Fifth Ashes Test: The Ruthless Finish

The Urn was already safe but England had one more nail to drill into the Australian coffin. Match report from the Ashes souvenir issue by Gideon Haigh at Sydney

CRICKET teams have relaxed and become a little demob happy in circumstances such as those England faced in the fifth Test at Sydney. Their mission had been essentially accomplished. The Ashes were retained. Two innings victories testified to their superiority. But superior is as superior does. The way Andrew Strauss’s side overran Australia here was as impressive as anything else they had achieved on the tour. Strauss himself said he had never played in an England team as confident as this one.

Australia were under new leadership, if not new management. Ricky Ponting had given in to his aching finger, Michael Clarke replacing him as captain and 24-year-old Usman Khawaja as batsman. Khawaja, whose family brought him to Australia from his birthplace in Islamabad aged three, became the first Muslim to represent Australia, a role he carried off with aplomb. Chosen at last after being 12th man in Perth and Melbourne, Michael Beer bore a burden no less heavy, becoming Australia’s 10th slow-bowling experiment since Shane Warne, a role as precarious as that of drummer in Spinal Tap.

Clarke must have been sorely tempted to bowl when offered the choice under rain-bearing cloud, and Strauss looked pleased when England’s attack were given first opportunity to harness the conditions. Shane Watson and Phil Hughes made abstemious progress until, as lunch loomed, Hughes parried to slip with a stroke like an involuntary twitch. Khawaja’s booming beginning of 15 from his first eight deliveries stood out amid the otherwise careworn batting but he too fell on the brink of a break, for rain, after a two-hour audition for the pivotal top-order role. With Watson and Clarke fending at deliveries they might have left, Australia at 134 for 4 had little to show for their 59 overs of patience when the weather closed in after the first day.

The only time England relaxed their grip on the fifth Test, in fact, was an hour either side of lunch on the second day when Australia’s ninth-wicket pair, Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus, took advantage of some rare muddle-headedness from Strauss, who pressured neither. The partners added 76 in 89 balls, Johnson sweeping Graeme Swann into the Brewongle Stand, Hilfenhaus hoisting Tim Bresnan into the Members. Until that stage Australia had looked like struggling to top 200, after Paul Collingwood had bowled Mike Hussey and caught Steve Smith during a tense and austere second morning.

Getting Cooked

Strauss and Alastair Cook made up for lost time, racing to 73 in 16 overs to tea at the expense of some ragged new-ball bowling, even if England were pegged back after tea by three key wickets. And almost a fourth, Cook (on 46) holing out to mid-on to give Beer what seemed a first Test wicket from what proved, on slow-motion examination, to be a no-ball. Seldom can an athlete’s face have dissolved so rapidly from exultation to terror as Beer’s when Billy Bowden signalled for the review.

After his reprieve Cook set like concrete and underpinned England for almost another day again, taking his run tally in the series to 766: more than 250 more than his previous two Ashes series put together. If you were looking for a single image of the Ashes of 2010-11 you could do worse than Cook, bat upraised, letting another ball go around off stump, the embodiment of self-mastery. “You’ll never geddim out!” the wharfies at Fremantle Gages used to shout when ships carrying England teams arrived during the Bradman age; Cook-loving customs officials at Heathrow may throw down a similar gauntlet to the arriving Australians in 2013.

 

Fulfilling his boots

The best strokes of the third day came from Ian Bell, who finally put flesh on the bones of his tour with a maiden Ashes hundred at the 31st attempt, ensuring, it is to be hoped, that he never bat at No.6 for England again. He passed Collingwood on the way in, whose last laboured Test innings ended with a weary hoick down the ground, and immediately put the pitch and bowling in perspective. Clarke’s busy captaincy – seven bowling changes in the third day’s first 14 overs – could not disguise the plainness of his attack on a pitch whose sting had now been drawn by the sun.

As so often this summer, there seemed two games in progress, one in real time, another in slow motion. When Cook (99) turned Beer low to Hughes at short-leg the replay confirmed the naked eye’s impression that the catch had not carried. When Bell (67) was given out caught behind by Aleem Dar there was the bizarre sight of a batsman who either hit it or did not, consulting his partner Matt Prior before seeking a review, whereupon a technology in use (Hot Spot) exonerated and one not (Snicko) convicted. And so cricket’s neurotic obsession with ‘perfect’ umpiring continued to play out according to the law of unintended consequences, with a probably correct decision overturned and a competent official undermined.

Hard wagging

As England’s wickets six, seven and eight added 154, 107 and 102 runs respectively, Matt Prior surged to his own century in a lickety-split 109 balls, 96 of his 118 runs accumulating on the offside with fluent driving. His object lesson in speedy, decisive running was conspicuously ignored when Australia batted again by Hughes and Watson, who turned an easy two to midwicket into their second run-out in three innings.

Clarke and Brad Haddin played some crisp strokes thereafter but the rest showed little stomach for the fight. Johnson’s first-ball dismissal, even as the Barmy Army were belting out their favourite song about him (“He bowls to the left/He bowls to the right/Mitchell Johnson/His bowling is shite”) had the air of ritual sacrifice. Smith and Peter Siddle steered Australia through the extra half-hour that Strauss claimed in search of victory and extended their partnership to Australia’s best of the match – 86 in 131 balls – but only slightly narrowed the margin of defeat.

If it is possible to finish third in a two-horse race, Australia did so.

Scorecard

Ratings

ENGLAND

9. Cook 35 hours 51 minutes at the crease in the 2010-11 Ashes, but who’s counting?

Anderson 7 wickets, 2 catches to best bowler/fielder since Mike Hendrick.

8. Bell A century at last against Australia. England need him at No.4.

Strauss Let himself down only when Johnson and Hilfenhaus were at the crease.

Prior Took the Gilchrist role of putting opponents to the sword.

7. Bresnan Submitted further promising all-round credentials.

Tremlett Troubled all batsmen, better than figures suggest.

6. Swann Destined to relive his six off Johnson for many a video diary to come.

Collingwood Soft dismissal in final Test but two fine catches and a crucial wicket.

Pietersen His dismissal could have been costly but contributed a catch and run-out.

Trott Had done more than enough already.

AUSTRALIA

5 Clarke, Khawaja, Johnson; 4 Siddle, Haddin, Smith, Hilfenhaus; 3 Hussey, Watson, 2 Hughes, Beer

Milestones

Andrew Strauss’s win/loss ratio as captain (3.2) is now superior to Ricky Ponting’s (3.0) and among those who have captained in more than 30 Tests is exceeded only by Steve Waugh (4.55), Mike Brearley (4.5) and Viv Richards (3.37).

Only Wally Hammond (905 at 113.12) has scored more runs in an Ashes series for England than Alastair Cook (766 at 127.67).

Cook was also the first English batsman to score 1,000 runs in first-class matches on a tour of Australia since Geoff Boycott and John Edrich 40 years earlier.

Ian Bell’s 12th Test hundred was his first against Australia but his fourth in 12 Tests.

Matt Prior’s was the first Test hundred by an England No.8 v Australia and the swiftest in almost 30 years against the Aussies.

For the second consecutive match Peter Siddle was involved in Australia’s best partnership of an innings.

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