Farewell My Lovely

In The Ashes by Bill Ricquier

So there it is. Eighteen days of hectic, sometimes bizarre cricket and the 2015 Investec Ashes is all over. There is plenty for England to celebrate in regaining the urn but the game of Test cricket itself was not seen to great advantage.

On the third afternoon of the final Test at The Oval England were apparently striving to save the game . The fact that they were following on was a measure of Australia’s superiority in the match: Australian captains had been allergic to enforcing it since the trauma of Kolkata 2001. Alastair Cook was as steadfast as ever at one end. Joe Root was the latest of a series of curiously skittish companions at the other. With the score on 99 for two, and virtually two and a half days left in the game, Mitchell Johnson bowled a short , sharp delivery to Root. The batsman essayed a – what? – not exactly a pull or a hook , more a sort of swat – and the ball headed upwards and in the direction of Mitchell Starc at long leg, who caught it : 99 for three.

Of course the sainted Root can do no wrong and it is perhaps churlish to single him out ; after all, he had a magnificent series, scoring over five hundred runs. Still, it is amusing to speculate about the outcry had Kevin Pietersen played such a shot in such circumstances ( ” He doesn’t care!!!”). But that is not the point. The point is that Root’s dismissal was somehow representative or symbolic of much that happened in this deeply unsatisfying Test series. Almost every time a side took the advantage, they kept it; the other lot just sort of gave up. Until The Oval the games seemed to be getting shorter and shorter. Cardiff was a reasonable contest. It was looking quite intriguing on the fourth morning when Moeen Ali struck what transpired to be a mortal blow by dismissing David Warner in the last over before lunch. Australia staggered through to the final session of that fourth day.

England only just survived tea on the fourth day at Lord’s. Australia were polished off in three days at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, and at the former,when Warner fell for 77 with the score on 111 for six it looked as though the game might be over in two days. Continuing that trend The Oval could have turned into a sort of international T20 finals day but Australia suddenly remembered that Test cricket had its attractions and their first day score of 287 for three was almost reminiscent of the 1960s.

A three- two margin makes it sound an exciting series but it really wasn’t . Of course the fact that England won the series at Trent Bridge contributed to this . Oddly enough only once since1894-95 has a five – match Ashes series ended three – two. That was the series in Australia in 1936-37 when England won the first two Tests and Australia won the last three. The difference was, perhaps inevitably, Don Bradman. In the first two Tests he scored 38 and 0 and 0 and 82. In the last three he made 13 and 270 ( going in at number 7 on a “sticky dog”). 26 and 212, and 169.

The crucial game was the fourth at Adelaide. England had gained a first innings lead but were set 372 in the fourth innings. On the fifth evening they were 148 for three with almost everything depending on the great Walter Hammond who was not out overnight. In the first over of the sixth morning Hammond was bowled by the unorthodox left arm spinner ‘Chuck’ Fleetwood – Smith ; Neville Cardus heard the former England wicketkkeeper George Duckworth’s voice behind him in the press box: ” We wouldn’t have got Don first thing in the morning with rubber at stake.” Australia won by 148 runs.

It was not as though there was no good cricket this summer. There was some wonderful cricket, from Steven Smith, Root, Ben Stokes, Mitchell Johnson at Lord’s, James Anderson at Edgbaston. The individual matches were interesting in their own way, not least the sheer preposterousness of the first morning at Trent Bridge. But too often there seemed to be little stomach for the fight and batsmen seemed unwilling or unable to build an innings in the traditional way. And if the Test cricketers of England and Australia cannot do the five- day game justice , what hope is there for its future?

Dan Brown isn’t enough. It’s not sufficient to have a ripping yarn if it’s egregiously told with no scope for the revelation of character or the exploration of context Twenty20 can give you that. For Test cricket you need the real thing : only Raymond Chandler will do.

Bill Ricquier, 24/8/2015

This article was featured in The Sunday Leader: http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2015/08/30/farewell-my-lovely/

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