ASHES: A salt rub for Australia's wounds

Halfway to their target of 299 and only two wickets down Australia, once again, looked a good chance to win this test. But reality reared its ugly head and the team crumbled.

Durham Test, Day 4 – David Warner and Michael Clarke were batting comfortably as Australia moved easily into the 160s for the loss of only two wickets, more than halfway to their target of 299. England’s bowling was leaking runs and an Australian win in the fourth Test looked not just possible but probable. But our eyes were deceiving us.

At 5:44pm Warner, who had led the charge to victory, edged a perfectly judged delivery from Tim Bresnan to Matt Prior behind the wicket for 71. Australia were 168 for 3, and the firm foundation of an opening partnership of 109 was suddenly in danger of erosion.

Less than two hours later, Peter Siddle spooned a catch to mid-off and Australia were all out for 224. Stuart Broad had taken six of the last seven wickets to fall and England had won by 74 runs. They win the Ashes series too, 3 to 0.

Yet twice in the last two days, Australia looked as if they would go to the last Test at The Oval with a real chance of drawing the series. First, when England were effectively 17 for 3 in their second innings shortly after lunch on the third day, but a further flurry of wickets was denied by a brilliant hundred by Ian Bell and a hundred partnership with Kevin Pietersen. And second, at the halfway stage of their second innings run-chase with only two wickets down.

After being robbed of a likely win in Manchester by rain, their performance in Durham was a brave one, with individual performance full of character from Ryan Harris, whose 7 for 117 in England’s second innings was his best Test bowling performance, and Chris Rogers, who added 49 to his first innings hundred. But England’s stubborn professionals do not readily concede defeat.

The shadows were encroaching on the pitch at the end of an astonishing and stressful day’s cricket. Warner’s dismissal had been a shame. When Michael Clarke was out soon after, bowled by a classic delivery from Broad that straightened off the seam and clipped the top of the off stump, it was a disaster. It was the prelude to a catastrophic middle order collapse in which four wickets fell for 11 runs.

The four tail-enders hung around long enough to take the innings into the extra half hour permitted when a game is on the brink of a result. With the light failing, the umpires dictated that Alastair Cook bowl his spinners. Neither could break the last wicket partnership between Siddle and Jackson Bird unless the sun shone again. It did so just in time for Broad to return and dismiss Siddle. Broad had taken 6 for 50 in the innings and 11 for 121 in the match. He said the wicket suited his bowling. The understatement was masterful. He was the man of the match.

The crucial moment in the day had come after tea – taken when Australia were 120 for 2 – and Cook finally accepted that the pairing of Anderson and Swann, his leading bowlers in the series so far, were providing Warner and Clarke with a flow of easy runs. It seemed obvious that Broad should be given the ball, despite a disappointing first spell. Instead, Cook brought on Bresnan, a journeyman among seam bowlers. But this strange decision seemed inspired when Bresnan took Warner’s wicket.

Warner had batted well enough with Rogers to confirm his place as the opening batsman in place of Shane Watson. He scored quickly and hit decisively to the square boundaries. His rehabilitation for his indiscretions earlier in the tour, which led to his banishment to South Africa during the first two Tests, now seems complete. By trial and error, Australia has discovered an opening partnership strong enough to survive the Ashes, part two, in Australia.

The rest of the batsmen were spooked, however. Smith dragged the ball onto his stumps for two; Watson, batting at No. 6, was lbw playing across the line, just as he had been so regularly when he was the opening batsman; Haddin was the victim of a narrow lbw decision. These middle order failures began in Trent Bridge, and were repeated at Lord’s. They were overcome at Old Trafford, but the second innings in Durham proved that they were only hibernating. Australia have lost the Ashes because promising young batsmen, such as Khawaja, Hughes and Cowan, appear incapable of the transition from first-class to Test cricket.

England had increased the pressure on Australia’s batsmen in the first 90 minutes of day four when they added 96 runs to their overnight total of 234 for 5. Bell went early to a corker from Harris and Prior was out next ball, edging the ball onto his wicket from his elbow. But Bresnan, who survived an lbw decision on review when he was just 12, biffed his way to 45 runs with six boundaries. By the time he was out, the score was past 300.

To score 299 to win would have been to achieve one of Australia’s top 10 second innings run-chases, yet for 48 overs it had not seemed beyond them. A win in Durham would have created the real chance of a drawn series, and that would have led to a great speculation. What if the rain had not prevented Australia snatching victory in Manchester? And Australia went on to win in Durham and The Oval? They would have won back the Ashes.

Of course, that dream was pure fantasy, but it had actually been possible to entertain it for the best part of a couple of days in Durham – until reality made a rude appearance on the scene. 

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