In the days running up to the final Test, with the series at 3 -1, there was speculation as to whether England would order up yet another damp seamer and take the risk of going for 4 – 1, or keep things dry and let 500+ play 500+ for a hardly less comprehensive 3 – 1 series outcome.
But when the Australian party arrived at the Oval on Tuesday morning, the sun came out – quickly followed by the covers.
If anyone needs things like this spelling out – it’s a technique for conserving moisture. Yes, from that first sight, Australia knew England were going for 4 – 1 and had ordered ‘another one like the others’ – or as Smith was later to describe the wickets encountered that summer – another ‘fruity one’.
For England, the 5-0 drubbing Down Under still rankled even with the Ashes secured. This summer, vengeance was everything and vengeance had been a dish served damp, green and grassy. Only Mick Hunt at Lord’s refused to follow orders.
Third Man has been struck by the quietness of the reaction surrounding the way the wickets have been “doped” this summer and the effect this has had on the series – The English love to beat the Australians and all is apparently fair in cricket. Perhaps superficially the outcomes also have played to the narrative that modern batsmen just can’t hack the long game. Old cricketers enjoy castigating the ‘moderns’.
The facts are that the wickets and the Duke ball have been a nightmare and the toughest of examinations for batsmanship. Many players have been found wanting. Others have proved themselves in the toughest of conditions. One wicket, left uncovered in rain for a critical interval became, for an hour and a half, virtually unplayable from one end where a single bowler took 8 of the 10 Test wickets in just 57 balls. The exemplar technician, Root, as we shall see, might have scored a second ball duck in the First Test, made just 1 and 17 in the Second Test, and 6 and 11 in the final Test. Even the experienced and adaptive Rogers recorded his first Test duck and found some of the wickets amongst the worst he has played on.
Nor have the combination of wickets and atmospheric conditions been uniform. Nor again have they played consistently during the course of matches, where the way a artfully groomed Duke cricket ball ages helpfully for swing bowlers in green conditions, further complicating the batsman’s task.
The grass has been long and damp; dampness for humidity and swing, long grass and responsive ground for movement off the Dukes’ proud seam edges. The rolling has also been tailored for seam movement. In short these have been the perfect conditions for England ‘seamers’ and swing bowlers, and also happily for England a combination of factors that had the added value of neutralising much of Johnson’s arsenal.
But it was a high risk strategy as was almost demonstrated on the very first day of the series at Cardiff where England, having won the toss, found themselves 43 – 3. Had Haddin caught Root two balls later England’s middle order would have been exposed to a Duke ball, just 14 overs old. “Laquer off, Wurthers on” as the saying goes.
Johnson with figures of 0 – 111 suggested that that part of the strategy was working at Cardiff. In these conditions Australia appeared about 2/3rd as good as England. The match lasted four days. It remains to be seen who will pick up the bill for the lost day’s revenue: Cardiff, whose bid to hold the Test, like all venues except Lord’s, would have gambled on a fifth day; the ECB, or some insurer?
So off to Lord’s for the second Test where Rogers and Smith took advantage of Mr Hunt’s track to take Australia to 337 – 1 at the end of Day One. Despite the widely held preconception that the wicket would again be slow, there was carry and life enough for Rogers to be nearly caught in the first over and for England, when it was their turn to bat, to find themselves at 30 – 4. Australia’s team meeting, even factoring in another Millennial counterattack, were confident they’d be starting their second innings by 4.00 pm on Day Three.
As it happened their planning was only a half-hour out, and with few inconveniences, especially notable for debutant Nevill, they sped to a lead of 500 before extinguishing England’s guttering flame for 103 to level the series.
But seeds of disharmony were already stirring below the surface even at this moment of victory and apparent recovery. The chairman of selectors was causing waves. Watson had been brushed aside and family membership was to count for even less as the touring party headed for Edgbaston and an engagement with another ‘green’un’.