|Umpires Tony Hill |
And Aleem Dar
It was fitting that while this test match began on Boxing Day in Australia it was still Christmas Day in England; for it was the English who received all the presents on the day. From the very outset they seemed to have the luck of the season on their side. Strauss won the toss and did not hesitate to insert his antipodean rivals. While all the talk had been about the composition of the Australian team, it was the English who tinkered with their side. The supposedly tired Finn made way for Bresnan, whose batting skills surely gave him the edge in a side coming off two batting failures. The Australian decision to retain a four-pronged pace attack would have surely been vindicated by the pitch and conditions, had the toss gone their way. But it was a day where everything went England’s way.
|Pietersen Reflects On|
A Dropped Catch
The weather came to the party for Strauss’ men; cloud cover and humidity provided enough movement in the air for the English to evoke memories of their motherland. The Australians never looked settled at the wicket, while the English bowlers eased into their work with little fuss. Anderson swung his stock delivery away from the right-hander, occasionally pushing one the other way to good effect. While his control and direction were excellent, for probably the only time that day, luck was not on his side. Two sharp catches went down in the slips, one high and one low; these were some of the only blemishes against the English fielding during the day, and in fact the tour. Throughout the innings, the bowlers consistently kept the ball full, exacting the most assistance from the conditions. On a couple of occasions the ball was dragged down and put away by the batsmen; the bowlers learned well from this and returned quickly to their full line.
|Strauss Eyes His Opposite|
Tremlett’s height necessitated a slightly shorter line, into which he settled with consummate ease until the breakthrough came. Watson received a delivery which climbed off a good length and took the shoulder of his bat. He could but watch helplessly as the ball looped to Pietersen in the gully, who redeemed his earlier sins by completing a much more straightforward catch. Watson, who throughout the series had seemed the only level head in the troubled top four, was gone with only 15 runs on the board. The loss of an early wicket was not unfamiliar to the Australian crowd, however. The colosseum-like venue soon resonated with juxtaposed cheers and boos as Ricky Ponting strode to the crease. The man much-loved by his home faithful, and hated as strongly, if not more, by most others, put aside all the talk of pinkies and sackings as he took up his familiar position on the centre stage.
Hughes, who had looked in good form when cracking two deliveries in Tremlett’s first over through the infield, was tied up by the tight line and length of the bowling. The sun came out for a brief while, during which Ponting and Hughes slowly battled away. The English were quick to turn to the Decision Review system when they were convinced a ball had deflected of Hughes’ bat, rather than his thigh guard; unfortunately for them, it was the latter. Ponting looked the goods when he latched onto two pull strokes in quick succession. Hughes however did not seem to have adjusted to the pace of the game and in trying to force a wide ball from Bresnan through point, ended up guiding a dolly into the hands of the gully fieldsman, once again Pietersen.
|Disappointment For The Skipper|
Ponting soon after received a wonderful ball from Tremlett; it was just short of a length, but forced the batsman into a stroke; it angled in towards Ponting, but seamed away just enough to take the edge high up on the angled bat. With Ponting as usual pushing hard at the ball early on, it flew high into the slips, where Swann acrobatically pouched a diving catch. Ponting’s disappointment was tangible in his crestfallen reaction; he stood almost incredulous, staring at the pitch for several seconds, before slowly trudging off the field and straight down the tunnel. The dismay of the Australian captain was reflected in the muted and mournful faces of his compatriots in the crowd, and contrasted by the absolute exuberance of the visiting fans.
This left two Michaels at the crease, Clarke and Hussey, both fresh and unused to the pitch. They applied themselves to the task and looked as secure as any batsman in the first session; it was demonstrative of how precious Hussey’s wicket was to the English that they sacrificed their one remaining review on an LBW shout clearly going over the stumps. Australians hoped Fate would punish them for such audacity, but Fate proudly donned the St George’s cross for the day. Just before lunch the clouds rolled over and Strauss produced a masterful stroke of captaincy, bringing Anderson back into the attack. On the stroke of the interval, Anderson pushed one across the left-handed Hussey. The ball clipped the outside of his languid push and England had the wicket for which they had previously toiled so hard to earn. Four of the top five bastmen were back in the dressing room, with fewer than fifty runs on the board. Fittingly, the heavens opened and play ended shortly before the scheduled start of the luncheon interval.
|Strauss Sets His Sights On Clarke|
Though the showers abated during the interval, they returned as play was set to recommence, and a lengthy delay ensued. Hopes were that the Australians would have time to regroup and refocus, but when play finally restarted, it was the English who were on form. Smith, who had yet to convince pundits of his ability, failed to get going and was caught behind pushing at another ball. The similarity of the dismissals was becoming striking. Haddin’s arrival at the crease did not provide the tonic needed for the shaky innings, despite his previous good form. On the contrary, he arrived playing far too many strokes and never looked settled. Anderson continued to impress and soon both Clarke and Haddin were out to flashy strokes playing away from the body. Clarke had made 20, which was to prove the high score of the innings; his dismissal was characteristic of much of the Australian batting: caught on the crease, unsure whether to play, a weak prod of the bat far away from his half-stride causing him to overbalance, followed by the tell-tale look behind at the ball as it settled in the ‘keepers gloves.
Johnson’s innings never got going, the victim of another excellent delivery going across the left-hander and catching the edge. The remaining tail-enders battled without any real application, hoping merely to gain some bonus runs and possibly sneak the total past a hundred. Siddle, the local man, thrilled the crowd with a few bold strokes before falling victim to his own audacity. Harris, who struggled to middle anything at the outset, finally managed to reach the boundary, if only through the slips. With the team’s century in sight, the struggling Hilfenhaus gave Prior his sixth catch of the innings and Tremlett his fourth wicket. His duck saw Ponting’s men fall for 98, their lowest score at the MCG against England and a morale-destroying number for their precarious bid to reclaim the Ashes.
|Blue Skies Appear On Cue|
In a scarcely believable few hours, the Australians’ hopes of setting up a series-deciding contest in Sydney had been reduced to those of managing to salvage a draw out of a game already slipping out of their reach. Their only hope was to emulate the English bowlers’ performances and set the game back on level terms. This was made immediately more difficult when, as if on cue, the sun burst through the clouds as the English openers strode out to bat. At once the lively pitch, which the Australians had made seem a minefield, became a batsman’s paradise. Ponting’s hand was forced somewhat by the small total; his fields were very attacking and provided the English openers with ample opportunities for scoring. Cook and Strauss set about applying themselves with dogged determination.
Hilfenhaus’ series to date had not proved fruitful; a general lack of swing seemed to be at least symptomatic of his poor results, if not causal. This innings was no different; whether he would have swung the ball had the Australians bowled first is simply an academic question. Suffice it to say, he did not trouble the in-form openers who had been such pivotal cornerstones of England’s previous batting efforts in the series. Harris was not as venomous as he had seemed at the WACA ground, while Siddle was lively but not incisive. Johnson’s introduction to the bowling crease was a release for the batting side, helping to get the runs flowing. Ironic cheers greeted a wide delivery which a diving Haddin could not lay a glove on, accompanied by surprised comments at the signalling of byes by those unfamiliar with the intricacies of umpiring.
|The English Captain Reamined Resolute|
Strauss was out of the blocks early unleashing some elegant drives, before Cook unfurled some fierce cuts and pulls to catch up. The two batsmen drew level on 34 runs, but while Cook pushed on and punished the demoralised bowlers, Strauss became bogged down and his runs dried up. Neither gave their wicket away, however, and they continued to frustrate the increasingly desperate hosts in the warm afternoon sun. As if to rub salt into the wound, Cook was adjudged LBW but almost mockingly referred the decision at once with a smile on his face, knowing it would show up an inside edge and earn him a reprieve. As it turned out, this was the closest the Australians would come to taking a wicket all afternoon.
Due to earlier disruptions, the session became a three-hour marathon; the Melbourne heat sapped energy just as the steadfast batsmen sapped hope from Australian hearts. The crowd, hoped to be a record-breaker but well short due to the circumstances, began to give up hope as the players seemed to go through the motions as the day wound up. The English contingent was a multitude in transports of joy, but it seemed as though they were so astounded by the day’s events as to be incredulous, and surprisingly never quite reached full voice. It would take a few quiet moments away from the spectacle of the event to realise the full extent and implications of the day’s proceedings. With the Ashes on the line, the Australians were spinning towards a defeat which could shatter their cricketing dynasty for good.