Lord's, London — If you get hit on the head while walking the perimeter path at Lord’s the likelihood is that it is by a champagne cork. The Saturday of a Lord’s Ashes Test is a special day at the cricket, like a party for 29,000. No one seems to have told Australia about this custom, however. For them, it was more like a funeral.
MCC members arrive early, often with their families, filling the members’ stands long before less privileged cricket fans arrive in the public seats. A jazz band of elderly musicians plays at the back of the Pavilion. Food and drink are a priority. The Coronation Garden behind the pavilion serves only champagne, wine and Pimms. Consumption of beer starts slowly but speeds up towards lunch when pints are being poured as if by perpetual motion. But the spectators do come to watch the cricket too. When they are all seated and attentive in mid-morning, the members in the Pavilion and the flanking Tavern and Warner Stands look like figures in a pointillist landscape. The only thing missing when play began was the sun.
To tell the truth, for most of the day it was not champagne cricket. England’s top order had dug a hole for the team the previous evening, losing three wickets for 31 runs. They now relied on two Yorkshiremen to extend the lead from comfortable to convincing. Joe Root and Tim Bresnan – who had come in as nightwatchman – set about their task severely and risk-free.
They were still together at lunch and, having seen them methodically pushing the score to 113 for 3, the audience was ready for it. And between lunch and tea there was plenty of time to sleep it off. In two hours England scored a meagre 58 runs for the loss of Bresnan’s wicket, caught a mid-wicket off a flat-batted pull for 38.
Ian Bell, who already has two hundreds in the series, was next up and when he was three, he also seemed to be next out. Ryan Harris claimed a low catch in the gulley, but Bell did not walk. The third umpire decided that there was reasonable doubt as to whether it had carried. Harris, who insisted that the catch was legitimate, was furious. Cricket Australia was forced to disown a tweet on its website claiming that the English had cheated again.
This confirmed what England had found it their wilderness years against Australian: losing teams that have all the bad luck.
Bell was the in-form player. Root was fighting his way out of a slump. Though he looks even younger, he is only 22, slim and blond, and he was promoted to opener only at the start of the Ashes, having played his first six Tests in the middle order. Now he was playing concentrated cricket, building an innings slowly until he eventually reached his first Ashes hundred after six hours and 44 minutes.
That was a signal for England to accelerate and they did this so effectively that there was speculation about a declaration when the lead reached 500 with 15 overs to go. Between tea and the close, 162 runs came off only 32 overs. Root contributed to the mayhem with two sixes off Steve Smith. Bell looked like a man about to make his third hundred of the series but he fell at 74, caught clouting a long hop to mid-wicket.
As he has done already in county cricket, Root demonstrated that he can score not just hundreds, but big ones. He was 178 not out at the end of a day in which England lost only two wickets while scoring 302. The lead is now 566. England were pitiless.
The principal victim was Ashton Agar. He had a problem with his left hip and moved uncomfortably in the field, but he was still called for 27 overs, more than all his colleagues. But his control was unpredictable; too many balls strayed down the leg side or dropped short enough for the cut and drive. He conceded 89 runs and it was not pleasant to watch, as if the bubble of a reputation made on his debut at Trent Bridge seemed to burst before our eyes.
For Australia, this was a dreadful day. They looked miserable at a party held for both teams in the Pavilion on Friday evening, and must have been even more so after listening to a denunciation later from Darren Lehmann. They looked unhappy when play began and by the end of the day they were looking like a broken cricket team. Can anyone fix it?