Australia vs. England, 3rd Test, Day 2. Maxie’s take..

I’m a London bus: I waited two years to write a blog post, and then two come along at once. In their wisdom the BOC board have entrusted me with today’s end-of-play report. I’m a little rusty, though, so bear with me.

I can’t claim to have seen every ball, although today I was in the unusual position of starting work very early – 5.30am – but not being very busy. So I kept an eye on proceedings and watched what I could on my phone via the BT Sport app. Which wasn’t perfect, but better than nothing.

England can still win this match, and even though personally I want Australia to win the series – for reasons I explained the other day I agree with a point NonOxCol made. An England victory here would benefit both the series and the Ashes in general. With the exception of 2010/11, every Ashes since 2002/3 has been won by the home side, and the visitors need to up the jeopardy levels lest the whole thing descends further into the mire of predictability.

But if England are to win – and apologies for stating the bleeding obvious – they’ll need at least three wickets in tomorrow’s morning session. From what I saw of their bowling today I’m can’t really see where those wickets will come from, save Australian mistakes (and Smith looks impenetrable). Broad was his most blandly innocuous, Anderson not much better, and a bowler of Woakes’s style will always have a mountain to climb in these conditions. The pitch – admittedly viewed only from my iPhone – is a belter.

Overton was the pick, I suppose, although his dismissal of Warner – who must be gutted at the lost opportunity – came out of nowhere. Is Overton good enough for the test team? I’ll have to reserve judgement there. His whole setup – approach to the wicket, delivery style – screams rustic ungainliness. His run-up is more of a wander-up. That kind of thing can deceive test opponents, as it did Smith at Adelaide, but rarely for long.

The obvious big talking point – apart from the dropped catches – was England’s collapse from 368-4 to 403 all out, in nine overs and forty eight minutes. Yes, it was a total you’d have happily accepted at 131-4 but by this morning you felt they needed 475 to secure control of the game. If England lose further momentum tomorrow morning, and squander the prospect of a meaningful lead, they’ll be left incredibly vulnerable to a third-innings meltdown. As has already been pointed out here, the last time England made 400 in the first innings in Australia was – appropriately enough for this blog – Adelaide 2006.

How to explain the collapse? I’m always a bit sceptical of shoehorning in a simplistic narrative – the kind that attributes the fall of several wickets to the same vague cause. There were poor shots, sure, but sometimes it just happens that three or four batsmen all independently make mistakes in close succession. Then again, England’s tail is increasingly resembling an unusually horrific road accident. In five innings the last five wickets collectively average 71.8.

A school of thought arose that Dawid Malan was to blame by triggering it all with his own dismissal. This is absurd, as NonOxCol pointed out, and I really must pay him royalties for constantly nicking his material. But that’s what we tend to do in England: we say it was all the fault of the top scorer, not of those who failed.

I know it was only second ball, but if anyone should take the rap, it’s Moeen. His stroke was the kind which is hardest to excuse as it was such a nothing shot – neither attack nor defence. I know he has many admirers here, but try as I might I can’t convince myself Moeen is a test-class cricketer, either as batsman (average 34) or bowler (38). Yes, I know there’s some very decent stuff on his CV but it’s just…I think it’s his lack of presence, combined with the air of haziness he gives off early in an innings. Every long-term player has a bad test series but for Moeen this is getting pretty rough now, with scores are 38, 40, 25, 2 and 0, plus only two wickets.

In my earlier piece I wrote:

Now and again I get the odd England twinge, the occasional conflicted moment, when I I forget myself briefly, and feel a brief pang of connection or empathy with the England players and what they’re trying to achieve. For a beat or two I feel English again. It’s usually to do with players. I’m fond of Jonny Bairstow and when he’s batting there’s a part of me that’s pleased to see him do well. Dawid Malan, too.

Lo and behold, both Malan and Bairstow then both score sparkling centuries and rack up a record-breaking partnership of 237 (England’s highest against Australia since the Gabba in 2010). The cricketing gods clearly read this blog. Either that or it’s my magic touch.

Whatever my animosity towards England as a whole, I was genuinely really pleased for Bairstow. Watching the replay of his century-celebrations made me imagine, as it often does, what that specific moment must actually be like. The fulfilment of a childhood fantasy: scoring a century against Australia, in Australia. Malan aside, the only other player in the team who’s done that is Cook, but I doubt he can remember now what it’s like to score an Ashes hundred.

Bairstow played really, really well – and it’s the best test innings I’ve seen him make. He was composed, authoritative, and gritty but also struck the ball very sweetly. I’ve always had a soft spot for him. I like his energy and his attitude. Does his success in this test mean six is the right berth for him? Or should he be higher still in the batting order?

I was glad Bairstow head-butted his helmet, because at the moment everyone recognised what’s blinding obvious, and thanks for Pontiac for making me think about this. England supporters simply don’t care about the drinking incidents. The players know we don’t care, and we know that they know. Nevertheless we all have to endure this priggish pantomime of faux contrition and pompous moralising.

I once interviewed Peter Hayter about Ian Botham, whose boorish roistering wasn’t to everyone’s tastes but most of the people around him seemed to enjoy themselves. Asked to describe him in a nutshell, Hayter called him “the man who lived other men’s dreams”, and he was right. Much of the appeal of cricket is escapism and when you imagine life as an international player, that also includes the off-field fun and games. Youngsters do not grow up dreaming of bleep tests and early bedtimes. No one is deterred from cricket by talk of trays of sambuccas. The messy side of tour life is part of the romance of cricket. Would you rather hear about the team nutritionist or about Keith Miller going straight to Lord’s from the casino?

Finally I’d like to thank you all for the response to my piece ‘Paradise Lost. I’m glad it got a discussion going. And it’s nice to pop in here at BOC, although I doubt I can find the time very often. In the process I’ve got chatting to Sean and remarkably it turns out we went to the same school. It just goes to show that in cricket you can never get very far away from the old boys’ network.

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