England 215; Australia 280; England 80 for 2 (lead by 15).
Trent Bridge, Nottingham – No one had written a script like this before; it is based on a heroic and entirely unpredictable performance by an unknown 19-year-old from Melbourne who had snatched the possibility of an Australian victory from the jaws of defeat. And this memorable drama was played out at a pace, which turned a placid game of cricket into an electrifying experience.
At 11.58am on the second morning of the Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, Australia seemed to be on the verge of a damaging defeat. A little less than three hours later, Australia appeared to be in a position from which it might win the game, and this was confirmed 30 minutes later when a tortured beginning to England’s second innings made an Australian win look probable. Visitors to Nottingham were doubting whether the match could last beyond a third day and wondering what they might do with themselves when the cricket was over.
The first act in this memorable drama was set in the first hour of play. Unlike the first day, the sun shone in a cloudless sky and those who know Trent Bridge observed that in the heat the wicket would become flatter, better for batting. Although Australia was 140 in arrears, its tail-enders had a reputation for scoring heavily. It was looking for a comfortable lead over England’s 215 in its fairly feeble first innings.
Australia's world began to turn violently at 11.31am precisely. James Anderson was bowling to Steve Smith, who reached the first 50 in the game so far. Anderson is England’s main man among the bowlers, capable of reverse swing when the ball if scuffed by use on a hard surface. He has taken more than 300 test wickets and, at 30, he is in his prime. With Smith on 53 and playing confidently, Anderson drew him into a cover drive, which he played and missed. The next ball followed the same line and Smith played the same shot, except the ball swung away sufficiently to nick the edge and give a catch to Matt Prior. Australia was 108 for 5.
At 11.37am Brad Haddin faced Graeme Swann, and discovered that the wicket was taking more spin than it had the previous evening. Swann bowled into the foot marks outside the off stump, the ball turned a foot to clip the off stump bail. The ball was unplayable; Haddin had scored one. 113 for 6.
11.43am: Peter Siddle was dropped by Prior but he got a second chance in the next over from Anderson and took it. Siddle also out for one. 114 for seven.
11.50am: Mitchell Starc was also caught by Prior off Anderson. 114 for 8.
11.58am: James Pattinson played back to Swann and was lbw for two. By the end of a shocking collapse lasting no more than 27 minutes Australia was still 98 behind with only Ashton Agar to bat. Agar’s presence was a surprise and a risk. A last minute addition to the Australian squad, his biography does not appear in the match program. He plays for Western Australia now and Justin Langer, who coaches him, insisted that he was as promising a batsman as a left-arm spin bowler. He set about remedying this anonymity by playing freely, if across the line, to Anderson whose morning’s work had been 3 wickets for 27.
If Agar was nervous, he did not show it. Anderson paid him the compliment of spreading his field, but with Australia on 131 the story seemed to have ended. Agar reached forward to a ball from Swann; Prior deftly removed the bails. It looked tight, probably out, but Agar referred the decision. The third umpire Marais Erasmus was clearly not sure. The scoreboard announced that the decision was pending for four minutes or so and when the result flashed up. Agar was not out. It was a fateful moment.
It was also the beginning of a story that may become a mania because Agar began to play elegantly with a high backlift and a full swing of the bat, driving, cutting , hooking the fast bowlers to the boundary (four overs of Steven Finn cost 32), and clouting Swann for sixes into the pavilion.
The first record fell when he was on 46; this was the highest score by a No. 11 in a Trent Bridge Test. When his 50 came up in 50 balls, he had made the highest score for a No.11 on debut. When he passed 71, he had made his highest score in first-class cricket. When his stand with Phil Hughes passed 151 they had established an all-time Test record for a last-wicket stand. When he passed 95 he had made the highest score ever in a Test by a No. 11.
When Agar was caught deep on the leg side by Swann on 98, there was a wave of sincere regret that he had missed out on a hundred, and his reward was a prolonged standing ovation from all 17,000 spectators on the ground. No one who saw it will ever forget it. For Agar the achievement may haunt him. For the rest of his career as a cricketer he will be judged in comparison to his debut. The act might prove impossible to follow. (Someone on Twitter suggested he should become prime minister of Australia.)
England’s chagrin soon turned into a potential disaster. On the stroke of tea, England lost Joe Root and Jonathan Trott for 11 runs. Whatever they sipped at tea, and whichever side they supported, the commonly held view was Australia were going to win the first Ashes Test. England’s unhappiness was multiplied by Erasmus’s decision to give out Trott lbw to a ball he believed he had hit, but which could not be proved one way or the other by the decision review. Having given Australia the benefit of his doubt over Agar’s stumping, Erasmus now did the same for Mitchell Starc.
However, the wicket was now occupied by Alistair Cook and Kevin Pietersen, England’s two best batsmen, and they put on a three-star display of patient batting, concentrating on not losing their wicket. At the close of play England lead by 15. But the wicket is playing well and should get easier. Australia remain firm favourites to win this game, but getting England out will surely not be as easy as it was first time round.
Stephen Fay is a former editor of Wisden and author of books about the Bank of England and the collapse of Barings.