Dangerous driving in the rain puts innings on the line, yet runs are scored.
Everyone understands that the Ashes are out of reach for England.
When the terms are so obvious, there’s something to be said for Test matches.
Everyone understands that the Ashes are out of reach for England. They are safely hidden away in Australia, already packed in their luggage for their return flight home after three months on these shores.
Even at 10 a.m. on the opening day of the match, the Bee Hive pub, just a Moeen Ali flick away from the Kia Oval, was packed with punters pouring out into the streets. All of this is to be expected in a Test match on Thursday. Routines are routines, and we all have our own. It all comes down to whether you want to exit at Vauxhall or Oval Tube Station.
It was also evident that this would be a different fifth Ashes Test from the one in 2019. That, too, began with Australia leading 2-1, but the atmosphere was far less enthralling—almost subdued, considering England’s flaccid abandonment of their Ashes chances at Old Trafford after the high of Stokes’ Headingley heroics.
This one, on the other hand, was going to be different. The tourists made amends by winning the series outright for the first time since 2001. England’s reason for victory was to boast about a point advantage, depending on which of the judge’s scorecards you wanted to believe the most. Despite a physically and emotionally grueling six weeks, both groups have spent the days between Tests promoting their respective goals. At the very least, there was an opportunity to go at each other one final time (or, in the case of the senior cores of both teams, one last time ever) and be done with it.
Even when I arrived here on Thursday morning, there was a sense of unease about the place. The sky was cloudy, yet the sun shone brightly enough to let us know it was there. Wednesday’s rains were already lingering in the air, generating a dampness that you could only appreciate until the cold winds kicked up. Despite urging from teammate Marnus Labuschagne to call heads this time, Pat Cummins was finally rewarded for five calls of tails with the series’ first toss win.
Given the circumstances, England was given the option of batting first. And, as is always the case when such a decision is made, being batting by the end of day one, on 61 for 1 after 25 overs, vindicated Cummins. A simple decision had yielded the desired effect. Australia thought they were having a good day.
So, predictably, did England. However, judging who is ahead in this “well, actually” Ashes series would be difficult. And, as their first innings total of 283 all out from 54.4 overs swirled about with ice in their drinks at the end of the day, their assessment—definitely that of top-scorer Harry Brook—looked genuine.
“We were all talking about 250 being a decent score at lunchtime and got 33 more than that,” Brook remarked after leading the way with 85 points on 91 deliveries. “We were happy with the way we scored our runs.”
For the most part, so were those in the stands. The runs came at a rate of 5.17 per over, the 12th time an entire England innings has arrived at a rate faster than five since Ben Stokes fuelled this old automobile with rocket fuel and Brendon McCullum started it with a flick of his cigar. Only one other side in that time period has done something similar: Bangladesh versus Afghanistan last month.
The 11th, which took place last week in Manchester, was the most magnificent. Cummins, Mitchell Starc, and Josh Hazlewood all hit hundreds as England scored 592 in their sole innings of the rained-off fourth Test. With the elements on their side this time, the same three re-calibrated their lines, pulled back their lengths a little bit—but not too much—and asserted control. Even so, there were times when they were placed on the racks.
How you reflect on those instances is totally dependent on your perceptions of England’s batting strategy during this period. Bazball, like the viral phenomenon of whether the dress is black and blue or white and gold, is either the reason they made it to what appears to be a decent score on a difficult wicket or why they passed up the potential for a hundred more runs.
They made quick work of it, with Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett strumming to 52 in 10 overs, only the second time England had reached that stage without losing a wicket, and for their best score, no less. After reaching 62 for 0, three wickets fell for 11 runs in 22 deliveries before a further 111-run stand between Brook and Moeen Ali, whose unexpected groin ailment convinced him it was time to “tee off.” Then came the second collapse, with Chris Woakes and Mark Wood, the heroes of the Headingley pursuit, reuniting for 49.
Choose your fruits or poison from among all that. Whether it was Duckett charging Hazlewood and almost flaying him through Crawley’s shins, Brook’s flipped six off Hazlewood in the penultimate over before lunch, or a lame Moeen lifting Cummins over square leg, struck sweetly off the middle of a bat that had earlier been used as a walking stick for a “quick” single, there were stunning boundaries.
184 for 3 and Brook’s pursuit of a wide Starc delivery while looking nailed on for the first century of the series were among the fine periods seemingly abandoned, but there were other incidents for Australia to rue. Duckett was dropped on 30, Brook on five, and Brook then took advantage of an errant Cummins throw that should have run the Yorkshireman out on 50. As batters gave themselves freedom to thrill, there were edges through gaps and balls passing just past stumps. By stumps, the match was in the typical position of not knowing who was the more correct of the two teams but knowing that this philosophical debate had contributed to another exciting day’s play.
Instead of context, it’s worth looking at the scorecard from this equivalent Test in 2019. England was placed in similar conditions and managed 294 from 87.1 overs. They are in a similar position in the match, but with more to complain about because they had things their own way. But keep in mind that this technique was chosen with the understanding that if they had opted for survival with straight bats down the line of the ball, they would not have made it to a competitive score in the first place.
As has been the case with this England side over the last month, winning this match will prove they were correct. And perhaps losing it.
If the Oval Test in 2019 seemed like the conclusion of the school year, this felt like the Last Night of the Proms. A few oldies from recent months, plus more recognizable hits to come from this show-stopping series.
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