Fourth day at the Oval – and England win the Ashes!

It’s been a long hard day trying to keep tabs on the fifth test.

After the first two wickets early in the morning, I had hoped that the end would come fairly quickly. As it went, the Australians dug in, especially Michael Hussey who took a well-earned century.

The wicket seemed to have become more solid, and it took run-outs to start to really take the toll on Australia, with Ponting and then M Clarke stretching just a little too far.

After that, it really was a matter of time, and yet that time dragged on. I have spent the last two hours flicking between the Fulham v Chelsea game and the cricket, and managing to miss the best action in both. Harmison, who had been neglected in the test so far, was the bowler who took some vital wickets, and along with Swann they finally broke the lower order down.

Flintoff and Cook were in the right place for some important catches, and in the end the Australians just could not reach the total.

A superb end to a tight series, and of course I’m happy to see England win back the Ashes. The Aussies put up a strong challenge, and at times in the last 24 hours it really did look like they could mount a record-breaking fourth innings challenge.

Third day at the Oval

I’m having a good weekend so far, hacking away at the overgrown bushes in the back garden while listening to TMS. England did, as I’d hoped, steady their play under Strauss and Trott, with a further 99 runs on the board before the captain succumbed. Trott ended up with a century, and stayed out until the end. Flintoff’s last test innings at the crease was short but exciting, as he got 22 from 18 balls.

Australia are now in and have just over two days to get 546 to win (or somehow stay in that long over a dry period to drag out a draw). Either way, it’s a massive task. However, England do need to take the full ten wickets.

And Stuart Broad has just taken the ball.

Second day at the Oval

And what a day!

Perhaps 307-8 was not that bad a first day’s total after all? At lunchtime, it didn’t look too good, with Australia on 61-0 after an England innings of 332. While the England attack had been on target (with the odd LBW decision not given) and fairly frugal, Watson and Katich were looking fairly solid.

A spot of rain to give an extended break and a shortened afternoon session, and suddenly everything changed. First Broad and then Swann came in to bowl, and each of them took a wicket in their first over, followed by more in quick succession.

Broad’s first four wickets fell in his first five overs at the crease, and for under 20 runs, which was phenomenal. It took him only four more overs (at a cost of 5 runs) to get his five-for.

Swann came in during this period, and got a wicket in each of his first two overs, followed by two over the next five overs, again for around 20 runs.

By tea, the Aussies had lost 8 wickets and had added only 72 runs in the session and just avoided a possible follow-on. Siddle held out for a while at the end, but by the time Flintoff took the last wicket, the Aussies were in serious trouble.

England’s second innings has not, however, started too well. Cook, Bell and Collingwood all fell cheaply, leaving England on 58/3. However, Strauss and Trott are the night watchmen, and hopefully they can calm things down tomorrow.

With the way that the pitch is crumbling, it may not need much of a cushion for England to get a win, but it would be good if they could get a solid 200-250 runs to put the game well beyond Australia’s reach.

And unlike four years ago, we don’t want any rain!

England can’t get the habit, then

After the Second Test at Lord’s, I stupidly asked if England could continue to do well in the Ashes Series. The rain-soaked draw at Edgbaston had looked like a good game for the home side, apart from letting the Aussies take control of the bat on the last day.

But the Fourth Test at Headingly was a disaster. None of the top six batsmen could beat 37 runs in an innings, with Prior and Cook was the only consistent men at the crease (and then they only averaged 30 runs an innings). It was bad enough to see England all out for 102 by tea on the first day, but then to see them let Australia get to 445 on essentially the same wicket was galling. All the momentum of the previous two games had gone, and the visitors had the game firmly under control.

There seems to be a campaign to bring Mark Ramprakash in for the last test, and to champion some of the younger players for a slot, but I think both would be a mistake. The team itself has to pull together, and bringing in new players to the squad could be risky. I’m also disappointed at the suggestion that the absence of Flintoff is a major factor. It should not be that important in a team game. He has been patchy with both bat and ball so far in the series, and clearly his injury problems have been affecting him. He’s been declared fit for the last test at the Oval, and hopefully he will return in strength. But England has a problem – if they can’t cope without Flintoff, what will they do after this Series when he retires from Test cricket?

The problem with reliance on a key player is that if they are off their game or can’t play, the rest of the team is rudderless. I was concerned last season when Fulham seemed to be over reliant on Jimmy Bullard. The game I saw before he left was away at West Bromwich Albion, and he did not do well. Fulham lost 1-0. When he was sold to Hull City, it seems to have actually improved the way that the rest of the team played, and also allowed other midfielders like Clint Dempsey and Dickson Etuhu to develop.

Yes, if you have a good player, you do need to use them where you can, and to try and capitalise on their abilities. But it’s dangerous to rely on them too much, because they won’t be there forever, and even when they are, they may even end up being counter-productive.

Dampened Ashes

Not sure what to make of the third test at Edgbaston. The rain seemed to catch the ground staff by surprise (because it’s never rained in Brum before…), but in the first day and a bit England made a good start. Australia had a good first session in the short amount of play on day one, but came out to face the destructive Onions in the first over of the second day. Anderson took a 5-for to restrict the Aussies to 263, and England got a chance with the bat.

The rain on Saturday washed out the whole day’s play, and so fast play would be needed to get a result. England obliged on Sunday with a fairly quick surge between the 200-mark and the end of the innings, to put on a lead of 113.

So, all England needed to do was to get Australia out for a couple of hundred and bat their way to a win. However, North and Clarke saved the match with solid batting, and the England bowling just could not get the wickets.

So, the series remains at 1-0 to England, with two Tests to go. Headingly starts this week, and I can imagine that quite a few players are going to need a rest this week. Flintoff did not have a great game as a bowler, although his 74 at the crease did help make the England innings what it was. It seems that the selectors are bringing new blood in, which does make sense. Of course, every ground has a different type or play, and the weather was a huge factor – a day and a half’s play was lost, and that could have left time for a full set of innings.

Could it be habit forming?

Today, for the first time in 75 years, England completed a win over Australia in a Lord’s Test. Flintoff, who has already announced he will retire from Test cricket after this Ashes Series, will be the big hero, with five wickets in the last innings, but there was more to it than that.

A superb opening partnership between Strauss and Cook on the first day meant that the Aussies were always on the back foot, and an unusually potent last stand from Anderson and Onions rounded off a good opening innings.When the Australians came in to bat, it was Anderson and Onions who did most to take wickets from them.

The captain took the brave decisions not to enforce the follow on and then to declare on 311-6 on Sunday morning. Those appear to have been vindicated when wickets started to tumble early on in Australia’s second innings.

All credit to Clarke and Haddin, who caused a few English jitters late yesterday by holding out for hours and getting a century and a fifty respectively. But they could not rescue a team chasing 522, and this morning Flintoff and Swann took the wickets needed.

After a tenacious (and gamesmanship-fuelled) draw in Cardiff, England are looking strong to regain the Ashes. The 2005 Series was an unexpected victory against a superb side after 16 years of failure. The 2006/7 tour series was a drubbing by Australia, restoring their pride and severely denting ours. However, since then England have been playing better cricket and Australia have lost some of their top players. If England can win the series, they will prove that 2005 was not a flash-in-the pan. What’s more, it’ll knock some arrogant Aussies down a peg or two, which is always good for a laugh.