THE ASHES: Outclassed – again

Score at stumps day 4: Australia 280 & 213/7 vs England 644

The final day’s play in the Ashes of 2010-11 will commence at 10.03am.  The reason: a complex recalculation based on residual time lost to rain on the first day which it would be pointless to explain.  The same was very nearly true of play on the fourth day of this Fifth Test, where England outclassed Australia in ways it feels tedious and repetitive to enumerate.
 
At the close, Australia was set to lose three Tests in a series by an innings for the first time…well, ever.  In the day’s first half, their listless attack was relieved of 156 runs in 36.5 overs by England’s last three wickets; in the second, they lost seven wickets in 44 overs either side of tea.  Steve Smith and Peter Siddle negotiated the extra half-hour that Andrew Strauss requested, but Australia remain 151 runs short of making them bat again, and England on the brink of a 3-1 victory.
 
Today’s should actually have been the best batting conditions of the match – almost of the series.  The SCG pitch had flattened right out, the sky was nearly cloudless, the outfield had quickened, both attacks were weary from five weeks’ hard graft, and a crowd of 35,622 was in high humour.  England certainly took full advantage.  Having taken toll of some tired Australian bowling late on the third day, Matt Prior positively scampered to the fastest English hundred of the series in 109 balls.
 
"Crikey," said an Australian colleague behind me after tea yesterday.  "I’ve looked up and Prior’s 40 already.  How did that happen?"  This is his chief faculty, for surprising opponents with instant aggression, sucking bowlers into his off stump slot by hanging slightly back, then veritably pelting between wickets.  Not even Pietersen in this England line-up scores more quickly than his 62.92 per hundred balls.
 
Of all England’s cricketers this summer, Prior has probably occasioned the fewest words – no bad thing, given that wicketkeepers become most obtrusive by their errors.  Over the years, though, Australia has not been a happy hunting ground among English glovemen.  Alec Stewart never managed a full series here. Geraint Jones and Jack Russell lost places mid-series, Jack Richards and Steve Rhodes post-series.  Not since Alan Knott’s two tours, furthermore, has a visiting keeper consistently made Ashes runs in Australia.  Four years ago, Jones and Chris Read scored a combined 98 runs in 10 innings.
 
Prior, by contrast, is that rare English player who looks born for Australian climes, in his keeping and batting enjoying the bounce, the carry and the minimal sideways movement. As he has assimilated these conditions this summer, he has proved more and more effective, helped by some bowling and captaincy that might be politely described as thought-free.  As is usually the case, fully 96 of his 118 runs were scored on the off side, including a six down the ground and all eleven of his boundaries.  Clarke finally set an off-side sweeper when the quicker bowlers operated, but the simpler expedient of bowling straight and attacking the stumps was somehow thought either too obvious or too subtle.  He took particular toll of the third new ball, which neither swing nor seamed for the Australian quicks, instead leaving the bat with a crack.
 
Thanks to some sensible defence and bottom-handed hoicking from Bresnan, England’s eight pair added 102, as its seventh pair had added 107, its sixth pair 154 and…well, you get the picture.  England’s last pair, Graeme Swann and Chris Tremlett then purloined another 35 in seven overs to add irritation to insult to injury, and extend England’s lead to 364.
 
As he has been inclined to do all summer, Watson set off as though inclined to erase this deficit by stumps on his own, driving, cutting and pulling seven boundaries in forty balls.  Hughes all-but disappeared from view, only to re-emerge when both batsmen ended up at the non-striker’s end having turned an easy two into their second run out in three starts.  Watson, of course, turns up at run outs like Lara Bingle turns up at openings, but here he could at least share the blame: both batsmen cantered the first casually; both were ball-watching; neither appeared to call decisively.  Perhaps still brooding, Hughes fenced at Bresnan six runs later.
 
Captain Clarke and Usman Khawaja endured through to tea, and the latter had just begun asserting himself, with a reverberating pull shot from Anderson, when he followed one from the same bowler that swung away like a Roberto Carlos free kick.  Clarke, who recovered something like freedom in his foot movement against Swann, had struck six affirming fours when he too misread Anderson’s movement. 
 
Had Bell caught Haddin (7) diving to his right at short cover and reduced Australia to five for 139, there might have been no reason to return tomorrow.  As it was, England shortened their work when Pietersen caught Hussey in the gully.  With shadows lengthening across the ground, the man with the longest shadow of all bowled his quickest spell of the match from the Randwick End, Tremlett beating Haddin’s pull and Johnson’s prod for pace with consecutive deliveries; Siddle just ensured that his would be the only hat-trick of the series by digging out a yorker. 
 
About half an hour after play, the ground was finally swept by a drenching rain, the results of which were left glistening on the covers beneath its floodlights.  So it turns out that there was one new development today: Australia, it seems, can no longer even do rain properly.

Gideon Haigh is covering The Ashes for Business Spectator throughout the series.

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