England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 3rd day August 23, 2013

England forced to grind as Australia chip away

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England 247 for 4 (Bell 29*, Woakes 15*) trail Australia 492 for 9 dec by 245 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

Capacity crowds have been drawn to the Investec Ashes all summer in anticipation of another high-octane series, but sometimes things do not work out that way. Instead, England are juddering to their final destination as if Australia have slipped petrol into their diesel engine.

When England are under pressure, they commit themselves zealously to pre-programmed, conservative, risk-free cricket. There will be a computer programme somewhere suggesting that the careworn approach they displayed on the third day of the Oval Test has improved their victory chances by 5.62% and their chances of avoiding defeat by rather more.

Their give-'em-nothing approach probably possessed unabashed cricketing logic and provided further proof of their tough mental state. They were 3-0 up in the series and were determined not to grant Australia a consolation victory with the return series already looming. Faster scoring, according to Joe Root, young in years but old in brain, was "not viable". The result was drab fare for all but the most obsessive Test cricket watcher.

Excited England pre-match talk of an unprecedented 4-0 Ashes victory was quietened on the first day by a lost toss and Shane Watson's domineering century for Australia. What has followed has been prosaic in the extreme: attritional batting, laggardly attitudes which might usefully waste a bit of time along the way, and a general tedium as England have made grim, and probably successful, progress towards passing the follow-on figure of 293.

They scored at only 2.19 runs per over on the third day, making 215 in 98 overs, while losing only three wickets on a ponderous but reliable Oval surface, one on which Australia proceeded at 3.81 runs per over while making 492. But Australia had to make the running and that meant taking wickets. They failed in their prime task.

Australia's attack was disciplined but - as England emphasised, hour after long hour - resistible: Nathan Lyon, barely seen until mid-afternoon, got the occasional ball to turn and bounce sharply and, if Ryan Harris ever opts for body art, a huge bull nose ring would be perfect; for his unyielding approach alone, he deserves to be named as Australia's man of the series. But England's obduracy triumphed and it arose not from conditions but largely from their choice to put an unwillingness to yield above loftier ambitions.

Perhaps the presence of a debutant allrounder, Chris Woakes, at No. 6, was enough to curb England's ambitions. As it was, Woakes, although only 15 not out at the close, launched his Test career with a ringing square drive against Mitchell Starc and generally looked more comfortable than most. If he has a Test future it may be as a batting allrounder.

Even the umpires caught the slow rhythms. Aleem Dar thought for an age before giving out Jonathan Trott to Australia's first delivery with the second new ball, ten minutes before tea. Trott, who had reached 40 with great deliberation, while bearing the demeanour of a cabinet minister who had just approached the despatch box to announce the banning of Fun, reviewed Starc's lbw decision but the call was a good one. Australia had stifled his leg-side strength to good effect.

Alastair Cook's unproductive Ashes continued when he became the only England batsman to fall on the third morning. Cook's exceptional record - 766 runs in seven innings - was the bedrock of England's first series win in Australia for 24 years three years ago, and he has another series victory to bring contentment here, but he has found little personal glory in his first home series as an Ashes captain.

When Harris enticed him to push woodenly at a wide one, and offer a simple catch to the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, it left him with 243 runs at an average of 27 and the prospect of one more innings, at best, to remedy matters.

As for Haddin, he is only two dismissals short of Rod Marsh's all-time record of 28 dismissals in a Test series, achieved against England in 1982-83, which is not the sort of statistic you expect to find when a side is 3-0 down.

Cook has three half-centuries in the series, but his batting for the most part has been characterised by stilted defence. His 28 came from 88 balls, with only 11 added from his overnight total, his pleasure drawn from a solitary square drive against Harris and the only half-century stand that his new opening alliance with Root has brought all summer.

He also survived an Australia review, on 25, when Harris exposed his summer-long tendency to fall too far over to the off side. But it is doubtful whether he was overly concerned. Predictably, replays showed the ball pitching well outside leg stump, continuing the trend in a series in which the DRS success rate of both sides now lies under 25%.

Root did at least find some benefit. Remove his herculean 180 in the second Test at Lord's and all he had to show for his first series as an opener was six scores under 20, but he survived an awkward examination from Starc in particular and by the time he unpacked his first third-man glide of the morning he looked in better order. His half-century was neatly packed away by lunch.

James Faulkner, like Woakes, is a one-day allrounder on Test debut, and his introduction after lunch encouraged Root's most enterprising moments as he twice preyed on width to drive to the boundary. But expectations that Root could inject some life into the day were dashed by Lyon, who had him caught at short fine-leg from a top-edged sweep.

Kevin Pietersen was awarded a miniature silver bat at lunchtime as recognition of becoming England's highest runscorer in international cricket, but it brought no air of celebration. His fifty took three hours, his second slowest in Tests for England, and came up with a bottom-edged pull against Faulkner as he was through a pull shot far too early. Ironic cheers rang out from a crowd which had soaked up its punishment patiently.

He has rarely made such ugly runs and did not make another run after his half-century, poking a full-length ball from Starc to first slip. There had not been a strut in sight. There was, though, a prolonged exchange with Michael Clarke after he was sledged for the way he apparently mothers Ian Bell through an innings when they are together at the crease.

Pietersen had most difficulties of all against Lyon, who found turn from around the wicket and enough harum-scarum moments against bat and pad to keep the short leg, Steve Smith, in perpetual hope that a deflection might fall within his range. His impatience was apparent when he gambled on a risky single to mid-on and was spared by David Warner's inaccurate shy. Lyon caused occasional alarms, but he could not cause mayhem.

Were it not for forecasts of heavy rain, spinners could be expected to have a sizeable say on the last two days. Instead, with storms forecast for Saturday, there was a sense of a series meandering to a climax, a series which has sporadically brought great entertainment, but which has been of inconsistent quality.

Roy Hodgson, the England football manager, was in the crowd and, in his terminology, he must have felt that the third day remained goalless, with only a couple of shots on target.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • H_Z_O on August 26, 2013, 11:33 GMT

    @JG2704 on (August 25, 2013, 21:44 GMT) "However , despite what we hear of Eng's ambitions , they are not playing like a side who believe they can be number 1 again IMO."

    Agreed, but I think the reason for that is fairly simple; they don't really believe the hype. They know they're a good side, but not a great side, a side that's better than most, but not the very best. A bit like, ironically, South Africa for a long time when Australia were on top. It always seemed like they were good enough to beat every other side in world cricket, but still second best to the Aussies.

    "Playing with more positive intent is the only way they can close the gap but I think we all realise the pitfalls"

    I think it's a mixture of the South Africans just being that good (they're a great side in the truest sense of the word) and a generational issue. This group of players has grown up during an era when England weren't very good. The next one should grow up at a time when we're much better. Hopefully ;).

  • JG2704 on August 25, 2013, 21:44 GMT

    @H_Z_O on (August 24, 2013, 18:36 GMT) Re Eng taking back the number 1 from SA - Like you I can't see it happening in the foreseeable future. However , despite what we hear of Eng's ambitions , they are not playing like a side who believe they can be number 1 again IMO. Playing with more positive intent is the only way they can close the gap but I think we all realise the pitfalls and I genuinely think England are more than happy being number 2 right now - which they will be after tomorrow unless something remarkable happens

  • JG2704 on August 25, 2013, 21:44 GMT

    @ Walter Aussems on (August 24, 2013, 15:31 GMT) IMO , Eng were playing for a draw from towards the end of day 1 (when they realised the bowling attack wasn't working well)and not from the word go. Why would a side go with 5 bowlers if they were playing for a draw from the off?

  • JG2704 on August 25, 2013, 21:43 GMT

    @disco_bob on (August 24, 2013, 10:30 GMT) I get your gripes re the wasting time tactics and I myself said that I'd prefer England to have lost the test than be saved by the weather. Re time wasting , the umpires should be on their case and the ICC on the umpires case. But re the pitches in general being bad - the 3 tests where we've had no weather interruptions have all produced results. The 2 which didn't both had less than 4 days play. My take is that we tried to prepare a turning pitch but it turned out to be a lifeless pitch. Re the scoreline etc and seeing proper cricket - well were the 3 tests which England won not proper cricket? Also , would not have won the 3rd or this test because of so much time lost due to weather. The go slow tactics haven't made a difference to the results

  • H_Z_O on August 24, 2013, 23:28 GMT

    The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that my example of the Gabba has an error in it. Not one that undermines the key point (that Australia had a lead of 445, didn't enforce the follow-on, set England close to 650 to win, and bowled us out for under the 445 they already had) but an error nonetheless. I'd like to correct it.

    I said Australia scored 601 and we scored 175. Well they actually scored 602, while we only managed 157. Not a crucial error, as I said, but I'd hate for my argument to be undermined by a factual error, especially one that I don't think changes the crux of my point.

  • H_Z_O on August 24, 2013, 18:36 GMT

    @Walter Aussems on (August 24, 2013, 15:31 GMT) Our odds of taking the number 1 spot from South Africa have nothing to do with our tactics. I realise it's a popular strawman to beat Cook and Flower with, but tactics won't change one simple thing; South Africa are better than us.

    Not that there's much shame in that. They're better than everyone. Kallis is a great of the game; he's churned out runs on par with Tendulkar, Lara, Dravid, Ponting et al, all while chipping in with 288 Test wickets and taking a mere 194 catches.

    Smith has 8753 runs, 8147 of them as captain, taking over the captaincy in only his 9th Test match. His mental toughness and will to win is unmatched.

    Between them, Smith, Kallis, Amla and De Villiers have over 34,000 Test runs.

    Steyn has the best strike rate of any bowler with 300 Test wickets and averages 5 wickets a match. Philander's stats are even better; 5.56 wickets a match.

    They're a great side. The only thing that'll end their reign is time itself.

  • H_Z_O on August 24, 2013, 18:08 GMT

    @drssucks on (August 24, 2013, 11:30 GMT) 3-1 scoreline? As much as I think there was very little chance of England surviving at Old Trafford, I thought the same back in Cardiff in 2009. Or Cape Town in 2010. Or more recently in Auckland.

    Team A plays Team B. Team A scores 601, then bowls Team B out for 175. Instead of enforcing the follow-on (with a lead of 445) they bat again, score 200, then bowl the other side out for 370. Is that "safety first" or "win at all costs" captaincy?

    Team A was Australia at the Gabba in their 2006/2007 Ashes whitewash. Still think Australia were a "win at all costs" team in the 2000s? Australian sides have always played to make sure they don't lose first, build up an aura of unbeatable-ness, and then seize upon chances to win. That's what England have done.

    Our last 15 Tests: 7 wins, 6 draws, 2 losses. Australia's: 4 wins, 3 draws, 8 losses. If playing "entertaining" cricket means you lose twice as many as you win, no thank you.

  • dummy4fb on August 24, 2013, 18:04 GMT

    I have to laugh at some of the comments talking up the Australian's efforts.

    At the start of the series I said that Australia's fortunes lay with the bowlers, both with the bat and ball.

    1st Test Aust were 6/113, finished with 280, then 6/164, finished with 296. Despite the bowlers efforts with bat and ball, with less brittle batting Aust wins the test.

    2nd Test Aust were 6/91, finished with 128, then 6/136, finished with 235. Aust brittle batting exposed again.

    4th Test Aust were 6/224, finished with 270, then 6/179, finished with 224 losing 10/115. Aust brittle batting exposed again and with less brittle batting Aust wins the test.

    You are not going to win too many 5-TM Series when, for three of the first four tests your first 6-wkts fall for an average of 150 and results look close is because the 10th wicket is averaging over 50.

    With less brittle batting Australia wins 2-1.

    All of this is not helped when two of your tour bowlers are crippled by the training program.

  • dummy4fb on August 24, 2013, 15:32 GMT

    If luck,DRS and some Tactics had been Favored Australia the scoreline would have been 3-1 in favor for the visitors.......However this series has been keenly contested even though England lead by 3-0....looking forward for the Return series in Down Under later this year

  • dummy4fb on August 24, 2013, 15:31 GMT

    @bobmartin, I completely agree with that midset, however England were playing for a draw right from the word Go. All the talk and dreaming of beating the aussies 4-0 seemed to go straight out the window as soon as the aussies posted a good 1st innings total. There is nothing ruthless or tough about playing for a draw from day 2. I have huge respect for most of the english team but if this is their main tactic, then there soon to be my least respected team. To be honest, they will never take the nr1 spot from SA with tactics like this....