Australia may not be strong, but they are alive

2009-08-05 00:00

AUSTRALIA emerged from the Birmingham Test with heads held high and hope intact. Historians will look back at the scorecard and conclude that the match was easily saved. It is rarely as calm as that in the dressing rooms where every ball is anxiously followed and the players dare not move lest a wicket fall.

Doubtless the visitors were counting every notch and every minute, at any rate in the morning as England pressed. Not that the hosts played their best game. Andrew Flintoff bowled too short, Jimmy Anderson was underused when it mattered and, in the modern fashion, third slip was left vacant­ at critical stages.

Over the years, Australians have not been good at saving matches, or not since Ken “Slasher” MacKay retired anyhow. An Aussie once observed that “drawers are only good for bathing in”. Now the incumbents put a high price on their wickets. No one pretends that these tourists are powerful but they are still alive and signs of improvement can be detected. Moreover, Stuart Clark is fit and Brett Lee has declared himself available to play in Leeds. Not that Ricky Ponting will have a full pack at his disposal — he must despair of that. Brad Haddin has a broken finger and his incisive batting will be missed.

Australia displayed the utmost resolution on the final day. Every batsman contributed something. Crucially, Shane Watson and Michael Hussey survived the opening hour. Seeking early wickets, a notably loquacious England attack beat the bat a few times but the overnighters were not cowed and replied with forthright strokes, a few misses and a couple of barbs. Here was the tit for tat that Ashes crowds yearn for, but who were denied for the rest of the day as a dull pitch held sway.

Hussey has been in better form lately without producing the results. Now he unfurled a couple of corking cover drives. He was in his element, head down, defiant, his mission known, his game under control. Threading the ball through the covers, cutting crisply he found a balance between defiance and adventure. Suddenly his bat had a meaty sound and the sight of him at the crease was reassuring. The push to ditch him is premature.

Bowlers are making him work harder for runs and he cannot expect to be as dominant. His career has been unusual in that his debut and peak occurred at the same time, to be followed a year later by a typically dry second season and alleged decline.

Shane Watson looked the part. In some respects his second effort was superior to his first. He had spent a long time in the field and the novelty of opening had worn off. In addition, the new ball bowling was more demanding. And still he looked solid and showed the courage expected from an opener. Let’s not quibble — it was a resolute performance. Watson deserves further opportunities. Now he must convert 50s into 100s.

Michael Clarke, the most flowing of batsmen, and Marcus North, among the more durable, also held firm as England fell back and supporters began to bandy songs. It was like watching a cheetah and a buffalo batting together.

North’s on-drive against Ravi Bopara was the shot of the match and he followed with two more ornate boundaries. Of course second innings runs are all very well but they seldom win matches. Until these batsmen put pressure on their opponents it’s hard to see Australia taking a Test.

Even the bowlers hinted that better days may lie ahead. Mitchell Johnson swung a few deliveries and hit the bat handle a few times. Still, changes are needed. This quartet has not given England enough headaches in the first three matches, so the selectors need to try someone else — Clark, and even Lee. They are not exactly novices. Certainly the visitors cannot afford to wait for the fifth Test. If England arrives at The Oval one up the pitch will be as docile as Donovan. If the hosts need to win an outbreak of fusarium can be expected.

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