes history would be proud to sport on their CV.
In the first innings, Bresnan's alliance with Tremlett forced the crucial early breakthroughs after two dropped catches had taken the venom out of Anderson's first spell. Second-time around, England were haemorrhaging runs at more than five an over when he entered the attack in the 11th over. It was hardly a calamity, seeing as they had helped themselves to a first-innings lead of 415 - an Ashes record for a team batting second - but nevertheless, there was a job to be done and it was undertaken with matter-of-fact precision and a significant dollop of skill.
It took him no time at all to knuckle down to locate his length, which barely changes from one pitch to the next - full, flat and zeroing onto the base of middle stump. He's quicker than he is given credit for - the MCG speed gun reckoned he was the fastest of England's three pacemen in both innings - and he has the sort of stamina that invites the usual clichés about Boxer the Animal Farm carthorse. But each of his three wickets in 18 deliveries were created by a subtle variation on a theme - hooping reverse swing to sucker Shane Watson; fractionally low bounce for the "dirty drag-on" that bowled Ricky Ponting, and a curvy stick-in-the-pitch outswinger to lure Mike Hussey into a fatal poke to cover.
If England's own supporters under-estimated Bresnan, then it's hardly a surprise. He barely featured in his Test debut at Lord's in May 2009, a match made memorable by the four wickets in seven balls that were scalped by his fellow new boy, Graham Onions, and though he followed up with a three-for at the fag-end of the following match at Chester-le-Street, the game was long since dead in every respect, with the crowds absent and an innings victory in the bag.
And yet, if there's any team that knows Bresnan's capabilities, it is Australia, who not only faced and failed against his heavy balls in the World Twenty20 final in Barbados back in May, but also watched him play a starring role in the 3-2 ODI series win in England back in June. His bowling on that occasion may have gone under-rewarded, but his cool under fire enabled him to withstand a frantic finale to the third match at Old Trafford, where his 14 not out from 15 balls enabled England to scramble to a series-sealing one-wicket win.
"I do like being under the pump, I think," said Bresnan. "I do like the big occasion, and I do like being under pressure - I think it brings out the best in me - so why wouldn't it be on Boxing Day in Australia?"
"It didn't take me by surprise," said Watson. "I've played with him in one-day cricket for the past year, really. He can bowl very well. He swings the new ball, he gets a bit of bounce as well, and the way he bowled today was brilliant. It was what I expected he was going to do, because he's a high quality player and a high quality bowler. His first spell was very good, the ball was starting to go reverse. The spell this afternoon was very highly skilled. It was a lot of hard work out there."
It wasn't so long ago that Bresnan was the butt of a few jokes for the size of his waistline, and on one unfortunate occasion, he got himself into trouble with a feisty response to a jibe from a supporter on Twitter. But the song that the Barmy Army devised for him in Bangladesh - "we've had a Garlic Nan, we've had a butter nan... but our favourite Nan ... is Tim Bres-nan..." - did not get an airing today, perhaps because it hardly seemed relevant for such a frugal performance.
And that Spartan attitude extended to his assessment of an incredibly significant day's play for England. While Watson admitted that the Ashes had already been lost by Australia, Bresnan kept ploughing the same furrow that has kept both him and the squad as a whole battle-ready all series long. "We've still got the three wickets to get, so I'll describe that tomorrow - if we do it," he said. "We've still got a lot of hard work to do."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.