ASHES: England running out of steam

With Ashes victory secured, England struggled to keep up with Australia at The Oval as both teams sought momentum.

The Oval, Day Three — The crowd at The Oval likes its cricket. A Test in south London is not a social occasion like Lord’s on the other side of the Thames. Beer not wine is the drink of choice. The slow handclap started after tea. Each scoring shot was received with heavily ironical applause. They knew what England’s batsmen were doing, and they knew why, but they saw no reason to applaud it.

England were trying to salvage the game. Their batsmen were treading very cautiously toward a score of 293 that would save the follow on. Risk was not an option. The scoring rate was between 2.1 and 2.2 runs an over. In Australia’s first innings it was 3.8. It was not pretty, but it has been effective, so far.

In a day in which 98.3 overs were bowled, England scored only 215 runs (to make the total up to 247, they were 32 for 0 overnight). The other side of the coin is that they lost only four wickets. They require 46 more runs to make Australia bat again, and they may get some assistance from the weather. Heavy storms are forecast for Day Four.

Cricket followers with long memories will recall Ashes Tests in the 1960s when Bill Lawry seemed to bat forever and batsmen scoring 300 was not uncommon. The motive then was that both sides were afraid of losing. England had begun this Test with cocky talk of taking the series by 4 to 0. Not any longer. They would be happy with a draw, but they are afraid of losing.

Australian players and commentators have complained all summer that the English have deliberately prepared slow, dry pitches. And so they have, but they have been of less help to England’s bowlers than the perpetrators had intended and they have curbed attacking batsmanship. The slow pitch at The Oval has been no help at all.

The ball was coming through so slowly that Kevin Pietersen was able to change his mind after the ball had been bowled. When he initially intended to come onto the front foot, he had enough time to transfer his weight and work the ball to leg off the back foot for a single. Most of the scoring shots were singles.

Pietersen's innings was out of character, except for the brief episode when the umpires had to intervene to warn him and Michael Clarke to stop exchanging insults. He scored 50, but it took him 133 balls before his concentration lapsed; he jabbed at a ball from Mitchell Starc outside the off stump and the ball flew off the bottom edge to first slip where Shane Watson took the catch. At that stage England were 217 for 4 and Chris Woakes, one of the debutants, was batting above his station at No6.

Woakes hung around for the final 16 overs of the day, however, scoring most of his runs in well-hit boundaries. Ian Bell, the century-maker, has taken 110 balls over his 29 runs. The most consistent performers of the day were Australia’s bowlers. There were six of them, the four seam and swing men and two spinners, who were given 34 overs to bowl.

Mitchell Starc was the least accurate of them, sometimes bowling so wide of the off stump that his was literally unplayable. But he took the wickets of Jonathan Trott and Pietersen. The pick of the attack was Ryan Harris, as usual, who drew Alastair Cook into a fling outside the off stump and had him caught at the wicket. Nathan Lyon bowled usefully, getting turn and bounce which undid Joe Root. Having scored 68, he top edged a sweep to a deep leg slip where Watson took a second catch.

As England struggled to get to the close, the crowd entertained itself by fitting empty beer glasses inside each other to create towers of plastic before passing them on from row to row to try to keep them out of the reach of stewards intent on spoiling the fun.

But if someone had arrived from outer space and stayed off the beer, he (or she) would have concluded that there was only one team in this game so far. And it is not the team that has won The Ashes.  

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