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12th December 2017

England lose again, but better

Australia 8 for 442 declared beat England 227 and 233 by 120 runs

Let me be the first to say that I told you this would happen. On the much-awaited fifth morning of the second Test, English hopes were crushed in half an hour. Bairstow, Ali – fags out. You’re in. Overton, pad up. Fifteen minutes later and he was in too. You could sense it, those who care about the English cricket team up and down the country, switching off the radio and turning off the light, in unison, and going to sleep. At just before 4AM. You could feel it. They went to sleep with the speech of Glenn McGrath whirling around in their dreams: Whitewash.

Well, a stopped clock is right three times in seven series. The match, and, one presumes, the series, were lost in the first session on the first day. The day/night pink ball wasn’t swinging, and Broad and Anderson are not quick enough to beat the batsman with a ball that’s doing nothing.

The English domestic structure, with its tight schedule, makes it easier for bowlers to develop a probing fast-medium pace rather than an energy-sapping 90mph+. This is not a problem in English conditions. The Dukes ball we use here swings and seams and reverses, at humid, drizzly grounds like Headingley and Old Trafford – it makes sense for English bowlers to become craftsmen rather than quicks. But in Australia, with the Kookaburra on hot dry flat pitches, it is a less effective approach.

Joe Root made an interesting call after he won the toss and put Australia into bat. It was not this decision that let him down. It showed faith in the bowling attack to take wickets and seize the initiative on the muggy first day. England did not look threatening. Australia brought the hundred up in the 39th over for the loss of only one wicket — a run out from Chris Woakes — and performed steadily for the rest of the opening day.

Woakes had Warner caught behind and Khawaja slashing one off Anderson to Vince at gully, shortly after he’d brought up his fifty. Craig Overton was added to the England side at the expense of Jake Ball for this Test, and bowled a consistent medium pace, extracting bounce by dint of his height. His maiden Test wicket was a beauty, bowling Australian captain Steve Smith for 40.

Australia closed the first day on 209/4, but Handscomb and Marsh couldn’t add to their partnership of 48 the next morning, the former falling LBW to Broad. 209/5 looks good for the bowling team but the Australians have a decent tail and England do not have the right bowlers to attack it. The score crept up and up, Shaun Marsh recording 126 unbeaten runs along the way, before Australia declared on 442/8, a score well above par for the surface.

The England batsmen knew before they got on the plane that they would have to be at the top of their games to repel the trio of Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins. Three nasty people. They might not have been so worried about Nathan Lyon, but the spinner is getting bounce and spin this series that Moeen Ali can only dream of. England didn’t follow-on only on the say-so of Smith and were all out for 227, the only substantial resistance a 66 run partnership for the eighth wicket between Overton and Woakes. Overton recorded the best figures in each innings for England, 3-105 with the ball, 41 not out with the bat.

Smith chose not to enforce the follow-on, such is the modern way. For me, this was a worse decision than Root’s to bowl first. It meant that Australia had to bat out a session under the lights with a new ball. Finally, England showed a bit of fight, and finally the ball became less stubborn. Anderson did the early damage Bancroft nicking one to Bairstow and Khawaja trapped LBW for 20, DRS showing it to be just clipping off-stump. Shortly after, Woakes had Warner at second slip, and then the big one. Having twice been given out but reprieved by DRS, but when he was hit on the back pad while on 6, again by Woakes, technology could only query rather than overturn the original decision.

England only competed in this Test for four sessions. The one bowled at the end of the third day when they reduced Australia for 53/4, and the whole of the fourth day. Broad bowled well and with hostility but it was Woakes with 4-36, and Anderson, with his long-awaited first five-for in Australia (5-43) who did the damage. Overton wrapped up the Australian innings with the wicket of Hazlewood, Australia collapsing to 138 all out.

If only they’d started like that. 138 still gave England a target of 354, which would have been their highest ever run chase. But cricket statisticians are obsessed with fourth-innings run chase records, and England’s performance against the new ball was impressive. Vince got out seduced by the drive, and Cummins beat Malan for the pace just before close of play but English supporters entered the fifth day cautiously optimistic.

Despite Malan’s late dismissal, 176/4 with a target of 354 on a pitch that was holding up well and with another twenty overs til the new ball – well, you could forgive English supporters that hope. But soon it was reduced to 177/6, with both overnight batsmen falling to the faintest of nicks, Woakes caught behind off Hazlewood from the second delivery of the day and Root suffering the same fate for 67. Soon Moeen Ali joined them back in the pavillion, attempting to sweep Lyon and being caught in front. All out for 233, a fairly convincing defeat by 120 runs.

There are those that say the fight that England showed for four sessions of the match might rekindle some belief that they can get something out of this series. But 2-0 down and a fast wicket at Perth? Not likely.

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