Ashes retained

The first day of an Ashes Test Match always provides a certain sharp thrill. Even in a dead series. We all know there is really no such thing. There is always so much to play for.

Bruv and I picked our way over cool bags and round splayed feet to our seats at The Oval full of keen anticipation. And sausage sandwich.  A welcome cafĂ© on Kennington Lane, just off the main drag to the ground (and so quieter than expected), had provided a splendid breakfast and coffee to fuel our build up banter in a sun-filled courtyard.

Filling up nicely
Now we awaited the toss. My ideal scenario was England to bat and zip along at a fraction under 4-an-over with a classy century from Root and later in the day a buccaneering 50 from Jonny Bairstow. This was optimistic in the extreme. For a start, Australia won the toss and chose to bat. And for a finish, Bairstow was dropped in favour of debutant Lancastrian spinner, Simon Kerrigan. Chris Woakes from Warwickshire also came in as a batting all-rounder for the injured Tim Bresnan. Bruv wondered if I knew when the last time there had been three Yorkshiremen in an England Test team, as there had been in this series for the second, third and fourth matches. I pondered for some time.

Meanwhile, the action had started. As befits the intensity of the first session, every dot ball from Anderson and Broad was applauded and every delivery flashing passed the bat was oooh-ed. Warner went early to a nick behind and I thought my prediction of 87 for 3 at lunch was in the bag. The first hour or so was tight. That all changed when the two newbies wrapped their twitchy fingers around the cherry. First Woakes felt the muscular welcome of Watson’s broad bat, especially when he dropped short. Then Kerrigan was treated with contempt and disdain. Two overs of nervous long hops and full tosses went for 30 runs. It was excruciating to watch. Watson was in full flow and Bruv’s prediction of 100-1 at lunch ended up being much nearer than mine. Drinks on me then.

Over lunch I also gave best on the three Yorkshire test colleagues question. I got the right era – Gough and Craig White - but forgot Matty Hoggard. Criminal.

The afternoon session was no less intense as Broad and Anderson kept up the assault. Swann pinned down the other end and took the wicket of Chris Rogers. When captain Clarke came to the crease, he was given a serious examination under the short ball from both England’s quicks. For the current number 5 rated batsman in the world, he was surprisingly suspect. His uncomfortable stay was actually brought to an end by a ripper from Anderson that clattered into his stumps. Surely the most thrilling sight for a partisan home crowd and the wicket was greeted with a raucous cheer. With three down for 144 and only Watson doing the scoring, there was a real buzz of expectation around the ground. Dispatching Watson any time then would have been a pivotal moment. Instead it was Watson that did the dispatching. Soon after, he racked up his century and was then dropped by Cook.

After tea, Cook inevitably had to return to Woakes and Kerrigan. Whilst the former improved somewhat on his opening spell, Kerrigan again haemorrhaged runs. Again it was painful to watch. Under a burning sun, Watson and Smith accumulated runs at a good rate and the intensity in England’s attack finally waned. There was nothing to do but smear on sun cream, keep up the refreshment levels and applaud the lengthening beer-glass snakes wriggling around the crowd.

The evening session totally belonged to Australia. However, we were treated to our champagne moment a few minutes before the close. Watson had joked before play began that with Bresnan out of the side he might just avoid an lbw decision and score a few. So it went. He managed to keep his errant front pad well out of the way and had been assertive and uncompromising in stacking up 176 runs. His end came with a tired slap through the leg side off Broad. The ball fizzed through the air towards me and Bruv, jostling to get underneath it. In front of us Kevin Pietersen tensed his legs and his elbows whilst he scanned the sky, momentarily unsure where the ball was. And then he spotted the hurtling object, took two paces to his left and sprang like the eland of his homeland to extend himself full-length.

We were on our feet tracking the ball in its final descent, already half cheering. Pietersen got his hands under the ball a few bare inches from the turf, rolled over a couple of times and stood up, clasping it aloft about 10 feet from us. Wild scenes of celebration were momentarily checked to confirm that Broad had retained a couple of inches of trainer on the bowling crease.

Pietersen was our fielder then. For much of the post-tea session he had been in front of us at long leg, receiving a few verbals, but interacting with humour as well: like when pointing at a police helicopter overhead and directing it to the noisy boys behind us. After his catch he walked back to his position and tried hard to, but could not suppress, a grin that we all registered and cheered.

There’s nothing like a day at the Test Match.

It ended with me buying my Bruv a curry in Clapham to settle my debt in our annual forty jumpers to follow competition. Another bet with him I had lost. He’s giving us all a good hiding in the fantasy cricket this Summer too.

Later, despite my mauling in the bets and quizzes with Bruv, I thought that maybe my one piece of luck had been to buy tickets for the opening day. The following day was half washed out, Friday was a turgid England run-crawl and a potentially big Saturday was completely drizzled and thunderstormed off.

It was not until Day 5, a little late in proceedings, that the test caught fire. An electrifying, compelling sequence of unexpected events that almost produced a result out of nothing and certainly should have done if the farcical bad light rules had not been invoked. Respect to Michael Clarke for being prepared to gamble with a generous declaration. At three down, there was nothing to lose in one sense. But it still takes balls to go through with such an audacious plan.

I liked the edge and sledge that was present in the series by the last day, too. Anderson and Clarke were at each other all day. A sure sign that Australia are feeling more confident. The team has visibly improved this summer. They have belatedly stumbled across an opening partnership in Rogers and Warner, found a home for Watson at three, and settled in two high quality seamers in Harris and Siddle. England have not been at their best and there must remain doubts about the ambition and tactical sharpness of Cook as leader.

Ashes retained. But this all bodes well for a riveting series in Oz this Autumn. 


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