Great escape

The draw at Cardiff has changed the course of the series, and brought a country that had begun to believe the old urn was about to slip from its grasp back to life, writes Ted Corbett.

Such an English success, such a great sporting occasion; on the wrong ground, with the wrong team and after four days that brought the England team close to humiliation.

Yet, the draw in the first Ashes Test at controversial Cardiff — chosen because it was willing to pay more than the traditional venues — has changed the course of a series, and brought a country that had begun to believe the old urn was ab out to slip from its grasp back to life.

It has also given England an unexpected, even an undeserved, impetus as they headed straight down the M4 to Lord’s for the second Test only four days later.

Better still, for a nation which finds failures more interesting than heroes, the decisive stand came from James Anderson, the permanent night-watchman and Monty Panesar, the perpetual No. 11, who is a bye-word for pathetic batting.

As the game drew to an end the unlikely lads held out for 40 minutes and faced 69 deliveries while they added 19 crucial runs that meant Australia had to bat again. They forced Ricky Ponting — sour-faced as you might expect — to shake hands on a draw when the umpires ruled there was no time for a fourth innings.

Fight your way to a draw and upset the Australian captain all in the final moments of a Test; it is what Ashes dreams are made of. Especially when the praise of the tabloid press — Australia’s 12th man according to Ponting — takes over from the usual vitriolic condemnation.

For four days Australia dominated the first home Test to be played outside England and when the fifth day began — with an Aussie victory and a shabby draw the only results possible — it looked as if once again the toughest invaders since the Vikings sacked this country 1500 years would triumph.

Australia certainly deserved to start the series with a victory. England, who had surprisingly left out the two Durham expresses Steve Harmison and his young apprentice Graham Onions, won the toss on a pitch that was a batsman’s friend — and certainly not the terror that some experts had predicted — and made 435.

Of course they should have made many more; everyone said so. The top seven batsmen each got a start yet none went on to make a century. Kevin Pietersen went to 69 and then unfurled a slog sweep to a ball that was close to being an offside wide.

While his fans and his abusers — and there are plenty of both — wrung their hands and wailed for his immediate dropping the ball spun into the side of his helmet and so to the slips.

The Pietersen-must-go brigade spoke about nothing else for the rest of the match. They ignored his top-score, his Test average of 50 his well-recorded desire to succeed, his hard work and his dedication to England’s cause and blamed him for everything that followed.

His dismissal was stupid but it was made more wretched by the way that Simon Katich and Ricky Ponting mixed aggression, orthodox cricket shots and a clever understanding of what was needed and possible to send Australia into a first innings lead of 239.

Marcus North, a new boy who has been lingering in the sidelines for seven years and Brad Haddin, who has spent almost that length of time wondering when Adam Gilchrist might grow old, also scored centuries. No Australian batting line-up has done that since Tests began in 1877.

You needed a microscope to find praise for the England bowling attack. Five of them — Stuart Broad, Andrew Flintoff, Graeme Swann, Panesar and Anderson — conceded 100 runs apiece and Ponting was able to declare on the fourth day just ahead of the rain storm and in time to take the first two England wickets. (One of the arguments against Cardiff as a venue is that it has the heaviest rainfall of all the English grounds but it also has new drainage and day five began on time.)

The result clearly came as a massive relief to the England captain Andrew Strauss. “It gives us time to regroup,” he said. “And meanwhile we are very proud of what the last two batsmen achieved.”

That second innings battle was set up by a six-hour knock from Paul Collingwood, the batsman most likely to be dropped at one time. Afterwards he demanded greater efforts from his more highly-rated team-mates and now they have to listen to what he says. One of the problems in the build-up to the Ashes has been that England vastly underestimated the Aussies despite their victory in South Africa. The team management thought the South Africans had tired as they did in England last year. After winning the Test series, and witnessing the demise of skipper Michael Vaughan, the South Africans lost the only four one-day games to be played.

The retirement of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Jason Langer, Matthew Hayden and Gilchrist led England to assume they would not be replaced quickly and their own easy wins against a poor West Indies team early in the summer suggested all was well in their camp.

Flintoff made a relaxed and comfortable return from injury and that seemed to settle the a case for an England win, especially when Australia were knocked out of the T20 World Cup and went to hide in Leicester, a Midlands town of renown dullness.

Their final plans for the series — they already hold the Ashes after the 5-0 revenge drubbing they handed England under Flintoff after Vaughan’s side captured them in 2005 — must have been finalised in Leicester.

There was no evidence of a decisive plan during their two warm-up matches; in fact they looked as if they had fully captured the essence of Leicester with two four-day draws. Dullness is the last characteristic we can expect from the rest of this five-match series. The excitement of the final day in Cardiff converted Welshmen who have been brought up to hate the English and pound them into the pitch at Rugby into ardent England cricket supporters.

In the last hour, as the game gained its place among such other notable results as the “we’ll get ’em in singles” Oval Test of 1899, the one-run win at Melbourne in 1982 and the 2005 victory for England by two runs at Edgbaston, every ball was cheered, every single brought the crowd to its feet and only the presence of hordes of tough securitymen prevented the crowd from going on to the field and carrying Panesar and Anderson shoulder high to the pavilion.

“I am not sure that I can stand any more tight finishes,” said Strauss but his grin told a different story.

THE SCORES

First Test, Cardiff, July 8-12, 2009. Match drawn.

England — 1st innings: A. Strauss c Clarke b Johnson 30; A. Cook c Hussey b Hilfenhaus 10; R. Bopara c Hughes b Johnson 35; K. Pietersen c Katich b Hauritz 69; P. Collingwood c Haddin b Hilfenhaus 64; M. Prior b Siddle 56; A. Flintoff b Siddle 37; J. Anderson c Hussey b Hauritz 26; S. Broad b Johnson 19; G. Swann (not out) 47; M. Panesar c Ponting b Hauritz 4; Extras (b-13, lb-11, w-2, nb-12) 38. Total: 435.

Fall of wickets: 1-21, 2-67, 3-90, 4-228, 5-241, 6-327, 7-329, 8-355, 9-423.

Australia bowling: Johnson 22-2-87-3; Hilfenhaus 27-5-77-2; Siddle 27-3-121-2; Hauritz 23.5-1-95-3; Clarke 5-0-20-0; Katich 2-0-11-0.

Australia — 1st innings: P. Hughes c Prior b Flintoff 36; S. Katich lbw b Anderson 122; R. Ponting b Panesar 150; M. Hussey c Prior b Anderson 3; M. Clarke c Prior b Broad 83; M. North (not out) 125; B. Haddin c Bopara b Collingwood 121; Extras (b-9, lb-14, w-4, nb-7) 34. Total (for six wkts., decl.) 674.

Fall of wickets: 1-60, 2-299, 3-325, 4-331, 5-474, 6-674.

England bowling: Anderson 32-6-110-2; Broad 32-6-129-1; Swann 38-8-131-0; Flintoff 35-3-128-1; Panesar 35-4-115-1; Collingwood 9-0-38-1.

England — 2nd innings: A. Strauss c Haddin b Hauritz 17; A. Cook lbw b Johnson 6; R. Bopara lbw b Hilfenhaus 1; K. Pietersen b Hilfenhaus 8; P. Collingwood c Hussey b Siddle 74; M. Prior c Clarke b Hauritz 14; A. Flintoff c Ponting b Johnson 26; S. Broad lbw b Hauritz 14; G. Swann lbw b Hilfenhaus 31; J. Anderson (not out) 21; M. Panesar (not out) 7; Extras (b-9, lb-9, w-4, nb-11) 33. Total (for nine wkts.) 252.

Fall of wickets: 1-13, 2-17, 3-31, 4-46, 5-70, 6-127, 7-159, 8-221, 9-233.

Australia bowling: Johnson 22-4-44-2; Hilfenhaus 15-3-47-3; Siddle 18-2-51-1; Hauritz 37-12-63-3; Clarke 3-0-8-0; North 7-4-14-0; Katich 3-0-7-0.