ASHES: The middle crack'd

Australia's fragile middle order is brought down once again by poor choices and a review system that England has used to devastating effect.

Trent Bridge, Nottingham — Not long after tea at Trent Bridge the press was informed that the latest odds from the bookmakers had both teams even, at 10/11 on. They could not guess who would win the first Ashes Test. Australia had reached 155, half way to their target.

England had taken three wickets. The odds looked right.

They were soon proved all wrong. Australia’s middle order imploded, principally because of the application of the Decision Review System.

This intriguing and rewarding Test will be remembered as much for the DRS as for Ashley Agar’s record-breaking debut and Ian Bell’s match-saving hundred.

Michael Clarke was the man England feared might carry the day for Australia. His run-scoring in the past nine months has been the stuff of legend and the volume of criticism of the state of Australian batting, both at home and in England, gave him a powerful incentive to prove the critics wrong. Clarke came in immediately after tea with the score on 111 for 2. Initially, he looked uncomfortable, scoring his first run off an embarrassing inside edge.

But he is a neat and accomplished player of spin bowling and soon worked out how to resist the off spin of England’s Graeme Swann. He lost Chris Rogers, his first partner, shortly after he had reached his fifty, when Rogers complexly misjudged a slower ball from James Anderson and spooned an easy catch to mid wicket. Over to the middle order.

Steve Smith joined Clarke. A naturally attacking batsman, Smith was clearly frustrated to be tied down by Swann and by short, accurate spells from England’s three fast bowlers. When runs become scarce, the problem is not the need to score faster to deny frustration. Clarke seemed to be finding this difficult. He was less composed than his admirers have come to expect and with the score on 161, the flaw in the crystal was exposed.

Stuart Broad, apparently recovered from the ailments that afflict him, was bowling a fierce line just outside the off stump. On sixth ball of the 59th over, Clarke was drawn forward and the keeper and the slips immediately erupted into a manic celebration, claiming the catch. The umpires were not sure. Perhaps chastened by his error in failing to give Broad out the night before, Aleem Dar consulted his fellow umpire Kumar Dharmasena to check whether the ball he carried to Matt Prior, the keeper. They decided it had, and Clarke was given out.

He did not hesitate. Clarke wanted the decision reviewed: he had watched the replay screen and thought it did not prove he had hit it, but the third umpire believed that he had heard a sound and confirmed the decision. Clarke had scored 23 and hit only two boundaries. He must have felt wretched. 161 for 4.

Then Smith, on 17, played and missed the first ball of Swann’s next over. Swann whooped his lbw appeal and Dharmasena gave him out. It looked close (in fact, it was not), but Australia had used up their two reviews and could not challenge the decision. 161 for 5.

When Swann bowled a beauty that spun in from and rapped Phil Hughes on the pads, Dharmasena gave him not out, presumably because he thought the ball had not pitched in line with the stumps. Now England asked for a review, and the DRS showed that half the ball had pitched in line with the leg stump. Hughes was out for a duck and Australia were 164 for 6. Three wickets had fallen for three runs in 18 balls.

Brad Haddin, and Ashley Agar, promoted from No 11 to No 8 after his first innings heroics, played out the day quietly. They still need 137 to win and the bookies would no longer be offering odds on an Australian win.

This Test has been a story of dramatic recoveries. First, a world record last wicket stand gave Australia a first innings lead of 65 they could not have expected when they were 117 for 9 on Day Two. Then Ian Bell scored a truly remarkably hundred for England in a stand of 138 with Broad which ended at 11.40am on Day Four and set a target which would require precision and concentration against an skilful attack, led by Anderson and Swann and supported by Broad, that has tamed many good batting sides.

The fallout from Dar’s failure to give Broad out when he was clearly caught by Clarke at first slip rumbled on during the day. Australian travellers, taking their breakfast on Saturday morning, occupied the moral high ground, denouncing Broad as a cheat. They refused to concede that no Australian batsman walks until given out (they invariably argue that Adam Gilchrist walked - twice, once when he was not out). No use saying that even Victor Trumper did not walk, or pointing out that Justin Langer and Andrew Symonds had not walked when they were clearly out. England were accused of a breach of faith, not quite as bad as Bodyline, but involving similar sensations of unforgiveable injustice.

It makes for compelling arguments. A majority of English cricket writers thought Broad had despoiled the spirit of cricket. A few Australian commentators felt that Broad had failed to behave like a man, but most accepted, as did spokesmen for the Australian team, that they had no quarrel with Broad. But no one who saw the incident will ever forget it.

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

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