ASHES: Australia sets the stage for next meeting

Australia looks past Ashes, as players hope performance at The Oval prepares them for Brisbane.

The Oval, Day Two — By the end of their innings, Australia’s tail-enders were playing with England. The last three batsmen to come to the crease tormented England’s bowlers, scoring 69 runs off 56 balls, before Michael Clarke put the winners of this Ashes series out of their misery by declaring, nine wickets down for a formidable 492 runs.  

At the other end Steven Smith had continued to build on the second hundred of the innings. Smith was 138 not out at the declaration, his first century in his 11th Test. Darren Lehmann, who thinks of this final same in the series not as salvage operation to prevent an England clean-sweep, but as a prelude to the next series in the coming Australian summer. Evidently, he would have liked what he saw on a rain-affected second day at The Oval.

For the first time in the series an Australian batting order was taking shape that looked as if it could become permanent. Australia’s batsmen looked capable of taking the fight to England when they meet again in Brisbane. The bowlers have already done so, although they were not able to break through in 17.3 overs before the umpires decided the light was not fit for purpose. However, England are still 460 runs in arrears.

Steven Smith has surely secured the No5 spot. For Michael Clarke to reclaim it would mean recalling one of the batsmen who have failed to make a case for themselves in England. Shane Watson fitted in comfortably at No3 with his spectacular 176 on Day One. Yet the Smith is in the team as an afterthought, called up from the A team in June when Clarke’s back was a cause for concern.

Smith had scored 89 in Australia’s big first innings at Old Trafford before giving his wicket away with a thoughtless swipe. There was a 50 at Trent Bridge, but the rest of his performances were distinctly unimpressive. Judged by the first ball he received here, he was out of form but in luck. He slashed wildly at a delivery from James Anderson and could easily have got an edge.

He gave a chance when he was 49 and played and missed fairly often, but he knuckled down, powerfully hit the bad balls and played himself back into form. On Day Two he proceeded serenely to his hundred. This he reached memorably, with the straight six off Jonathan Trott into the stand at the Vauxhall End. He got a paternal hug from Brad Haddin and kissed the crest on his helmet before raising his arms to colleagues and the crowd.

Smith is a baby-faced 24 year-old from Sydney who started his Test career as a cover for the spinner Nathan Hauritz. He is a leggie himself, with a decent googly (he took three English wickets at Lord’s), but, as an all-rounder, he improved sufficiently to regain his Tests place in India earlier this year as a batsman. He scored 92 in India, his previous top Test score, and there was some surprise when he was initially left out of the test squad.

Towards the end of the Australian innings, where England reverted to the ultimate defence of posting eight men on the boundary, Smith demonstrated his enthusiasm for running between the wickets by turning easy singles into hard-run twos. James Faulkner (23 off 20 balls), Mitchell Starc (13 off 8) and Ryan Harris (33 off 27) were willing co-conspirators. Smith’s 138 was arrived at more gradually, off 241 balls with 16 fours and two sixes.

The day’s play was reduced to 63 overs by the light rain that fell throughout the morning. The sky was still grey when play finally began at 2.30, but it cleared during the late afternoon and the sun shone, and play was extended to 7.30, but neither the sun nor the floodlight were strong enough to prevent the umpires from taking the players off with 4.3 overs still to bowl.

Australia had added 185 runs in 38.5 over, a scoring rate of a vivacious 4.8 an over. They had scored fast enough to make up for time lost to the weather. Even on a normal second day, 492 runs with 90 minutes left to bowl at the opposition would have been a respectable performance. England’s fine attack had absorbed plenty of punishment.

Anderson’s four wickets cost 94 runs, Broad conceded 128 runs for one wicket and Swann 98 for his two. Of the debutants, Woakes took his first test wicket but Simon Kerrigan, the saddest spinner whose game collapsed on Day One, was not asked to bowl at all. England had ceased to look like a side that had come into this game looking for a fourth win in an eventful summer which was exactly what Lehmann had hoped for.

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