With more than a little assistance from hindsight it looks as if England have erred in not picking Monty Panesar for the deciding Ashes Test.
The pitch is a little two-paced and dry, probably dry enough to disintegrate eventually. In the circumstances England’s duty was to make as high a first innings score as humanly possible.
Against hostile, calculated, well controlled bowling and tigerish fielding, superbly marshalled by Ricky Ponting, they failed. The ball turned for Marcus North so it would have turned and bounced with a vengeance for Panesar, who might only have needed a wicket to rediscover his magic.
That said, England’s four fast bowlers should also enjoy themselves on a surface that looks unlikely to improve, so long as they bowl with the same control as Australia on the first day. There is going to be uneven bounce and there is going to be a result.
By the third session England, having had the luck to win a very important toss – Ponting’s fourth wrong call out of five – had lowered their sights considerably against dogged Australian bowling.
The original objective must have been to be make 500-plus by tea on the second day, but at 268 for seven they would very happily have settled for 350. A total of 350 at The Oval, with its outfield as slick and flat as an ice-rink, equates to 280 on some grounds.
Twice in recent years – when Sri Lanka beat England and England beat South Africa – totals of 400-plus in the first innings of the game have proved to be no insurance against defeat. Grind them down and don’t throw it away was the mantra at first.
The trouble was that Australia, sticking with four specialist seamers and a part-time spinner or two, played the grinding game too.
They won the battle of patience that followed the fall of Andrew Strauss. Paul Collingwood chased a wide one, Ian Bell’s determined but never convincing innings was cut short by an inside edge immediately after tea, Matt Prior steered Mitchell Johnson’s clever slower ball to point, and Andrew Flintoff was softened up by Johnson before wafting airily.
All that made Jonathan Trott’s composed and patient debut innings, Bell’s doggedness and Strauss’s solid lead the only consolations for the team that has to win to regain the Ashes.
Another failure by Alastair Cook, who was caught at second slip surely means that he needs a winter’s break to work on his consistent technical errors. Just such a rest 18 months ago did wonders for his captain.
Strauss set a perfect example, leaving a lot outside off stump and batting with fine judgement for 28 overs, yet he still had ten fours in his fifty, simply by letting the ball come to him and playing it late with the full face of his bat.
His fall to a rare nibble around his off stump against Ben Hilfenhaus in the third over after lunch kept Australia, restlessly and inventively captained by Ponting, very much in the hunt.
Bell’s 72 was another case of nearly but not quite. It is astonishing, and reflects poorly not just on himself but also his various batting coaches (Duncan Fletcher, Matthew Maynard and Andy Flower) that he has been allowed to play 49 Tests without learning how to drop his hands against the short ball.
The instinct of every batsman when he starts is to lift the hands up to and behind short, rising balls in order to protect the face. At Test level, however, that makes a batsman a sitting duck.
Not only was Bell lucky not to be given out for nought, caught behind off Peter Siddle off the very top of his glove, close to the wrist (the law says that the glove is part of the bat) but he remained vulnerable.
To an extent that perhaps deflected Australia’s fast bowlers from pitching the new ball up, rather as England had got sucked into bowling consistently short at Philip Hughes at Cardiff. instead of trying to make the ball swing.
What Bell did very well was to wait for the ball to come to him. Close to his body he has always been a lovely touch player and no more than a touch is needed to get four at The Oval. He can claim to have scored the highest and batted the longest, but it was a couple of hundreds that England needed and they never came.
The biggest cheers of the day greeted the respective arrivals of Trott and Flintoff. Trott, at least, did not disappoint, trying his best to resist his natural inclination to hit through mid-wicket. He showed talent and a good temperament until brilliantly run out by Simon Katich from short-leg. Tomorrow England are going to have to get Ponting out early and bowl like controlled demons. If they do, the pitch will do the rest.