Fourth Ashes Test: Back To The Saggy Green

Australia v England 4th Test by Andrew Miller at Melbourne
From the latest Ashes-winning issue of the magazine, available here

THROUGHOUT England’s long and miserable years of Ashes subservience was there ever a day to match the depths to which Australia sank on Boxing Day 2010? There were other days that cut England as deeply to the soul – the first at Brisbane in 2002-03, the fifth at Adelaide four years later – but none in which it could be said, by dint of hard, statistical fact, that a match had been rendered unsalvageable within a mere three sessions of its beginning.

It was not any old match either. This was potentially the Ashes decider, at Australia’s cathedral of cricket, the ‘G, at a time when the country’s hopes had been lifted beyond belief by an extraordinary series leveller at Perth seven days earlier. Record numbers had been predicted by Cricket Australia for this Test, with upwards of 90,000 expected on the first day alone. But in the end the only records were on the pitch, not in the stands, as England inflicted the mother of all beatings on their oldest and proudest tormentors.

It’s a knockout

Had Boxing Day itself been a boxing match, the towel would have been thrown in at tea when Australia had been rolled aside for 98, their fourth-lowest home total since the 19th century. However, a five-day Test offers no such instant escape and by stumps Australia’s legs had turned to jelly and blood was streaming from the cuts above their eyes, as Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook pounded England to 157 without loss.

And before the bout was finished, the damage had gone deeper still. Ryan Harris, Australia’s most spirited bowler, succumbed to a stress-fractured ankle and an eight-week lay-off, but that seemed immaterial compared with the fate of Ricky Ponting, the end of whose run of 73 consecutive Tests as Australia captain felt like nothing less than a defenestration.

The last remaining member of Australia’s golden generation departed the series beaten for the third Ashes campaign out of four, humiliated by a tally of 113 runs in four Tests, broken by a damaged left pinkie that required corrective surgery, and fined 40% of his match fee following a futile and undignified argument with the umpire Aleem Dar – which was instigated, as it happens, by a wink from Kevin Pietersen.

At the age of 36, and with a tally of 99 Test victories in 152 appearances, Ponting’s comeback was not a given. As England performed their ‘sprinkler’ dance in front of a delirious Barmy Army, they had reason to believe that the last head of the Aussie hydra had finally been decapitated.

Throttle and power

England were shaken by their defeat at the Waca, but not so seismically that the campaign crumbled around them. The blame, very gently, was laid on the 21-year-old Steven Finn, whose leaky performance had yielded five useful wickets but whose five-an-over run-rate had released all the pressure that his team-mates had sought to exert. So into the mix came the underrated Tim Bresnan, whose wicket-to-wicket method was as straightforward as his Yorkshire mannerisms, but whose skills were perfectly suited to the materials with which he was presented.

For the second match running Strauss won the toss and trusted his seamers to take advantage. Shane Watson survived two drops off James Anderson before scoring but Chris Tremlett and Bresnan combined superbly on a sticky deck to deny Australia forward momentum, with Tremlett’s pair of lifters to Watson and Ponting the stand-out deliveries of the day.

Anderson’s outswinger to nail Michael Hussey was the clincher so far as the innings was concerned, however. After six consecutive Ashes half-centuries and a series tally of 517 runs his departure for 8 was a blow from which there could be no recovery. On the vast acreage of the MCG Australia were permitted 11 boundaries in a 42.5-over innings, three of which were swished through the slips. The cordon, however, had no reason to rue the ones that got away. All 10 wickets were caught in the arc between keeper and gully, with Matt Prior’s six equalling the Ashes record.

Trott the tormentor

There was a flicker of a fightback at the start of the second day. Peter Siddle bowled with gusto to dislodge Strauss and Cook and in a cloudy morning session England added only 69 runs to their lead. But whereas their attack had eliminated all trace of weak links, Australia’s could not respond in kind, and in Jonathan Trott Australia encountered an opponent with the patience to wait for his inevitable opportunities.

Sixteen months earlier Trott had served notice of his temperament with an ice-cool debut hundred to seal the Ashes at The Oval. The prospect of repeating the feat in front of 67,149 spectators did not faze him in the slightest, and the only real hindrance to a serene fifth Test century was a painful inside-edge on to his left knee. Cautious through the off side, and voracious off his toes, he was unbeaten for eight hours, more than twice as long as Australia’s entire first innings.

Bresnan breakthrough

England’s reserve seamers had claimed one wicket in 78 overs on a pudding of a pitch in the warm-up match here. But even then there had been signs of the reverse-swing that Bresnan had honed on his maiden overseas tour to Bangladesh in March, and which England’s bowling coach, David Saker – a former Victoria stalwart – was adamant would be the key to Ashes success.

Eighteen deliveries on the third afternoon were enough to justify Saker’s foresight, as Watson, Ponting and Hussey were suckered by Bresnan’s subtle swing, stump-menacing full length and pitch-battering stamina. At the opposite end, underlining the fact that Test-match bowling is all about partnerships, Graeme Swann fizzed his way through 22 overs for 23, to leave Australia broken on 169 for 6 at the close, and beaten before lunch on day four.

Twenty-four years since Mike Gatting’s men triumphed by an innings at Melbourne England had retained the Ashes in Australia. And they had done so with insolent ease.

Scorecard

Ratings
ENGLAND
9 Bresnan Slotted in like an old pro, with lively pace and superb skills.
Trott Bloodlessly brilliant. As unflappable as Jacques Kallis.
8 Prior Record-equalling glovework, and a vital resistance-crushing innings.
Swann Epitomised partnership bowling.
Anderson Unlucky in first innings and still emerged as the star.
Tremlett Did not get the numbers of Perth but Watson and Ponting were big scalps.
7 Cook Looked set for third century until cloudy second morning.
6 Strauss Bold at toss and batted Australia out of the match by close on the first day.
Pietersen Picked up the pace nicely and tipped Ponting over the brink.
4 Bell 281 for 4 used to be cash-in time but the new Bell likes a challenge.
3 Collingwood Anonymous, even in the field.

AUSTRALIA
8 Siddle; 6 Watson; 5 Haddin, Hilfenhaus; 4 Hughes, Smith, Johnson, Harris; 3 Ponting, Clarke, Hussey
Milestones
·       Australia’s first-innings 98 was only their 12th sub-100 score since the Second World War but their second in seven Tests, following their 88 against Pakistan at Headingley.
·       England’s first-innings lead of 415 was an Ashes record for a team batting second.
·       Prior’s six first-innings catches equalled the England record against Australia, held jointly by Jack Russell, Chris Read and Alec Stewart.
·       Trott’s 168 below was his third century in five Ashes Tests and carried his average against Australia to 100.83.

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