1st Test, Cardiff

England v Australia, 2015

Hugh Chevallier


Joe Root leaves the field to a standing ovation after his outstanding 134, England v Australia, 1st Investec Ashes Test, Cardiff, 1st day, July 8, 2015
Joe Root leaves the field to a standing ovation after his outstanding 134 © Getty Images
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Tour and tournament reports : England v Australia, 2015
Teams: Australia | England

At Cardiff, July 8-11. England won by 169 runs. Toss: England.
Root is late on the ball; he jams his bat down and the edge flies to Haddin, who flings himself in front of first slip and holds an airborne one-handed catch. Root is late on the ball; he jams his bat down and the edge flies to Haddin, who flings himself in front of first slip and spills an airborne one-handed chance. This is no Pullmanesque tale of parallel universes, but moments from successive Ashes series.

The shots, at Perth and Cardiff around 18 months apart, were identical. The contrast, however, wasn't simply where the ball fetched up. In Australia, as deliveries whistled through at extreme pace, Haddin stood back; in Wales, where they did not, he was much nearer the stumps. Cardiff is anti-Perth, the pitch snoozier than Alice's dormouse, and yet - thanks to four days of decent weather - it conspired to create a fizzing spectacle of compelling cricket that England won handsomely, for two main reasons: the failure of the Australians to adapt to alien conditions, and the 134 runs Root scored after his second-ball reprieve.

Haddin's fumble also drew attention to the fallibility of age. At 37, he was one of six Australians longer in the tooth than Bell, England's oldest. (Indeed, Jason Gillespie, Yorkshire's Australian coach, had labelled Clarke's squad "Dad's Army" - and with friends like that...) It hadn't helped that Ryan Harris, the leading wicket-taker across the previous two Ashes but now a rickety 35-year-old, was forced into retirement four days before the Test. England, meanwhile, were unchanged for the third match in a row.

After their 5-0 humiliation in 2013-14, they and new coach Trevor Bayliss - another Australian - cried out for a decent start. So did the crowd after being subjected to a handful of sparklers, a puff or two of blue smoke, some corny choreography involving three outsize flags, and four interminable anthems. Despite laughable ECB claims of "tradition", it added up to neither an opening ceremony nor a row of beans. Even the weather seemed embarrassed, further dampening the dampest of squibs with a shower that delayed the palaver - and therefore the cricket - by 15 minutes.

England won the toss, Australia the first hour: one Ashes debutant gave a leading edge off another when Lyth was squared up by the disciplined Hazlewood; Cook paid the price for premeditated attack when he cut a ball from Lyon that was too close to him; and Bell's sorry run was now 56 in nine innings. Root, though, said arriving at such a juncture could be a boon: "You get opportunities to score because they have aggressive fields." But could England have recovered from 43 for four?

Ballance, in a rut almost as grim as Bell's, scrapped his way out with a doggedness more mongrel than pedigree. Root's batting, meanwhile, had the precision of a miniaturist, and runs came at a lick. The pair made hay as the sun shone, adding 153 in the afternoon. Helped by the lack of bounce and Clarke's unwillingness to temper his attacking instinct, Root reached an ebullient hundred from 118 balls, the fastest in the first innings of an Ashes series. When he eventually fell, he had squirrelled away 1,452 runs at 85 since being left out at Sydney in January 2014. And, with Stokes larruping a playful half- century, England closed on 343 for seven. Next morning, Ali stroked his second-highest Test score to coax England to 430, five adrift of the total they made here in 2009 (when Australia countered with 674 for six).

Johnson, whose bite on this track was more a gentle peck, was out of luck. When he did find enough nip to zero one in on Broad's chin, Voges claimed the catch at short leg, only for reviews to show the ball had touched grass. As the Barmy Army whooped at Johnson's misfortune, or rose in mock admiration as he reached three figures - none for 111 was his worst Test return - he had the presence of mind to doff his cap or give a wry smile. Starc, struggling with an ankle injury that had him hobbling after each delivery, gained occasional swing, and a curate's-egg five for 114.

Australia sat down to lunch unscathed but, at 52, Warner edged Anderson. The ball seemed to have shot past the slips when Cook held a blinding catch. After Smith had crashed three of his first four balls from Ali for four - both teams tried to target the spinner - he again shimmied up the wicket. Ali saw his intent and speared the ball down the leg side. Desperate to avoid being stumped, Smith got in a tangle and popped the ball to short mid-on. It was intelligent captaincy from Cook, who had persisted with Ali - and stationed himself for the miscue.

Rogers was in a rut too, if a happier one than Ballance or Bell, since his problem was not scoring runs, but reaching three figures. His polished innings ended on 95 when he nibbled at one angled across him by the inventive Wood, making Rogers the first to hit seven successive Test fifties without converting any into a hundred. At 180 for three or 207 for four, neither side held an advantage. But late on the second evening Stokes nudged England ahead when Voges chased a widish one that stalled a little. At the close, Australia were five down for 264.

Next day, England quelled all doubt over who was bossing this Test. Much depended on Watson, but - in a form of words that has appeared in many a match report - he played in front of his pads, was given out lbw, and squandered a review trying to overturn the decision. Six years earlier, Australia had cornered the market with four centuries here. Now they hoarded a feebler commodity: never in Tests had Nos 3-6 all been dismissed in the thirties. In 75 minutes of immaculate bowling on the third morning, England sliced through Australia's last five wickets for 44, ensuring a handy lead of 122.

Not that everything flowed their way. Cook, persisting with his aggressive approach, fell before lunch and then, in a torrid spell after the resumption, Hazlewood removed Ballance for a duck, undone by one that reared. Bell knew he would get a working over, but the longer he survived, the more his old elegance returned. In one 20-ball sequence, he and Lyth added 41. At tea, with seven sessions left in the game, England led by 271 for the loss of three, Root again hinting that an army of fielders would not stop him gathering runs, so exquisite was his placement.

The scoring-rate over the first two days had been above four, and the third day zipped merrily along too. For a sell-out crowd soaking up warm summer sun and cool Welsh beer, it was perfect entertainment. And in a fit of bonhomie they even applauded Johnson when - having racked up 160 runs for no reward - he seamed one into Bell's off stump. Meanwhile the good ship Root sailed serenely on: for the third time in his last six Tests, he shot past 50 in both innings.

Given a gloomy last-day forecast, Cook must have worried about the timing of a declaration. However, a positive approach took the decision out of his hands. Swinging bats brought runs and wickets at a faster pace than the surface suggested, though from a position of dominance - 358 ahead and only five down - England lost three for nine. Enter Wood, who thumped the lead past 400. When Anderson was last out, the target had swelled to 412 in six sessions - maybe three if the rain arrived as predicted.

Would Australia's batsmen be as meek again? Would England's bowlers and fielders be as lion-hearted? The answer to the second question seemed to be no when Root, in almost his only false move all match, spurned a tough but catchable chance at third slip. It was England's sole drop, but they had reprieved a man in record form. Rogers, though, fell soon afterwards as Broad found swing, variable bounce and a dangerous length. He might have taken half a dozen wickets but, at 97 for one and with Warner and Smith on the attack, Australia were sowing doubt in English minds. Ali's two overs had gone for 22, so when Cook brought him back for the last over of the morning it was essentially for him to regain confidence.

He found that in spades when Warner abandoned his natural aggression, played for lunch - and non-existent spin - and fell lbw. It proved the catalyst for a pell-mell procession, some the architects of their own downfall, others undone by inspired bowling or catching. England's captain had not always had Velcro hands, but - to mix proverbs - it now became impossible to have too many Cooks, since all he touched turned to gold. Haddin middled an ordinary ball from Ali, only for Cook at short midwicket to spring to his right, palm the ball upwards and cling on as he fell back to earth. Then Wood became the seventh and, it transpired, last England seamer to land a fatal blow on Watson's front pad. As in the first innings, Watson demanded corroboration; as in the first innings, the review was futile. It felt like a forlorn finale to an unfulfilled career, and in early September - having played no further part in the series - he announced his retirement from Tests.

At 151 for seven just before tea, Australia's only hope was to survive until stumps and look to the heavens, but if that's rarely their way, it's never Johnson's. He crashed, banged and walloped a chirpy half-century, until more golden-touch captaincy hastened the end. Cook brought on Root, himself something of a Midas, if not an off-spinner to strike fear into the soul. He had Starc and Johnson held at slip and, with 20 overs left, confirmed a thumping four-day victory by taking the final catch, at long-off.

England had arrived as underdogs. They left Sophia Gardens with their chests puffed out and the belief they had the ability - and the captain - to wrench back the Ashes. And puddles deepened by the snoozy pitch.

© John Wisden & Co