That time-honoured staple of cricket, the truly excruciating boring draw, has almost been eliminated from the Ashes. The last came after a deluge at Lord’s, 12 years and 33 Tests ago.
We may get one on Monday. On the other hand, the third Test might just boil up into yet another classic. Almost certainly, England – already one up in the series – cannot lose. Victory is improbable. But this is a series that has consistently brought forth the improbable and sometimes the damn-near impossible.
With nearly two full days already lost to the rains and drains (Edgbaston’s lack of decent ones), Australia are 88 for two in the second innings, 25 behind. England urgently need an early breakthrough on Monday.
There were moments when England faltered as they set about passing Australia’s feeble 263. Both Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell got out when they might have kicked on towards centuries. But once again the difference between the sides was Andrew Flintoff, this time in the increasingly neglected role as batsman.
In two captivating hours, Flintoff made 74, his highest score in a home Test since 2005. He did not set out to hit hard: some of the time he hardly bothered with backlift but just blocked the ball to the boundary. When he remembers to match his technique to his strength, he is close to peerless in this role too.
Rumours swirl round Flintoff like mist round a Shakespearean weird sister. In spite of his insistence that he will play out the series, it is widely thought that he cannot possibly reboot himself in time for the Leeds Test this Friday. Flintoff compounded this speculation by limping through much of the innings: he loped the singles; running two, he was almost on his knees. Was this farewell?
It would have been an awfully banal way to go. Just before tea, Nathan Hauritz, the off-spinner, got one to lift; Flintoff moved his bat out of the way but the ball struck his glove and he was gently caught at slip. It was like Baron von Richtofen being run over by a No. 19 bus.
The Australian bowling again looked threadbare, although the good news for them was that tormented spearhead Mitchell Johnson rediscovered some of his old sense of direction. It was still a struggle: he appeared to have Ian Bell lbw twice before umpire Rudi Koertzen decided it should be third time lucky. But his team-mate Peter Siddle has lost the snap he had when the series began; and Shane Watson, brought in to give the attack more depth looked, sadly, like a club bowler. Flintoff duly clubbed him.
Still, Watson again proved his worth as a batsman and survived. Flintoff reappeared to bowl a typically assertive opening spell without success. Graham Onions removed Simon Katich, bringing in his captain Ricky Ponting. He was again booed to the crease. Then Graeme Swann, the off-spinner, got one to rip, and it shot through on to his stumps, as the Aussies say, like a Bondi tram. The cheers for that were quite legitimate.
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