How good is Test Cricket?
Less than a fortnight after the ‘miracle of Headingly’, we have been treated to another gripping conclusion to a Test Match at Old Trafford. The same fight that saw England triumph in Leeds saw them take this match right into the final session despite Australia dominating throughout. Unfortunately for the large and boisterous fifth day Manchester crowd, it wasn’t enough to prevent Australia for a second time from retaining the Ashes.
The contrasting outputs of the returning Steve Smith and David Warner were once again on show with the former continuing on his merry way, while the latter became the first Aussie opener since 1994 to record a pair. Marnus Labschagne and Tim Paine provided invaluable support for Smith in the first innings as the visitors took the whip hand in the match with 8/497(dec).
The weather played a part on the opening three days of the match before Day Four saw the match move hurriedly to it’s climax. England avoided the follow on, thanks in large part to Joe Root and Rory Burns and when Stuart Broad and Joffra Archer ripped through the Aussie top order another unlikely victory appeared on the cards.
Just as the Old Trafford crowd began to dream of the impossible becoming possible, Smith and Matthew Wade took the match away from them again with a century stand for the fifth wicket. England’s go slow tactics saw a large number of overs lost on Day Four and prompted a surprise declaration from Tim Paine. Pat Cummins rewarding the skippers call with two wickets in the first over of the English innings to set up a fifth day push for victory.
Cummins again opened the door for the Australians on the final day, withe wickets of Roy and Stokes, but it was a hard slog as the English went about their task of batting out the day. Joe Denley’ stay at the crease came to an end after lunch, caught at short leg after being undone by extra bounce from Nathan Lyon.
Bairtow fell victim to Starc and the umpires call before Jos Buttler’s stay at the crease was ended when he left an inswinging delivery from Josh Hazelwood and lost his off-stump. Joffra Archer batted like a man with somewhere else to be and was quickly returned to the dressing room which brought Jack Leach to the crease to join Craig Overton.
The lower order pair dug in and held out the visitors victory charge for 14 overs, long enough to frustrate those watching on through weary eyes from Australia. After seeing off the best Australia had to offer, their fighting partnership was brought undone by Marnus Labuschagne who’s part time leg-spin prised out the dogged Leach.
Less than two overs later it was over, when Overton was caught plumb in front. It was a cruel end to Overton’s vigil in which the tail ender showed his top order how it should be done. Fittingly, having been made to wait two weeks for another opportunity to retain The Ashes and their problems with DRS throughout the series, the celebrations were put on hold with Umpire Dharmasena’s decision challenged by Overton.
It would prove temporary respite and to the great delight of the Australians, the third umpire reaffirmed the decision and The Ashes were retained.
Steve Smith bats and bats and bats
While he might have fallen 18 runs short of becoming the first man to score a century and double century in the same Ashes Test, his run of form is becoming one of the greatest of all-time. His first innings wasn’t without its luck but simply being the recipient of good fortune and prospering from it are two entirely different things. The reaction of the English fielders to his first innings reprieve tells you everything you need to know about how the 30-year-old responds to gifts.
The value of his 82 in the second innings shouldn’t be downplayed in the shadow of the volume of runs he scored in the first. When batting was at its most difficult on the fourth day, and with his team faltering despite their big first innings lead, he was almost completely at ease at the crease. Just another example of why he is head and shoulders the best batter in the world right now.
While his figures don’t always reflect it, with his mates in the fast bowling cartel often benefiting from his efforts, Cummins once again showed why he is the number one bowler in the world in this Test. His delivery to dismiss Joe Root on the fourth evening of the match, was of the quality that will ensure it is replayed again and again whenever the subject of greatest Ashes deliveries is debated.
The Aussie skipper quite rightly was on the receiving end of criticism after his team surrendered the third test on the final day in Leeds. His first innings half century was vital in tandem with Steve Smith’s double century in setting up Australia’s dominant position on the first two days.
His leadership on the last two days was telling too, his declaration on Day Four came at the right time giving his bowlers enough time to claim the 10 wickets for victory. He remained calm throughout the final day and continued to test the opponents with tactic and bowlers changes to ensure that the advantage wasn’t lost.
The move that will be most discussed in the aftermath will be the decision to bring Labuschagne on in the 90th over which brought an end to the Leach and Overton partnership. The fielding changes that unsettled Jos Buttler, while perhaps a little less obvious, deserve similar praise.
In the end it was a befitting performance for the first Australian skipper to retain the Ashes on English soil since 2001.
Slow Over Rates
It is a scourge across the cricketing world, and both teams have been guilty of it throughout this series, but England’s go slow tactics on the fourth afternoon took the practise to a new cynical low. At one point managing just six overs in a forty minute period. While you can’t fault a team for doing all within their power to give themselves the best chance to avoid defeat but officialdom needs to do more to prevent them from doing so.
Look, there is no question Australia’s use of the DRS that has been nothing short of diabolical throughout this series but this should not shield the system from rightly deserved criticism. For the second match in a row, Australia was unable to challenge an incorrect umpiring decision because they had lost their challenges on frivolous appeals.
That incorrect decisions are allowed to stand despite a system being in place, in theory to eradicate them, illustrates that it isn’t working. That the system can be swayed based on the umpire’s orignal decision is a large reason for this. For as long as DRS is more concerned about giving the benefit of the doubt to the umpires rather than eradicate inconsistent and incorrect decision making it will remain broken.
His wry smile upon being dismissed once again by Stuart Broad says everything about the kind of tour David Warner has had. Booed to and from the crease each and every time he has batted, most times the second helping coming not long after the first had finished, he has had to endure a horrid stretch of form.
If Australia’s other opening options were not experiencing similar difficulties in England conditions, he’d be a certainty to be watching on at The Oval. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on which way you look at it, he may well have one more opportunity to face his demons. Stuart Broad is certainly hoping the selectors give him one more chance.