Match Review England versus Australia, 5th Ashes Test, The Oval, London, August 21st to 25th

After 4 days of slow cricket and terrible weather England had victory snatched from them OvalCGby that peculiar enemy of cricket ‘Bad Light’.  This series has been far from the classic contests of old yet has been almost as one-sided as those bad old days when Australia used to turn up here and routinely thrash us.  Not that you’d know it’d been a comfortable series for the hosts if you believed the Aussie-loving media about how everything could have been so different if umpiring and weather had not betrayed the ever improving Aussies – but that’s another story for another day.

Before play started England surprised us all by not selecting Chris Tremlett ahead of the injured Tim Bresnan, but dropping the unfortunate Johnny Bairstow and brining in uncapped Chris Woakes (bowling all-rounder) and Simon Kerrigan (spin bowler). It’s nice when you can play  a couple of youngsters in when the series is dead – but this is the most criticized Ashes winning team in history and people were bafflingly unhappy that we didn’t have ‘our foot on the throat’.  I don’t buy that at all and while the team was desperate to win 4-0, why not try and include a couple of younger players when the series is over as a contest.

A typical Oval pitch (flat as a road) meant that the toss became crucial and Australia elected to bat first.   I tweeted at the time that the game was no longer in England’s hands and that victory was almost gone before a ball was bowled.  Whatever the quality of the bowling attack, on a pitch offering nothing at all for the bowlers meant that the team batting first should be looking to score 450-550 runs in quick time.  Well that’s exactly what Australia did.  England started well with Anderson back to something near his early series best and even with Shane Watson motoring towards an impressive century, England were still in the game when Shane Watson was dropped by Cook on 104 – he and Smith went to put on another 100 before Australia declared late on day 2 at 492 for 9.  England batted through without many problems which lead us to a very slow day 3.

Day 3 saw England trying to save the game.  So many runs behind, England realistically had no chance of winning the game at this point so set about not to lose it.  It was a slow days  cricket and every England batsmen got some kind of start before going on to get out.  KP made his slowest Ashes 50 and England ended the day pretty secure with their position in the test.  Some of the public and national media outcry against England this day was pretty sickening, but more on that later.

Day 4 was a total wash out – not a ball bowled, effectively securing the test as a draw.

Day 5 saw England smash the ball about it, motoring past the follow on target and be bowled out for a respectable 377 – still 115 runs behind Australia but with only 2/3rds of a day left to play.  Michael Clarke, having not won a Test match since January and desperately seeking something from the series, decided to make a game of it.  Australia juggled their batting order and blasted their way to 111 for 6 declared – though they scored at just 4.8 runs an over – which is testament to England’s excellent bowling when they most likely wanted to go between 6 and 7 to give themselves more time to bowl England out.  I don’t think Clarke believed England would get anywhere near the runs required.  He believed the media hype about the dour negative England that he was supposedly facing and in setting England 227 to win – defeat never really crossed his mind.

England, the second best team in the world in my opinion (despite what the media say), are capable of playing any type of cricket required depending on what the situation demands and they chased these runs down perfectly.  Cook and Root batted quickly enough without taking risks and set a platform for Trott and the destructive KP to knock the wind out of the chase and give England a real chance of victory.  Pierersen’s stunning 62 from 55 balls was breath-taking and Woakes and Bell were playing beautifully.  With just England needed just 21 runs from 24 balls to secure an unlikely victory until the Umpires took the players off for bad light.  The umpires had no choice.  Once they had gone off for bad light on one of the previous days, once the light got as bad the umpires were duty bound to do the same.  It really is a ridiculous rule.  Whilst bad light can impact on a game, grounds with floodlights should be exempt unless it’s properly dark, not just grey.

It was gutting to have 4 0 taken away from us like that. Michael Clarke has had lots of plaudits thrown his way for the ‘sporting declaration’ – and it turned a certain draw into an exhilarating climax.  Personally I think Clarke felt England had no chance of chasing him down, and the panic that was plain to see across his face as we got closer and closer was a delight to see.  I don’t blame him for some outstanding time wasting and even dissent towards the umpires – begging them to go off for light – but I also don’t buy the ‘let’s all thank Michael Clarke for making a game of it.’ 4 0 would have been nice, but 3 0 will do just fine.

I’m going to be doing a few series review pieces so I won’t go too much into my view of the series but I want to make one point about the coverage of the game.

Day 3 was a really damaging day for Test Cricket.  It wasn’t damaging because England batted scoring just over two runs an over, and it wasn’t damaging because the game meandered towards a draw on just day 3.  It was damaging because the most influential people covering the game were disgusted with England’s approach.  The problem I have with this was that a couple of the normally excellent sky commentary team, the written and digital media openly they admitted they were bored stiff and very critical of England’s approach.  Much was made of the fact some people had paid vast sums of money to watch the game and millions were watching around the world and that England had a duty to entertain as well as avoid defeat.  Apart from the fact it’s all garbage, It’s severely damaging to the game.

Test cricket has to compete with cricket itself these days, never mind other sports.  Writers and cricket commentators love to eulogise about the fact that we’re in love with a game that just doesn’t fit the 21st century.  If it was to be proposed today it would be laughed off.  Playing a game over 5 days – with at least 3 of them week days when people are at work is madness.  It’s a game from a different era.  An era when the result wasn’t all important, when individual milestones were of great value – when drawing a game felt like a victory and when 25 days play sometimes wasn’t enough to separate two sides.  All of the values of Test cricket are talked up and how they are dying out.  People bemoan the T20 culture and how young batsmen  are unable to play long, diligent innings.  Bowlers are too concerned by taking wickets and batsmen scoring individual runs.  Those that champion Test Cricket tell us that we’re in danger of losing a game which is unlike no other.  Yet as soon as we get a day’s play in which one team is digging in, working hard, using concentration and solid technique to save a game – we’re told it’s boring, unsportsmanlike and dull.  The Ashes draws new cricket fans in, and cements part time ones.  It’s incredibly damaging to get the message across to these fans that what they’re watching is dull.

The reason we love test cricket is because it’s a test of a players resolve, fitness, technique and ability to play at the highest level.  To have so many people throw their toys out of the pram when there’s not a lot to talk about, is selfish and contradictory.  It also damages the game we love.

Alex Hurst

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