Durham Test, Day 3.
Let us praise the old men. First, it was 35-year-old Chris Rogers. On the third day of the fourth Test, Ryan Harris, aged 33, ripped through the top of the English batting order. When the third wicket fell at 49, England were effectively 17 for 3, having started 32 runs behind, after dismissing the last five Australian batsmen for a meagre 48 runs.
Harris, who had taken 3 for 37 in his 10-over spell, had already scored five boundaries in a rapid 28 which accounted for most of Australia’s slim lead, Rogers having added only nine runs to his overnight 101. And it was almost entirely due to the old men that Australia was able to anticipate a famous victory.
The story did not develop quite as Harris must have hoped. With three down, Ian Bell joined Kevin Pietersen. Scoring was not easy against a concentrated attack on pitch that did not give the bowlers the same help as England’s had received the previous day, but both kept their heads down and added a formidable 106 runs to the total. Pietersen’s uncharacteristic innings ended on 44 when Rogers – who else? – dashed in from cover to catch a leading edge.
But Ian Bell was still unperturbed. He has tormented Australia’s bowlers in this Ashes series. A hundred in the second innings at Trent Bridge established a winning lead; a second hundred at Lord’s contributed to a challenging first innings 361; his third hundred in Durham, reached just before the close, dug England out of a deep hole.
He put on another 66 runs with Jonny Bairstow, who was caught behind Brad Haddin, at 35, the third of the influential trio of old men, taking his third catch of the innings. At the close, the match was finely balanced. England, on 234 for 5, led by 202. The pitch is becoming less predictable and a target of 250 is regarded as a hard ask at Durham’s Riverside ground. This is already an engrossing game, and it is likely to become more so.
Relying so heavily on three men who are considered to be within a year of retirement shows how hard the transition from one generation of Test cricketers to the next can be. Before this Ashes series, Australia selectors were confident that their young fast bowlers would lead the attack on England’s batsmen. Not so. The two best bowlers have been Harris and Peter Siddle, who is a mature 28. And they have been lucky to have Harris – who has a record of injuries that suggests he is fortunate to be walking, never mind bowling fast.
Only in April he suffered an Achilles tendon injury playing in India’s IPL. In the last Ashes series he broke a bone in his left ankle in the fourth Test, having been Australia’s best bowler in their solitary win at Perth. He has played for some years with a chronic knee injury, and, incidentally, needed surgery on his shoulder. Apparently, the reason he is a medical calamity is that he started playing professional cricket as a medium fast bowler who discovered fairly late in his career that he could take plenty of wickets by bowling faster, skiddy deliveries.
He made his Test debut aged 30 and has been in and out of the team ever since. His body has not been as willing as his mind, but it has been carefully put together for the English summer. At 5 foot 10 inches, he is short for a modern fast bowler; his default expression is grumpy, though the reason for this might be that the bowlers in this team have been expected to bail out the batsmen. Harris was left out of the first Test, and has since shown what a dubious decision that was by taking 16 wickets at around 18 runs each in the next three.
The delivery on a good length that moved away from Root and clipped top of off stump was simply unplayable. He tempted Cook to drive at a ball that was too far outside his off stump and edged a catch to Haddin, and he bounced Trott so effectively that, in taking evasive action, he gloved a catch that Haddin took high above his head. So far that spell has been the high water mark of Australia’s game here.
Bell’s performances this summer have been truly remarkable. Since he scored a hundred in the fifth Test at Sydney in 2011, he has scored centuries in four of the last five Ashes Tests. He does so calmly and elegantly and has finally matured into a reliable Test player, with 20 Test hundreds. Yet he has never been surrounded by the aura of celebrity cultivated by a dashing player such as Pietersen or a heavy scoring captain like Cook.
He made his Test debut in 2004, and has been under-appreciated for some years. At 31, that is no longer the case. He is 105 not out and, by the end of this game, Bell might well be defined as being the principal difference between two teams that are more evenly matched than the critics, the forecasters, and the know-alls told us was the case only a month ago in Nottingham.