November 29, 2010 9:24 am

A draw, and a moral victory for English cricket

Tourists rattle Australia in opening Ashes Test

Britain may be broke, demoralised and freezing, but before the frigid dawn on Monday came the news a fair chunk of the nation had been most waiting for.

Far away, in sub-tropical Brisbane, England’s cricketers had achieved that most English of results: a draw and, with it, a moral victory. Forty-eight hours earlier, they had faced seemingly inevitable defeat in the opening Ashes Test against Australia. They had stared it down with the intensity a basilisk might envy.

Having been 221 behind on the first innings, England were able to declare their second innings closed at 517 for one, a total so improbable that it was easily the highest score for one wicket down in the history of Test cricket.

The opener Alistair Cook made 235 not out, only England’s second double century in a Test in Australia since the war; his partner Jonathan Trott also made a hundred, as had captain Andrew Strauss on Sunday.

This was the first time the England top three had all made centuries in 86 years. Other improbable statistics kept tumbling over each other: Cook’s score even exceeded Don Bradman’s record at the ground. Any old team can win from time to time; England are the masters of the tactical retreat.

That the score in the five-match series remains 0-0 is a detail. So is the fact that the pitch became almost completely flat, and the Australians batted very comfortably themselves in the closing overs.

However, Australian confidence, as high as the currency on Saturday, has taken a severe knock: this was a game they thought they had in the bag, and the team will have to regroup fast before the second of the five Tests starts in Adelaide on Friday.

The Australian attackers have had a hard two days in the field and, if they lose the toss in Adelaide and have to bowl first, might endure two even harder ones. The temperature there is forecast to be 33 degrees – that’s 33C, not the 33F London is enduring.

Australia’s number one fast bowler, Mitchell Johnson, has lost all semblance of control and their new spinner, Xavier Doherty, looked dutiful but unthreatening. Australia’s selectors have hard decisions ahead.

England bowled better than their statistics suggested. Nonetheless, there are concerns: since the retirement of Andrew Flintoff, England play four bowlers, not five, which will be a serious issue in the Adelaide heat if things go badly. Australia at least have more back-up if not more quality. And the England off-spinner, Graeme Swann, the one irreplaceable figure in the team, had a bad match and needs to rediscover his pizazz.

Still, the Aussies are rattled. The most accurate index of this is how often the local media mention that four of the England team were born in South Africa. Almost non-stop, these past two days.

It is true that Trott (who also made a hundred in his only previous Ashes Test) is as English as boerewors and Yorkshire pud. But Cook is the genuine article all right; born in Gloucester, educated in Bedford. If he looks like a choirboy, it’s because he was one: at St Paul’s Cathedral.

But he was also a cricketing prodigy. Now he has achieved the kind of success in Australia English schoolboys are supposed to dream about on cold winter nights.

He batted for more than 15 near-flawless hours in this match and was graceful and modest about his success, as an ex-choirboy should be. “It was a great effort by the lads,” he insisted.

Oh, well: great batsmanship is worth more than original phrasemaking any day.

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