Let’s be clear here, Australia should still win this match, and comfortably so. But England played with skill, tenacity and demonstrated considerable bottle for the first time this series, and gave cause for some small degree of hope that they could pull of the remarkable. As has been said on so many occasions, it’s never the despair, it’s the hope that gets you.
England needed everything to go right with the ball, and it more or less did. Anderson post play admitted that England had bowled too short in the first innings – which more than anything else is the reason why England have been in trouble in this match – and both he and Woakes in particular probed away, swung the ball and got their rewards. Praise for their efforts will of course be tempered with frustration that they didn’t do it first time around, as the position of this game could have been entirely different. C’est la vie.
So 354 was the target, which would be the tenth highest run chase in Test history. It was indicative of England’s position that the 85 added by Australia for their last six wickets from their overnight position was both an outstanding performance from England, and still about 50 more runs than they realistically could afford in order to have a decent shot at winning the game. Still, given where they were, this represented a huge improvement from having no chance at all, to a slim one.
That slim chance improved fractionally further with a decent opening stand between Cook and Stoneman, passing 50 with relatively few alarms and doing the vital work of seeing off the new Kookaburra ball. Cook got away with an lbw that wasn’t referred by Steve Smith – the beginning of his tribulations with the system today – before falling to Lyon again, playing round one and once more getting too far across to the offside and falling over somewhat.
The dismissal on review did cause a fair few people to query the predictive ball tracking. The most important point is that if the system is being used, then you go with it. DRS showed Cook to be out, and that’s the end of that. However, it doesn’t mean a specific instance can’t raise eyebrows.
Before the ball tracking overlay, the ball looked to be heading far more to the legside than was then shown. Probably showing it hitting, but on the inside of the leg stump looked like a far greater degree of turn than appeared the case. Now, the eye can be fooled very easily, and it is certainly possible, even likely, that it was an optical illusion, and some didn’t see it that way at all anyway. However, acknowledging that doesn’t mean DRS was unquestionably right either, and it certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be queried – not on the basis of some kind of objection to the wicket, but more the reliance on the technology as being somehow infallible.
The problems here aren’t necessarily with the technology, but it should to be noted that “odd” ball tracking decisions are much more prevalent in Australia and New Zealand than in England. In England Hawkeye is used; it’s a purpose built ball tracking technology designed specifically for this purpose, and a lot more expensive. In Australia, Virtual Eye is used instead. That has its origins in a graphical representation software suite, and the designer has said it wasn’t designed for predictive tracking, while the creator of Hawkeye (who would say this wouldn’t he?) has called it up to nine times less accurate. Now, this was a few years ago, and technology must be expected to have moved on and be better, but it is important to note that all systems are not created equal.
Of course, whenever something questionable arises, the responses tend to be along the lines of pointing out that umpires are more fallible, and that is probably true, but headscratching over one particular decision isn’t to decry the entire system, or wish it scrapped, but it always invites things like this:
Except that it wasn’t designed for this specific purpose at all. Hawkeye was though, perhaps why there are far fewer occasions when there is cause for a debate using that system.
Ball tracking is right because it says so, and because it says so, it’s right. There’s no reason to doubt its general accuracy, albeit with the proviso that some systems will inevitably be more accurate than others, but it’s also absolutely the case that as far as cricket goes and the predictive element of DRS, there’s little information available. There has been a formal test of its accuracy done, by the ICC, but unfortunately they’ve never seen fit to release the results and we simply do not know the outcome. It’s entirely reasonable to assume that they wouldn’t have gone with it had it been unsatisfactory, but not knowing the detail is always going to leave scope for doubt.
The most vital points of all are that it’s not for a second suggesting the system is wrong, and not suggesting human umpires are better; but assuming all systems are right all the time given the enormous variables in both outcome and in sampling size is as dogmatic as assuming it gets it wrong on a frequent basis, for which there’s no reason to make such a case. Being puzzled over a single piece of ball tracking doesn’t for a second mean either that the questioner is right, nor that there’s anything inherently wrong with DRS but responses on that basis are simply an exercise in trying to shut down discussion. Maybe it was entirely correct in its prediction, and it’s most definitely not about Cook’s dismissal per se, not least because anyone objecting to it on partisan grounds would have to note Root being rescued by the same system. It just looked slightly peculiar.
In terms of Cook himself, he had battled away, but still looks out of sorts, to the point where some of the journalists are now querying whether this might be his last tour. It is somewhat ironic that he appears to have gone from genius to liability in the eyes of some within two Tests – it surely has to be more nuanced than that.
Shortly after Cook, Stoneman followed, having made another bright start. For England to be confident of victory, two wickets down was probably about the limit of what they could afford to lose but Vince soon followed, again caught behind as he has been in 10 of his last 12 innings. It was a poor shot, and not for the first time.
Joe Root at least was batting well, if not without lbw related alarms. He padded up to one far too close to leave and was given out on the field, only to be reprieved by the ball tracking showing it going over the top. Thereafter, Australia’s determination to get him out led them to burn both their reviews on highly speculative appeals, much to the delight of the Barmy Army who gestured for a review each time subsequent lbws were turned down. He received valuable support from Dawid Malan, who batted maturely for a 29 that in other circumstances would have been perceived as infinitely more valuable than it will probably be. His late dismissal to a superb ball from Cummins was a blow England could not afford.
Four days down, and a superb fifth day in prospect. As ever in these circumstances, it’s worth highlighting that there are some who would wish to make Tests a four day game.
Only one captain in history has lost a Test after failing to enforce a follow on, South Africa’s Dudley Nourse in this game and it remains highly unlikely England will add to that very short list. But they have at least properly competed at last, and if it requires Joe Root to make a big century, and for everyone else to support him, then that’s still a situation England would have taken before play started today. Unlikely is not impossible, a slight chance is vastly better than no chance.
It is most likely that waking tomorrow will see the last rites of the Test being performed. England need to get through the first session without loss, and then, well just maybe. And sometimes that’s enough.