ASHES: The Mancunian mystery tour

An enthralling third day leaves England still 34 runs short of avoiding a follow-on with 3 wickets in hand.

Old Trafford, Manchester, England — Australia’s fate this summer is to be decided in Manchester where the third Ashes Test is unfolding like a mystery story. There is no shortage of clues, but still not enough to indicate how it will end. Australia are favourites; England look beaten but refuse to submit. But this is Manchester. It has not rained so far, but is forecast to tomorrow and Monday.  If it does, a draw might provide the story with an anti-climax.

England’s objective on day three was to make Australia bat again by scoring the 328 runs required to avoid being asked to follow on. At the close, England were 294 for 7, still 34 runs shy. Consequently, we do not know if England can escape the follow on; if they do not, we do not know whether Michael Clarke will ask them to bat again.

If England do reach their target, we do not know how many runs Clarke and the coach Darren Lehmann think will be sufficient to prevent England making a dash for victory in the fourth innings, or how long they think they need to bowl England out a second time. If it rains, they have no idea how much time will be lost. The script has that many imponderables.

When England had scored 277 for 5 after 110 overs, it looked more predictable. But one of cricket’s greatest charms is its unpredictability. Jonny Bairstow and Kevin Pietersen had put on 52 together. Both were playing cautiously until Clarke asked Mitchell Starc, who had bowled ineffectually from the Statham End, to switch to the Pavilion end. Starc drew Bairstow forward and he edged a catch to first slip, where Shane Watson took a good catch off his bootstraps.

Three runs later, Starc beat Pietersen’s defensive prod. The umpire signalled out, the batsman asked for a review, which confirmed the decision. Pietersen had played with the panache and technique for which his is so feared by Australian teams. He had a thigh injury that might have kept him out of this game, but insisted he was fit enough, and appeared to have solved England’s follow on problem, with his 23rd hundred for England.  At 280 for 7, it was back again.  Matt Prior and Stuart Broad played the day out with great caution: six of the last seven overs were maidens.  

There would certainly have been less uncertainty about the ending if Clarke had listened more closely to Shane Watson, who does not like to be asked to bowl but did so formidably well when Pietersen was facing him. Pietersen, with vigorous assistance from Ian Bell, had already battered Nathan Lyon out of the attack, hitting sixes to long on and long off. Bell added a third and the pair of them looked like avoiding the follow on all by themselves.

Pietersen was on 62 when he took a long pace down the pitch and missed the ball. Watson appealed with customary conviction but Umpire Hill said not out. Any umpire of his years would not give a man out lbw when he had taken such a long stride down the wicket. Watson’s instant reaction was to ask for a review. He had so unsuccessfully at Trent Bridge, with dire consequences. (Australia had no reviews left when they need them most.) Clarke looked mildly amused as they discussed the matter. He and Haddin said “no review”.

When play restarted, Hawkeye’s view of the matter appeared on the TV screen; it clearly showed Watson’s delivery hitting the top of the leg stump. The third umpire would surely have given Pietersen out. Behind the dressing room window, Lehmann could be seen insisting that the decision would have gone Watson’s way. In close up, Clarke’s expression became distinctly thoughtful.  With Pietersen gone then, the story might now look much clearer, especially after Ian Bell had been bowled by Ryan Harris for 60, after a fifth wicket stand of 115.

Three dismissals terminated England’s recovery from 110 for 4 when Cook was brilliantly caught by Haddin diving acrobatically to his right.  To have tied England down to 245 runs in an uninterrupted day’s play is a flattering and accurate commentary on the quality of Australia’s bowlers. Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle pitched the ball up and had every England batsman, including Pietersen, playing and missing.

Harris had managed enough bounce to nick the top edge of Jonathan Trott’s bat and give the catch to Clarke at second slip, and Bell on top form was not able to resist a ball that went through him onto off stump. Starc had the best figures at the end of the day (3 for 75), but he had not been the best bowler. He had been given the second new ball by Clarke and done little with it, but the transfer to the Pavilion End enabled him to get late swing and two more wickets. Poor Nathan Lyon, whose analysis is 0 for 77 off 26 overs so far, discovered the discomfort of a steep learning curve.

Australia, conscious of the need to win the game to breathe life into this Ashes series seem to be rediscovering self-belief just in time. It will be unjust if it is drowned in a Mancunian downpour.

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