Friday, 7 January 2011

Series Won!

Hammered, crushed, demolished, pummelled, demoralised, mentally-weak, humiliated, broken, ragged, meek, lacking in spirit/ fight, rock bottom.

Words that have been routinely used to describe the England cricket team Down Under now soley belong to the men in baggy green.

Organised, astute, ruthless, remorseless, dominant, rampant, confident, aggressive, mentally-strong, well-prepared, battling, enthusiastic, well-drilled, smart, focused, skilful, resourceful, sky-high.

These are the ones which are now the preserve of Andrew Strauss' victorious team as they wrapped up a first series win in Australia for 24 years. 3-1 just as Freddie predicted. He also said Cook would be top run-scorer. His pundity will soon be on a par with his match-winning and carousing.

There was to be no Flintoff-esque hangover after the Ashes were retained in Melbourne. This was a team on a mission and by the end of the final test the gaping chasm between the two sides was confirmed. Ever since the second test in Adelaide, the defeat in Perth included, England has been adept at making the early running. This time it was stand-in captain Clarke who handed over the initiative by deciding to bat on winning the toss. A good toss to lose maybe but the bold option was to bowl in helpful conditions.

The Australian openers were given the luxury of a start but it was torturously slow going, particularly for two guys who like to see the ball flying to the boundary, and once Hughes departed the top order crumbled once again. Watson, as is his wont, faltered around the 50 mark, finally pushing at a ball to Bresnan after judiciously leaving many similar deliveries. The man can't win at the moment. The television commentators were criticising him for not getting on with it while at the same time lauding the likes of Cook for his patience at the crease.

A captain's innings was not forthcoming for Clarke, another poor shot seeing him out for a paltry 4. After passing the hundred mark for the loss of only one wicket, this was a wobble at 113-3.

It says a lot abut the desperation around this current Australian side that Khawaja was seen as the new saviour, simply for looking fairly decent and stroking a few handsome boundaries. He departed for a not-disastrous-but-hardly-game-changing 37, especially as he was caught off a top edge when trying to sweep Swann as the close of play loomed. This did not prevent the Australian press and pundits heaping praise on him. 'Looks the part', 'composed', 'hint of Lara about him'. Straw clutching has never been so evident.

His wicket was to be the last ball of the day, proof that when the one team is dominating the breaks tend to go with them. Advantage England at the end of day one with Australia at 134-4.

Day Two. Hussey was not to play a big innings this time around but, just as in Perth, Australia managed to post a total that at one stage looked a long way out of its reach. 189-8 became a fairly respectable 280 all out as Johnson and Siddle swung the bat. Had England allowed Australia into the match? A low-scoring game could see Australia level the series. Nothing is ever certain in sport.

Of course the merits of any total cannot be judged until the next team bats and Strauss and Cook led the way as they have done so many times this series. Another 100-run opening partnership was just out of their reach but a free-flowing 60 from only 58 balls from Strauss set the tone. Cook at the other end remained resolute, offering nothing, looking every bit the conquering hero. No change there.

There were chances aplenty for Australia to wrestle back some control. Trott departed soon after Strauss for a duck. Danger man, KP left with the score on 163. The following day nightwatchman Anderson and the retiring, creaking-boned Collingwood were soon gone and England were 226-5.

But all the while Strauss' men had the mighty Cook propping up one end and once he had a willing partner in Bell a 150+ partnership ensued and the match was slipping away from Australia.

By the time Cook departed after another big hundred England was already 100 ahead but one of the hallmarks of this side is to press home the advantage at every opportunity. The end of play saw it holding a 200+ lead with Bell finally landing the hundred against the Aussies his talents deserve.

Yet this was still not enough. 'Why bat twice?' seems to be England's current mantra. On day 4 Prior completed his own maiden Ashes century, at almost a run a ball, and shortly after lunch the tourists had posted their highest ever innings score in Australia. 644 is some statement. As is a 364 first-innings lead.

But the pitch was playing well. No reason for Australia not to post a big total of its own.

The real gulf in class between the two bowling attacks was now to be demonstrated. While the Aussie pacemen were flogged to all parts of the SCG, Anderson, Bresnan and Tremlett showed the consistency, control and skill that is needed to bowl out a side in test cricket on a pretty flat wicket.

The swing, both reverse and otherwise, would duly follow but first there was the delight/ despair of yet another run-out to get England going. A comical mix-up saw both openers stranded at the same end as Prior gleefully whipped off the bails. Hughes was equally as culpable but Watson has now been involved in 7 run-outs in only 27 tests. One every three tests on average. The stats rarely lie. He admitted after the game that the recurring problem could be as much mental as technical. Could say the same for the entire team.

England couldn't quite force a victory inside 4 days but the end was nigh as the Aussies ended the day on 213-7, still 151 away from forcing England to bat again. The Australian top order were battling hard, all posting starts but the wickets were coming at regular intervals as the bowlers remained patient. Lynchpin Anderson was bowling like a dream. As were Tremlett and Bresnan, who, lest we forget, were not even first choice at the start of the tour.

It took an hour or two to finish things on the final day, rain delays and a wet ball not helping matters for the seamers. But an incredible third innings victory was never in doubt, especially with Smith playing shots that would probably look out of place in a Twenty20 game. Tremeltt applied the coup de grace as Beer's wickets tumbled.

The Ashes were won. The series was won. Will there ever be another campaign Down Under like it? Special times. The long wait for a performance like this made it all the sweeter.

The players and fans could finally, finally look back on an Australian summer with pride, satisfaction and a smile as wide as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.


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