To the astonishment of the betting public – who until very late in the day insisted on thinking Australia were the favourites – England seized command of the second Test yesterday.
If they can avoid a complete batting disaster against Shane Warne today, they are well placed to win the game and square the five-match Ashes series at 1-1. But perhaps even more significantly, they have recaptured, for themselves and the nation, the confidence that existed before the series that England can at last match Australia – and, now and again, out-match them.
The Australians were bowled out in their first innings yesterday for 308, 99 behind, and England finished on 25 for 1 second-time round. But even that wicket was not wholly unpalatable for England: Andrew Strauss was bowled by a snorter from Warne, which suggested the Edgbaston pitch might be deteriorating even faster than anyone had expected. But then everything in this series has been happening in fast-forward.
Australia’s batting was less manic than England’s, in some respects more competent. And their opener Justin Langer, played the most serious Test match innings so far in this strange and compelling series, spending the best part of five hours compiling an ugly but effective 82.
This kind of batting has gone seriously out of fashion. Langer made his name as a blocker before becoming one of the most extravagant exponents of the new ra-ra run-a-ball Test batting that Australia have pioneered in their decade of global cricketing dominance.
Just before tea on Thursday when England – apeing the Australian way – scored 400 on the opening day of a Test for the first time in 43 years, there was an exchange on Channel 4 between two former England captains. “You don’t understand this, do you?” asked Tony Greig, as Andrew Flintoff walloped another six off Warne. “You’re right, I don’t,” replied Geoffrey Boycott. “It’s fun, though,” he added, without sounding convinced.
Boycott, like many other observers, thought England were at least 100 runs short of a par total. They reckoned without some heroic bowling, some indifferent Australian batting, and this idiosyncratic patch of Birmingham earth, which nearly always produces much lower and more eccentric bounce as a game goes on.
You would have thought someone might have mentioned this to Ricky Ponting, Australia’s captain, before he chose to put England in to bat after winning the toss. Apparently, he was told to bat first, not least by John Inverarity, Warwickshire’s Australian coach, and thus a man with profound local knowledge. But Ponting had made up his mind – days ago, it is said.
He did his utmost to bat himself out of trouble, and was the one Australian who looked in real nick. Ponting scored 61 out of 88 in the morning after opener Matthew Hayden was caught at cover first ball.
The most significant figure of England’s day was the most derided. Over the past week, Ashley Giles, a very nice but perhaps over-sensitive soul, got himself involved in the rapid-fire exchange of newspaper insults between the two camps that has been the norm this summer, and protested a little too much against those who doubted his bowling ability.
Yesterday he responded the sensible way, shouldering the brunt of the England attack from mid-morning onwards. He did not, nor could he, match the wizardry of Warne. Instead, using the rough to excellent effect, he employed subtle changes of pace and trajectory to maintain a hold on the batsmen that Warne has not yet managed in this game.
Giles took three wickets, all with pretty straight balls. No one collared him at all: the one who tried was Warne himself, bowled for 8 attempting a hideous slog that looked like a cry for help.
Giles was backed up by Jones, employing the even more arcane art of reverse swing, and Andrew Flintoff, who finished the innings with two plumb lbw’s in successive balls. Adam Gilchrist, who has so often retrieved Australia’s difficult situations by ferocious aerial hitting, tried to match Langer’s patience, but was stranded one short of his 50.
In all, 333 runs came in the day, which used to be considered an exhilarating day’s cricket. After England’s 407 it seems paltry, even pokey. It is not that easy to explain why Test cricket has gone so crazy, but one-day cricket has clearly changed the players’ conception of what is possible.
Australia did try to calm down and build their way into the lead. They failed. Yet they are not a team who can ever be written off. And England’s fragile batting order could just crumple to Warne before lunch, leaving Australia to knock off the runs for a 2-0 lead by supper time. But, with Glenn McGrath injured, the pitch misread, their batsmen misfiring, it was Australia who went to bed last night fearing ghoulies and ghosties.