The Oval Test: 12-16th September 2019
DAY 1: Chasing the Game Again
Here we are at end of a tumultuous season. After the miracle of Headingley we were brought back to earth at Old Trafford. Smith is an immovable brick wall, batting as serenely as I have ever seen anyone, in a time zone of his own, where nothing is missed and a sixth sense that tells him exactly what the bowler will offer him. I hate his jerky movements and the ridiculous swishing of his exaggerated leaves but there is no doubt that we are watching one of the greats. To say that he has made the difference is to overlook the bowling of Cummins and Hazelwood who have given nothing away and have bowled with consistent accuracy that our bowlers, Broad excepted, may be, just have not got near.
On the other hand, what a great game Test cricket is! Headingley was special. Lucky Midnight to be there: I only watched on the tele. But Old Trafford, too, even though it was a foregone conclusion, gripped us to the end, every ball that Everyman’s new hero, Leach, blocked gave hope that another miracle like Monty and Jimmy at Cardiff might happen. Wouldn’t that have stuffed the Aussies? But lightening doesn’t strike twice and the Ashes stay with the Convicts. But win here and we save the series. The sun is shining and, weirdly for the second week in September, the forecast is good for the next five days. Bring it on. What’s not to like?
I arrived in London yesterday evening, hot foot from Taunton, where there is, of course, another game going on of great significance. We racked up a lead of 350 over Yorkshire and still have 5 wickets and two days to polish them off. No weather problems there either so we should win this one. Through the day, eyes were also on the game at Edgbaston where Warwickshire ended their 1st innings on a massive 517 and Cookie is already out. Surely Essex will be lucky to get even a draw. Somerset could be 15 points ahead of Essex with two games to play. Our last game is at home to them. That should be a humdinger. There is the small matter of Labour Party Conference at Brighton which coincides but I have made it clear to the comrades that Somerset winning the Championship takes precedence over Jezza’s closing speech.
But back to England … Jason Roy’s Test career has proved one thing: he’s not good enough - hard hands, bat miles from his body. Each innings is an accident waiting to happen. So no surprise that he’s dropped and that’s probably it for him and red ball cricket for England. Gone too is Overton. He shone with the bat, him and Leachy doing Somerset proud, but he’s in the side for his bowling and frankly that didn’t threaten very much. Shame. Whether Woakes and Sam Curran will make much difference we’ll know at the end of the game.
In the event there was some cloud in the morning so, winning the toss, it seemed right that Paine should put us in. Young Symon and Young Ian who were with me at Taunton yesterday were already in situ in our seats in the OCS stand. We were joined soon after by Michael Evans. Oh, the Oval! That hum round the ground. Where else in the world would you want to be?
But England’s openers give you no confidence. It’s like waiting for the inevitable car crash. So it was. Burns took his contorted guard, looking, as a Guardian writer memorably put it, like a broken slinky. Somehow he manages to spring upright as the ball is delivered and bring his bat down solidly on the ball. I suppose there is some reassurance there. But Denly? With two 50’s he’s done better than I’d expected but he never gives me the impression that he really believes that he belongs out there. There was a nice drive or two but with the score on 27 he checked a drive too late and a thick edge went to Smith who should have taken an easy catch but juggled it and in the end took it on his knees at the third attempt.
Amazingly, in the whole of this series and on both sides 27 is the highest opening partnership. What does that tell us about the influence of white ball cricket? The game for an opener is not to hit everything that comes your way. On the whole, ODIs and T20 have had a massive influence for the good. Stokes’s innings at Headingley would not have happened without his one day experience. But our 7 year search for an opener since Strauss retired tells us that one position that has been affected adversely is the opener. Burns is a find because he is not bothered about leathering it out of the ground and bats like an opener. He’s not in the one day side!
The pitch wasn’t doing too much but Root had a charmed life. He smacked Cummins for the easiest of chances to Siddle at deep cover but the ball went straight through his hands. What a cheer Siddle got when he moved to field down by us! Not long after that he feathered one in front first slip’s face only for Paine to dive for it and miss. Australia then gave him another life when he was dropped by Smith! Where did all this sympathy for poor old Root come from?
At 103-1 it looked as if it hadn’t been a bad toss to lose. Even with the loss of Burns and Stokes 169-3 at tea was OK. For us Somerset lads the excellent news was that we thrashed Yorkshire by 298 runs to head the table. Essex are clearly batting for a draw at Edgbaston. We reckon that when that game ends tomorrow we’ll be at least 6 points clear.
After tea, with a degree of inevitably, England’s wheels came off. The agent of destruction was the self-proclaimed most hated man in Australia, Mitchell Marsh, who was replacing the less than impressive Starc. He swung them in from the Vauxhaul end. Bairstow’s brief belligerence was ended by an lbw. Curran smacked it around in his usual fashion but was never going to last and Woakes was soon lbw to a yorker. 4 wickets in 16 overs was a good return for the burly Aussie seamer.
Somehow, as we have been for most of the series, we were always chasing the game. But we did have an hour of fun at the end when Buttler and Leach, Somerset heroes, entertained us with a partnership of nearly 50. Leach crouches as the bowler comes in waggling his bat but then takes a step across his off-stump and seems always to be in a position to block. While Buttler slogged elegant sixes from one end, Leach held up the other, cheered each time he blocked, and even took singles to take the batting at the start of the next over.
They were still there at stumps, having fended off a couple of overs from the new ball. 281-8 is not good but without these two it could have been a lot worse. Can they get us 300 tomorrow?
Lyon only bowled four overs! What was that all about? The return of Marsh, may be.
DAY 2: Wow! We’re in the lead!
Irish is blogging that he dreamt in the night that Warner’s six for his double ton will land in his pint. Dream on! My dream is that Broad, coming over the wicket, will get him in his first over.
When I got to my seat in the Peter May there were eight of us, Irish Pete, James and Darryl and a bunch of finance types that they work with. James’s and Darryl’s membership cards mean that we can buy beer in the members for £4.20, £1.50 less that anywhere else on the ground. James reckons that over the season the cheap beer more or less pays for his season ticket. In that bar there’s a little sign with the bar prices for 1999. Beer was 20p a pint! Really! I can’t believe that. 21 times cheaper than today’s?
We didn’t make 300. Buttler, going for an expansive drive, head in the air, played on. Leach went soon after and we ended on 294.
In the event, Irish’s dream was only a nightmare. Mine was more accurate. It wasn’t Broad first over that got Warner because he took a single off him to get out of the way. It was Archer’s. The little cheat feathered a catch to Bairstow and was a wonderful sight as he trudged off, head down, dragging his bat. What a delightfully dreadful series he has had.
Harris didn’t last long either but it only felt as if the hors d’oeuvres was over. Smith and Labuschagne are the mains. Labuschagne is a bigger man in the flesh than I had imagined. He played beautifully, at least five drives right out of the meat. Smith almost looked mortal early on, playing and missing and on one occasion, surprised by the pace of Archer, ballooned one to short-leg, though there was no-one there to take it. How annoying he is to watch, leaving with his ridiculous swats and doing stupid little jigs. In some other world he has a career in pantomime. Labuschagne is catching the disease as he has started to swipe his bat down when he leaves.
Australia went in to lunch on 55-2. We were happy with that. Happy too, was I, to see that at Edgbaston, Essex were following on.
After lunch we seemed to be watching the inevitable. Labuschagne was smacking it sweetly and Smith was now as secure as ever. Then Archer got Labuschagne full on the pads. There was a brief conference with Smith and a review but he was plumb. He left on 48 blowing bubbles with his gum and Australia were 83-3. The game had turned and for the first time Australia were chasing it. Archer was superb, fast and hostile from the pavilion end. His main ally was Curran who races in as if there a train to catch and bowls his heart out. We don’t have sight of a speed gun but he doesn’t get much above 80 mph, does he? Still, he troubled the batsman. Wade went lbw to him and from then on there was a steady progression of Australian wickets.
When Smith’s there, though, there are always troubling thoughts. Siddle joined him on 166-7 and memories went back to that first day at Edgbaston when 122-8 moved on to 210-9. That could easily happen here. Not as far as Woakes, who had a quiet game, was concerned. Finally, finally he got him: lbw for 80. He walked off, still being booed off the ground – I don’t join in but I can’t say that I mind.
By now news arrived of the draw at Edgbaston between Essex and Warwickshire. Somerset are 8 points clear at the top with two to play, the last being at home to Essex. What a game that will be.
The inevitable happened here too. Broad hardly had a bowl all afternoon and Root stuck with Curran and Archer. We thought he was bowling poor Jofra into the ground. He was striving for his 5-for but it wouldn’t happen. We were shaking our heads when Root gave him the ball for his 23rd over! ‘Not another one!’ But Root knows. Ball one uprooted Lyon’s middle stump. Yay! Siddle fell to the fifth. Australia are all out for 225 trailing England by 69 runs. For the more or less the first time in this series we are in the driving seat.
There was the little matter of 4 overs for Burns and Denly to survive. Cummins was vicious to Burns, serving him a battery of short balls, one of which hit him on the grill and caused a slight delay for a concussion check. There was drama yet to come. Denly edged Hazelwood to gully for an easy chance which Harris spilled, smashing the ground with his fist in anger. A single off that delivery brought Burns back on strike. On the last ball of the day Dharmasena raised his finger for lbw. Oh, no! They reviewed and Burns survived. 9-0 and all to play for tomorrow.
DAY 3: Heading for a win?
The cricket, in glorious sunshine all day, was good and England are on top. Howard was waiting outside as planned. Katie, who I very much like, was in situ and Irish, tousled haired as usual, bustled in with a bag of pies and sausage rolls. James was there, of course, with another group of his work mates. So too were Darryl, his fiancé, Jane, and his charming gentle father, Gil. There were about 10 of us. We were up in the Peter May Gardens which are right at the top of the Peter May stand with a glorious view, a little bar of its own and a very pleasant standing area. The proximity of the bar had its dangers because it meant that there was a constant stream of pints, often unsolicited, coming our way. In the end I consumed more than I wanted.
It was a day of toil in the heat for the Aussie bowlers. First of all there was a 50 stand, at last. Burns went soon after and hapless Root didn’t stay long. But Denly was coasted along nicely and Stokes was aggressive. They posted a hundred partnership. Stokes departed for a good 67 when the score was 214. A lead of nearly 300 was reassuring. Denly was untroubled and how we wanted him to get his ton. That really would consolidate his place next to Burns as our opener. Sadly it was not to be. Smith cartwheeled at slip when he was 94 and took a humming catch.
I suppose it was typical England that by the end of the day 214-2 ended up as 313-8. Buttler, gracefully smacking 47, was the highlight. Let’s face it, even with Leach and Archer there and only Broad to come a 400 lead beckons. That ought to be reassuring but there is, of course, Smith to factor in. Get him out and it will be job done, you’d think, but as long as he’s there any score is doable. That will be the narrative for Day 4.
Howard, James, Peter and I had a pint in a pub after the game. Who should be standing outside but Posh Margaret, though why she’s called posh I’m not quite sure because she doesn’t seem posh at all.
We then met up with Lisa, Howard’s Chinese partner, for dinner 24 The Oval, which is conveniently just across the road from my place. She greeted me with a big hug and immediately commented how slim I looked. I should be complimented by that but she delivers it as a kind medical report so it almost seems offensive. I sat opposite her at the meal. She lectured me on how Jamie, my son, should get a TEFL job in China and meet a nice Chinese girl - they know how to look after their man, apparently. Then I asked her about Brexit, knowing that she's a Brexiter. Basically she's a racist. This was already apparent earlier when I asked her about her son who is with a half Jamaican girl who has just had a baby. I knew from what Howard had told me that her ex-husband had been so against the relationship that he'd cut himself of from their son. Lisa confided to me that she was very relieved when she saw that the baby had straight hair. The Brexit debate was an anti-immigrant spiel along the lines of they are taking all the jobs. I pointed out that she was an immigrant. She said that she had had to apply properly. I asked what difference that made. She got very furious and used 'fuck' a lot! Woah! James, a good lad, was half joining in at the side, Howard was grinning and Irish was beginning to get constitutional. There was a notable absence of dialogue. Later, I established that she likes Johnson and thinks that if Farage were prime minister he'd sort the country out. I don’t meet many people like her in my little ‘reminder’ (as she calls it) bubble.
At the end of it all, I was tired, had drunk too much and was very glad that my hotel was just across the road. Irish, by the way, thought that the food was crap.
DAY 4: Winning Ways
This morning I can still feel yesterday’s alcohol! Still today, it's just Irish and me which will be much more controllable.
It was another glorious day of sunshine yesterday but as we were sitting on the other side of the ground, we were in the shade for much of the day which was more comfortable and less of a strain on the eyes as we weren't staring into the sun all afternoon.
We didn’t quite get to 300 but a couple of hefty sixes from Broad got us pretty close. Take out the Smith factor and a win looks nailed on. But there is always Smith!
Tom had messaged me in the morning to say that he and Tractor were here and did I have a spare ticket for his brother, Rob? So happened I did. Unfortunately I was delivering him his ticket at the Hobbs Gate when a roar went up. Broad v Warner? Nope: Harris b Broad – 18-1. But it wasn’t long before the inevitable happened. Warner edged Broad to Burns for 11, his second highest score of the series. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
So, those two out of the way it was down to the serious business of prising apart Labuschagne and Smith. Labuschagne hit one of his crisply smacked cover drives but he didn’t entertain us much longer. Leach from the Pavilion end drifted one in, Labuschagne missed, Bairstow whipped off the bails and the replay showed his back foot hanging in the air as the bails come off.
68-3 at lunch. Labuschagne out and the job was half done.
Tom and Tractor were living it high in a corporate box but kindly agreed to meet us outside the Feathers at lunch and tea. All thoroughly enjoyable.
Not long after lunch Broad bowled an unplayable ball to Smith. It pitched outside off and spat up off the seam. Smith for once was hurried, taken in by the bounce, and edged it to Stokes who took a screamer diving to his left. For the second time in the match Smith was well and truly out. 85-4 it was surely only a matter of time.
Wade, however, kept them interested in a good partnership with Marsh and a reasonable one with Paine. It looked as if it might go into Day 5 so I got myself a ticket just in case.
There was a great duel between Wade and Archer, plenty of verbals with Archer eyeballing Wade on his follow through. Root put himself on and Wade repeatedly danced down the wicket and smacked it. In the end, having got his ton, he did it once too often, missed and was well down the track when Bairstow took the bails off. 260-8, there wasn’t long to go. Sadly, an urgent call of nature meant I missed Leach mopping up Lyon and Hazelwood in successive balls.
So, Australia still haven’t won a series in England since 2001. Archer was man of the match for the damage he did in the 1st innings, even though he was wicketless in the 2nd. It could easily have gone to Denly. Smith, of course, and Stokes, of course, were the men of the series.
See you in New Zealand...