I’ve been watching this game long enough to know when people are talking in hyperbolic tones. Nathan Lyon is a really, really decent test spin bowler. He has 343 test wickets at an average of 32. He has 14 five wicket hauls in 86 tests. None of them have come in England. None of them have come against England. A wicket has a little bit of turn, and suddenly this is akin to Murali at Galle. Nathan Lyon is a fine bowler who could well be the key tomorrow, but the way some press/media/TV are talking about him, you’d think this is Warne on a viper’s nest tomorrow.
The fact is that this is a pretty normal, old school fifth day wicket coming up, and England should bat out a draw. Australia showed there were few demons in the wicket. Moeen Ali was set up to take a ton of wickets, and he didn’t. Given he’s the whipping boy at the moment, the failure to do so is reason to pick someone else. Remember back in 2009, when on Day 4 Swann spun one through Ricky Ponting and knocked him over? The hyperbole went out, our great offie only had to turn up next day to make it 2-0, and yet, and yet. I don’t think he even took one on Day 5. There’s too much made in the media of having to be in front of the game, make a statement, build them up.
That little rant over with, and it’s the first and possibly last time the great Tight Fit will be lyric-checked in a title, let’s take the day’s play in context. Australia started effectively at 34 for 3. Smith, as I have called him in the pre-amble to Day 5 (to be posted at 9am tomorrow), is the Keyser Soze of batting. He has persuaded everyone that his unorthodox technique, his snake-like eye, his miraculous hand-eye co-ordination, has made him invincible. The bowlers believe it. They talk and act as though they can’t get him out. Smith makes them fear bowling to him – not in the way the Laras, Kohlis, Richards of this world did and getting pasted – but that there is no way through his armour. Commentators talk as if this is a superhuman at the other end. Sport is played largely in the head, and Smith is living rent-free in ours. He’s an amazing player, no doubt, but people are speaking as if we should just give up.
His interview at the end of play was fascinating. Ward was trying to get all technical, and trying to get Smith to admit how he views batting is a little complex, but he said “I know where the field is, and then I watch the ball”. It was genius and yet so simple. So Ward tried again. Smith shrugged. “Where do you think they want to bowl to you with this field” asked Ward. ” I don’t know…. I just watch the ball”. All that technical shit, and Smith was having none of it.
Smith had just become the fifth Australian to make a century in each innings of an Ashes test. The last was Matthew Hayden in 2002 – I was there – and the previous one in England was Steve Waugh at Old Trafford in 1997. Smith had burnished his legend. England looked scared from moment one. Smith would rotate the strike (Ward asked him if this was a key to his batting, and Smith basically said it didn’t really matter), never really tied down. This was exemplified by his attitude on 99. England gave all indications they were going to throw it out wide of off stump and hope Smith wore out of patience. After the first ball, Nasser, I think, said “they are going to make him wait.” Next ball, a wide ball outside off, and Smith just smacked it through the offside field. As easy as ABC. Rent free? England are paying him to stay in their heads.
I was out and about for large parts of today but I saw that. I saw Head look quite solid, and he is not to be underestimated. I missed most of Wade’s century, which looks the bargain bucket variety, but it’s one more Ashes hundred in England than Alastair Cook made (I know, I know…petty). The wheels fell off at the end, with Pattinson smacking England to all parts. England saw out the last 7 overs with few alarms – well Jim Maxwell did his best off the last ball to shit the life out of me while I was driving home – and go into tomorrow with 10 wickets in hand and a match to save. The last time England batted out a full day to save a test was Auckland 2013. It was that long ago. We used to be good at this, but not so much these days. I guess we might need rain.
The Ashes are special, and so the reactions are always augmented, but there are some really strange things going on. The strangest for me, honestly, is what is Joe Denly doing in this team. Is he really our best middle-order batsman who is not called Joe Root? I had an exchange with a journo today to say this dates back to Ed Smith being his team-mate and thinking him to have special qualities. He’s batting in our prime spot – number 4 – and yet no-one seems to care. He’s like the party guest who you think you all know, but can’t quite place, and you’re not sure who invited him. He bowls filthy spin, plays an occasional drive, and I don’t see anyone questioning his place. Not like they are people with track record, like Moeen, or complete rookies in test cricket like Roy. In fact there’s a case to say those two (Roy and Denly) should swap places and it would make more sense. But what must batsmen like Hildreth and Northeast be thinking? If only we bowled filthy legspin?
Today the commenters focused on Joe Root’s captaincy. Again, it’s noticeable that the rumblings aren’t against him. Woakes did not bowl before lunch, and we were told after play that he wasn’t injured. If that is the case, what the hell was he thinking? There wasn’t much in the way of positivity, up and at ’em body language, and instead there’s a hang-dog look and a resignation to fate. It’s one game, but this does not hold out hope.
So, we have a batsman inside our heads, are told to be frightened of a spinner who has taken four wickets in an innings twice in England, and lost both those matches, and with a batting line-up that gives the definition of disjointed, and just looks plain odd. Following England is rarely boring, often odd. It’s even more strange that this will be the sixth successive Ashes test to go to the fifth day. England face a really important day. It was said before today that only one side could afford an indifferent session. They didn’t mean England. In Steve Smith, the force is strong. Whether it’s strong enough to get a result tomorrow, then the Ashes are halfway back to Aussie (It has been pointed out that the Ashes already are with Australia – so let me correct. If England lose tomorrow, the outcome of the series is likely to be seriously skewed in favour of the visitors, who only need to draw the series to return home with the “Ashes”). England face a massively important test.
See you tomorrow.