ASHES: A final fireworks display

The spectacular series finished with a nail-biting run chase. Kevin Pietersen turned the tables with his aggressive play and by the end the Australians were glad for the fading light.

The Oval, Day Five – It may have ended in a draw, but the last day of the summer’s Ashes was a compelling and memorable day’s cricket. Michael Clarke made a game of it and very nearly lost it. A day which could easily have turned into a dying fall reached a tense and exciting climax after Clarke set England a target of 228 to win in 44 overs.

This was interpreted as a generous tactic, but a chase like this had been reached by only two teams in Test history, but England almost made it three. They were only 22 runs short with five wickets standing and four overs to bowl when the umpires judged that the light was not good enough. A relieved Australian cricket team trooped off. They had hoped to confirm an improvement in their cricket by winning the fifth Test; as it turned out England had nearly won it 4 to 0.

The crowd stayed on to boo the umpires as they received their match medals. This was a case of shooting the pianists. They were only applying the rules of the game. They must have been surprised to be called on to make the decision because they did not ask for a light meter until three overs from the end, but they had reckoned without Kevin Pietersen who had played one of his most influential innings for England.

To explain how it came about, it is necessary to go back to the start of the day. It began half an hour late (the outfield was still drying out), and began modestly as England set about scoring the 46 runs required to save the follow on. There was already speculation about declarations to make the last day entertaining for a near-capacity crowd. But when England batted on after making those 46 runs, the general opinion was that, since they were leading the series 3-0 England’s stubborn professionalism would be offended by taking risks.

Bold batting by England’s lower order had reduced Australia’s lead to 115 when they were all out for 377 just after lunch. The tail had been cleaned up by James Faulkner, Australia’s debutant, who had commendable figures of 4-51. The crucial passage of play now began as Australia revealed their intentions at the start of their second innings, Shane Watson was moved up the order to open with David Warner, and straight away it was clear that the policy was to score as quickly as possible. A declaration was on the cards.

At 44 for 2, the openers were gone, but falling wickets were no worry. Faulkner, an experience one-day cricketer, coming in first wicket down, made 22 from 22 balls. Clarke himself, batting more circumspectly than his colleagues, made 28 as quickly as anyone. Six wickets had fallen for 111 at tea, with Broad leaving his mark with 4 for 43. Clarke decided the lead of 228 was competitive, and jogged across to England’s dressing room to say he had declared. If it was generous, it was because experience would have favoured England to score 228 rather than Australia to take 10 wickets.

England’s openers did not dawdle. Indeed, Joe Root was out after slashing at a short ball outside his off stump. Alastair Cook was joined by Jonathan Trott, and these two out of form batsmen proceeded to play themselves back into form. Trott was the most dashing of the two and together they took the score to 66 for 2 when Faulkner had Cook lbw. This was not necessarily good news, however, because it brought Pietersen to the crease.

During the 2010-11 Ashes series the Australian dressing room came to fear the domination exercised by Pietersen. His performances this English summer have been more modest, but there was nothing modest in the way he laid about Australia’s bowlers. He stands tall at the crease and when the mood takes him, he treats all the bowlers equally, with the same contempt. He was in the mood.

And the boundaries flowed, hit hard to mid-wicket, or straight past the bowler’s feet, or through the covers off the back foot, the fielders retreated towards the boundary. Before long, Clarke had five men along the boundary rope, but the only things that calmed Pietersen down was a few overs of spin from Nathan Lyon, and couple even from the ailing Clarke.

During Pietersen’s purple patch, Trott seemed becalmed. Pietersen’s 50, the fastest by an Englishman in an Ashes Test, was on the board before Trott made his too. Half way through the 44 overs, England were 96 for 2. When they were still together, as the score went beyond 150, an English win looked very likely.

Then Ryan Harris came back into the attack. Pietersen drove his first ball high to long-on. It looked as if it might be a six but as it fell inside the rope. Warner was running at full speed and caught it just inside the boundary. Pietersen had made 62 of 55 balls in 67 minutes. Only seven runs later, at 170 for 4, Trott also fell. Faulkner had him lbw on 59. England still needed 58 off eight overs.

They might have lost their momentum then and there, but Ian Bell and Chris Woakes managed to keep it going. Soon the requirement was 36 runs off 36 balls; the score went smoothly past 200. Michael Clarke was becoming very agitated, questioning the umpires about the light. He was suggesting that the fielders were finding it difficult to follow the ball. Australia’s over rate had begun to slow and crowd had started the slow handclap.

It was past 7.30 when umpires Dar and Dharmasena conferred on the pitch. Dar took out the recently acquired light meter and pointed it at towards pavilion. If it was registering light at a level at which they had suspended play earlier in the game, the ICC’s rules says that that initial reading will be the level at which play is called off for the rest of the game. Obviously it was.

On this one absorbing day 447 runs had been scored. Perhaps England would have won if the game had begun on time in the morning, but the draw was grudgingly conceded as a fair result by the English spectators. Australia certainly did not deserve to lose the series 4 to 0. And the result did not curb the English celebrations of their Ashes victory.

The urn (a replica) was paraded. Fireworks rose and crackled above the pavilion. It was a nice show, but nothing compared to the fireworks on the field of play. They had been truly spectacular.