Sunday, 21 July 2013

Ashes Diary - 2nd Test - Day 3

The Big Sleep

There is one inevitability for the Australian cricket lover following a winter Ashes and that is that at some point you are going to fall asleep for a significant chunk of play. Day 3 was my turn. Having seen out the first two overs with a straight bat and watchful eye, I made the fatal error of assuming the sleeping position length-ways across the couch. Resistance was futile. A week with virtually no sleep caught up with me in one fuzzy, soundless moment and I was gone. For hours.

It is an Ashes tradition I suppose and once I woke up again it got me thinking about other rituals I've observed over the years and the way that the 'away' Ashes series is an orientation point for so much of my life. The thrilling, joyful act of post-bedtime parental defiance in '89 and '93 gave way to deep, considered obsession in '97 and '01 before '05 and '09 co-existed variously with the nocturnal unpredictability of young adulthood and the incursion of serious relationships. This time around I feel prepared for a consistent, level-headed campaign. If only I can stay awake.

In an ephemeral sense, I guess the ABC Cricket Guide is the most obvious Ashes tradition I observe. It made more sense in 1993 when I was huddled under my doona with the radio turned down low to avoid the attention of my parents. After all, I wasn't allowed a TV in my bedroom (my girlfriend and I now have more screens in our house than people by a multiple exceeding two), there was no twitter and (for me) no internet. It was a portal into the world of cricket, full of statistics and profiles; pictures and words that seemed to matter a lot.

There is no justifiable reason to buy the ABC Cricket Guide these days. It's an anachronism and about the least essential cricket document I can think of. But without fail I still buy every single one of the things. The stats are out of date before it even hits the newsagent's shelves and everything written in it seems (even if it is only a month old) feels like it may as well have been uncovered from a stone tablet. But if it were ever to disappear I'd probably feel an immediate and crushing tightness in my chest and start silently weeping. I guess its like the English's own feelings towards publishing institutions like the Beano; they just want to know that it's still there, that there's some continuity in their life and that certain things will never change. The difference being that I still feel the need to buy the ABC Cricket Guide.

The Ashes makes me think about life on a profound level, you see.

Brief interviews with hideous men

In the time I was still awake before play, I at least got to have a decent chuckle at Brendan Julian's assertion in the Fox Sports studio preview that Joe Root "sometimes looks like a number eight of something" and that he didn't get the fuss about the English youngster. In combination with Greg Blewett, BJ is to cricket analysis what Richard Wilkins is to film criticism. Unlike Dickie Wilks, BJ doesn't have Rotten Tomatoes or the back cover blurb of DVD's to fall back on though, so he ends up making such cack-handed statements on a regular basis.

The baby-faced Assassin 

In actual fact Root's success in blunting Australia's tiring attack to the tune of 178 undefeated runs and counting on day three should not have come as a surprise to anyone. It might be an oversimplification of Australia's batting malaise to say that the country lacks young players who can make big hundreds (or hundreds of any kind, if we're honest) but it is also true. By comparison, this season alone, Root has made scores of 182, 236, 179, 104 and now 178 not out. Here's something even simpler to digest: he makes runs off the back foot. Not lap sweeps or switch hits or big show six-hitting from a firmly planted front foot, though he is probably capable of them as well, but from a bedrock of nudges and nurdles and drives and cuts off the back foot.  

It's an important distinction to note. Root's backwards movement is more of a shuffle than a stride, but boy is it effective. You could have feasibly lost count of the amount of times it resulted in a boundary being whipped away through cover or mid-wicket. Even the slightest shortening length from Australia's pace brigade was punished.

Did Usman Khawaja notice that? Are Australian batsman preparing themselves for the specific requirements of Test cricket with such obvious diligence as the young Englishman? As Andrew Strauss noted after Root had passed his half-century, he didn't do anything "outrageously risky" during this innings. It wasn't a quick kill and it wasn't flash but by the end of the day, Australia had absorbed so many of Root's seemingly polite jabs that they were dizzied and bleeding, not from the lip but at their core.

At the other end

All the while that Root was piecing his opus together he had able support from both Tim Bresnan and The Terminator, Ian Bell. 

If Ashton Agar showed up the Australian top order at Trent Bridge with his youthful batting exuberance and free-flowing simplicity, today Bresnan taught them a lesson of a different kind; that it's a wholly beneficial aim to just be the best possible version of yourself. Bresnan didn't biff or bash, as would be expected of a nightwatchman returning the next day. He batted exactly as he always tends to, with purpose and in sync with his partner. I noted before the match that Australia would have much preferred to be up against the spindly Steven Finn than a resilient competitor such as Bresnan and his innings today only reinforced that view.

Bell merely picked up where he left off in the first innings. His ascendancy is emblematic of the true gulf between the two teams, that of self-esteem and self-belief; quiet arrogance even. Secure in his place in the English pecking order, Bell's innings construction is accordingly clear-headed. Mis-hits register like slightly amusing blips rather than a telling sign of imminent doom. In the end, his demise to a Steven Smith half-tracker seemed apt; he just never looked particularly troubled by the better bowling that the Australians mustered.

The pain just continued from there with Jonny Bairstow joining a rapidly accelerating Root and giving a further shove to the back of Australia's downhill momentum. With a deficit of 566 looking set to grow further on the fourth day, it is no longer a question of Australia locating the breaks, their exhausted bowling attack might be in need of a full service.

Yes, Bell was out

I mean, when David Gower is saying that an England batsman is out, he's stone cold. It was another howler though no more of a howler than the last one and the one before that. It is becoming a lot less excusable when those howlers are made with the assistance of fairly conclusive evidence though.

Speaking of commentary, has Andrew Strauss said "grind them into the dirt" more times than any other human being in living memory? It's a verbal tic to rival Ian Chappell's stories about Les Favell. The thing is though, Cook's men barely need to engage in the cliche that Strauss suggests as Australia are most definitely digging themselves into a subterranean position all of their own accord. They're not far off hitting water, in fact.

An Australian spinner is taking wickets

He's not actually in England, but it's a start. A couple of days back I joked about Fawad Ahmed being sent home to his couch but he's currently ripping through a Zimbabwean batting line-up for Australia A. Eight wickets and counting. Should Ashton Agar succumb to the injury that appears to be troubling him, Ahmed will enter the frame again along with Nathan Lyon. Some might even make a case for Glenn Maxwell though I won't be one of them.

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