ASHES: Australia strides towards redemption

In first day at Durham Test, Australia punishes England to take one step closer to drawing the series.

Durham Test, Day One

Durham, England — After the Test at Old Trafford, Shane Warne had harsh words for the attitude of England’s cricket team: they were arrogant and dismissive, he declared. He went on: “If you lose respect for the game and the opposition, cricket has a funny way of biting you on the backside”.

On the first day of the first Ashes Test in Co. Durham, England got badly bitten on their backside.

England’s top batsmen showed insufficient respect for Nathan Lyon, the finger spinner; the seamers bowled accurately, and persistently and successfully: at the close England had barely survived the day. Nine wickets were down for 239 runs.

Whether this is good enough for Australia to take the game by the scruff of the neck depends on the pitch. It played slowly and was not helpful to the spinner, but it might speed up and the ball could begin to turn. Whatever it does, this was a promising start to Michael Clarke’s effort to compensate for the failure to regain the Ashes by winning the last two Test and drawing the series.

England had started cautiously, scoring only 57 runs for the loss of Joe Root before lunch. After lunch they batted as if they had been fed an elixir. Alastair Cook was batting like a man determined to redeem an undistinguished performance with the bat in three Tests by grinding out a hundred in the fourth. Jonathan Trott showed no such inhibition. He scored more freely than his admirers expect him to do until he tried to reach his 50 by casually turning Nathan Lyon for a single on the leg side. But the shot was ill-timed, the ball took an edge onto the pad and bounced into the hands of Usman Khawaja at short leg.

Enter Kevin Pietersen at 107 for 2, a good place for him to start. He astonished the crowd by striding down the wicket to the first ball he received from Lyon and tried to hit it over long on for six. But he had had badly misjudged the pace of the wicket and was relieved to see the ball fall short of the fielder at mid on. Shane Warne described the shot as reckless. He might reasonably have said it was arrogant and dismissive. It suggested that Pietersen believed the way to deal with Lyon was simply to batter him out of the attack.  

He went on hitting boundaries, scoring at nearly a run a ball until he had made 26 when Lyon bowled an arm ball which Pietersen intended to leave, but it turned hardly at all and touched the edge of Pietersen’s bat. Brad Haddin took the catch and England were 149 for 3. But Cook was still there, having scored the third slowest 50 of his career, and was joined by Ian Bell, who has scored more runs than anyone in the series so far. It was time for rebuilding.

Jackson Bird was making his Ashes debut, chosen instead of Mitchell Starc. He looks like the young Steve Waugh and bowls fast medium on or just outside off stump. His opening spell had been purposeful but not threatening. In his second spell, however, he bowled a ball that dumbfounded Cook. He had been leaving many of the balls he faced and shaped to do just that to a delivery from Bird that seemed destined to pass the off stump. Except it nipped in off the seam from outside off to middle and off. Cook was plumb lbw with playing a stroke, a victim of a brilliant ball.

Bell could offer no such defence. He drove loosely at Lyon’s fourth ball after tea and his half-hit off drive was well caught by Ryan Harris, throwing himself to his right. England were now 155 for 5, and three of the wickets had fallen to Lyon, who had bowled a tight line, but who owed his wickets less to his skill than to the carelessness of the opponents.

Having dug themselves into a hole, Jonny Bairstow and Matt Prior decided that the best course was to hunker down and hope for the best. Having started slowly in the morning, England become utterly stuck in the evening. In one 10-over period, six maidens were bowled and only five runs scored. Both played out of character, to precious little effect.

Bairstow was the first to go, lbw to Lyon – his fourth wicket - after a review showed the ball clipped the top of the off stump. Prior felt he had no grounds for a review when he too was lbw, to Peter Siddle. England were 193 for 7 and had added only four more runs when Stuart Broad slashed at Ryan Harris and was caught by David Warner in the covers, where he had fielded brilliantly all day. When England stood on 199 they had scored only 44 runs off 28 overs since tea.   

All the seamers had bowled soundly in support of Lyon, whose analysis at the close was 4 for 42. None more so than Shane Watson, who bowled 13 overs for 21 runs, got Root’s wicket, and looked as if he was enjoying himself.  He had described himself as all-rounder before the game and seemed relieved that he would bat at No 6, with Warner moving into the opener’s place he had initially demanded.

The last time Watson played at the Riverside ground in Chester-le-Street, the Australian team stayed in Lumley Castle, a fine old pile that overlooks the ground and gives it much of its pleasant semi-rural character. The Castle is said to be haunted by a Lily Lumley, and Watson was so spooked by the thought of her presence that he fled to a team mate’s floor and bunked down there. His smiling face today and the spirited performance with the ball suggests that Watson was exorcising his demons.

Stephen Fay is a former editor of Wisden and author of books about the Bank of England and the collapse of Barings.