Saturday 8 August 2015

Ashes 2015: it's our way, and now the highway

The doctrine of Australian exceptionalism has misled the Test team to a point where after two days of the fourth Test, only the formalities in their forfeiture of the Ashes remain. In this maelstrom of a match and series, Australia will have more time to reflect on losing than they have spent in the guilty act. It will be torturous.
On day two, Australia's top order and their stubbornly unmended ways crumbled only a little less instantly and ignominiously than they had on day one, buffered as they were by a century opening stand, which ought to have proofed them against crumbling, but did not. If the problem on day one was the pitch, as Michael Clarke claimed, the problem on day two was the tempo. Most, maybe all, of Australia's specialist batsmen tumbled with eyes wide open into obvious traps laid by England, exploiting their elements, as all home teams do.
Shaun Marsh: Australia would have been better off picking a traffic cone.
Shaun Marsh: Australia would have been better off picking a traffic cone. Photo: Getty Images
Chris Rogers was caught in the slips twice in two overs, the second time from a legal delivery, double jeopardy. David Warner fell as he did in the second innings at Edgbaston, as he nearly did in the previous over this day, trying to shovel a short ball to leg. It was as if he was saying to England that they needn't think they had it over him there. But they did.
Steve Smith stepped across his stumps, as he does, and Stuart Broad bowled a stump's breadth wider, as he has been doing, and Smith stepped across again, and drove straight to the man set for the shot at point. Earlier in the series, Smith turned his back on such temptations, but it was if he was saying he could play England at that game if he wanted. But he couldn't. Smith's halo has slipped; since his Lord's opus, he had made four single-figure scores.
Shaun Marsh did what Shaun Marsh does, followed an outswinger and nicked to slip. If you wanted to be cruel, you could say that Australia should have replaced Mitch Marsh with a traffic cone. They would have been no worse off for bowlers, and at least the traffic cone would not have chased a swinging ball (though it would have been a sucker for lbw). For vinegar, England's five-wicket hero this day was Ben Stokes, in the role of the fourth seamer Australia forwent.
Halo slipped: Steve Smith.
Halo slipped: Steve Smith. Photo: Getty Images
The exception to this second capitulation was more problematic than the rule. Even after an hour's watchfulness, Clarke could only prod at Mark Wood's outswinger and was caught in slips. This was not hubris, but helplessness, the stroke of a man so long out of form it can no longer be considered to be a temporary state, any moment now to be outweighed by the permanence of class and the heft of his record. He goes on to The Oval as General Custer.
Stuart Broad's eight first-innings wickets already have acquired the status of a wildly popular dance video clip in England, on permanent loop on every television set, the slipsmen, swaying left and right, playing the part of background dancers. It is on the way to becoming an earworm in both countries. But this was a new day, a new threshold. "You never know," Clarke had said on gloomy Thursday evening. We should have.
It was another bowling day. In the morning, Mitch Starc, Moeen Ali, Wood and the omni-brilliant Broad in their several ways gave the game a 20-over, 5/117 shove, as if a match already free of gravity needed one. Innately, Starc has more swing than New York city, but only sometimes commensurate rhythm. This was one, sustained throughout an 11-over spell, with old ball and new, one slim picking for Australia from this wreckage.
England's fourth seamer Ben Stokes picked up five wickets.
England's fourth seamer Ben Stokes picked up five wickets. Photo: AP
But Starc was one against the grain. Otherwise, Australia was again a ragged outfit. Unaccountably, Mitch Johnson refused to bowl bouncers at nightwatchman Wood, as improbable as a dog failing to raise its leg against a tree, and so Wood hit with impunity and got England's bandwagon rolling again. Moeen and Broad put on 59, and every run was like a picadore's lance into Australia's wounded flank.
When Australia batted again before lunch, the tape played identically up to the point where ball reached batsman. There, it was spliced with another. In the first innings, everything became a snick and a catch. Now, the ball missed the edge, four times in one over from Broad to Warner, and many times thereafter. When it did catch an edge, it eluded slips' fingertips. When it did go to slips, Alastair Cook dropped one, and almost another, and Ian Bell did, too.
A half-volley arrived, then another, novelties. Warner and Rogers pounced. Sometimes, they also left; evidently, it was possible. For an hour or so, orthodoxy and serenity reigned. At 0/60, the crowd cheered mockingly. At 0/100, the humour was more restrained. A wicket for Wood was cancelled out by a no-ball, and later another. Where was all this largesse way back on Thursday? Somewhere along the way, the millionth ball in Test cricket in England was bowled. The Australians knew they had to face a million more, but no-one was out yet.
All the while, though, there was that absurd number in the corner of the scoreboard, winking at them. Sixty. Six-ty. It just looked wrong, like no cricket figure before, too little obviously, but also too round and too final. It did not compute. But it did weigh, like a millstone. Australia needed not only to survive a million balls, they had to make a million runs.
Then the pendulum swung. England's bowling was as potent as Australia's was profligate. It surrounded the Australians. No wickets became four, in four overs, and the countdown began. Consider this: England's bowlers generated 16 catches between wicketkeeper and point, Australia's five. Even allowing for the missing innings, it tells a tale of contrasting competence in the conditions. There was no escape.
Peter Nevill might reasonably argue that leaving the swerving ball is no more efficacious than playing; twice in two weeks, he has been out without offering. Adam Voges set his jaw against the tide and batted through to stumps, drawn a little early as a shroud descended.
In England, the light sometimes is dull, and the pitches seamy, and the ball swings, and they like it that way, and are good at it, and also the crowd barracks for England. Who would have thought?

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