Fatigue kicks in for tetchy Australia at end of Longest Tour
An exasperated David Gower was caught exclaiming "haven't got a f***ing clue" on air this day, a moment that was not merely amusing but aptly summed up the mood of Australia's Ashes tourists three days into the fifth Test match in seven weeks, at the end of the same English summer that also featured a memorable World Cup.
For all the tension and drama across the preceding four matches, climaxing with Australia's retention of the urn inside the final hour at Old Trafford, no day's play had been quite as tetchy, ill-tempered or frustrated as this one. Stump microphones picked up plenty of snark between the two sides, while Ben Stokes and David Warner exchanged words as they walked off for lunch, and the umpires told Matthew Wade to pipe down.
Senses of hot temper flowed at other times also, as when a Marnus Labuschagne lbw appeal was denied on the basis that a shot had been played, and a terse exchange followed between the fielders and the umpire Kumar Dharmasena about a "precedent" being set for the fourth innings chase that is soon to follow.
Australia's cricket was of a mediocre standard at best, with the notable exceptions of Nathan Lyon's superb delivery to bowl Stokes, spinning sharply from around the wicket; Peter Siddle's two-over burst to end Joe Denly's hopes of a first Test century after a series in which he had faced plenty of tribulations, and Steven Smith's flying snare in the final half an hour to dispose of Chris Woakes off Mitchell Marsh. But for the most part, the tourists struggled to rouse themselves, not least after their own decision-making had dug a major hole in a Test that England should now win.
The visitors' use of DRS was again faulty, twice declining to review not-out decisions where ball-tracking showed three reds - England's bowlers have 21 lbws for the series to Australia's 10 - although there is a sense that, on numerous occasions, not least at the critical moment in Leeds, the umpires might have looked upon the touring side's appeals more kindly. Certainly the contrast between Wade's lbw dismissal on day two, to a sharply swerving ball from Sam Curran, and Denly's survival on day three when Marsh landed the ball between stump and stump, will be the cause of some discussion in the Australian dressing room.
Overall the day was cause for consideration about the scheduling of an Ashes and a World Cup so closely together, something that had not occurred in England since the very first edition of the global tournament in 1975, when it was a far shorter and sweeter affair. Famously, England and Australia had conspired to play back-to-back Ashes series in 2013 and 2013-14 in order to allow the ECB to untangle a cycle where the World Cup was often played after an Ashes tour, only for the roles to be reversed this time.
That bit of scheduling is widely credited with not only helping Australia recover from a 3-0 defeat in England to win 5-0 at home, but also to the disintegration of a previously robust and successful England side led by Andy Flower, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook: the sequence is documented in some detail in the Barney Douglas documentary The Edge.
In that context, the Australian side's achievement in retaining the Ashes, after most of the team's best players had been involved in the rigours of the World Cup campaign for a sum total of more than four months away from home, is raised to a somewhat higher level than might be indicated by a final series scoreline of 2-2. This has been a twin assignment as draining as any ever undertaken by an Australian touring side, with the chance of a deteriorating performance over time always strong.It would be easy, in those conditions and when the game is in the position it was, for a lot of teams to throw in the towel
Tim Paine on Australia's spirit in the field
"Both teams are in the same boat. It's international cricket these days, there's so much and it's a challenge, there's no doubt about that. But it's an ongoing challenge for all sides, particularly England and Australia coming straight out of a World Cup straight into this. It was always going to be challenging, but that's part of the game," Paine said. "Being able to get yourself up mentally and physically is one of the challenges of Test cricket over five days, and five Test matches in seven or eight weeks, it's bloody hard work. If it wasn't, there'd be plenty of people doing it.
"I've been really proud of our bowlers and our fielding late today, they just continue to come in and it's a sign of a pretty good side, I reckon," he added. "It would be easy, in those conditions and when the game is in the position it was, for a lot of teams to throw in the towel, but to see Steve Smith taking a hanger, Marnus running off the rope and taking a great catch, to see our bowlers still steaming in, I think it's a great sign."
The fact that Australia had remained so strong, so focused and so disciplined right up until the moment at which they retained the urn in Manchester has been a credit to the captain Paine, the coach Justin Langer and their support staff, augmented by the mentoring of Ricky Ponting for the World Cup and Steve Waugh for the Ashes. But at the same time, the sequence of questionable decisions and mistakes at The Oval has provided a reminder that scheduling of this kind really should be made sparingly if at all - after all, the initial sparks that flamed up into the Newlands scandal began with fatigue as much as anything else.
Bowling first upon winning the toss has come in for plenty of scrutiny, but it would have worked had Australia either bowled slightly better, held onto all their catches, or both. More egregious was a distracted batting display on day two under a blazing September sun, leaving far too much yet again to Steven Smith, who was battling for once this series with cold and/or flu. Australia should still have been batting in their first innings on day three, something confirmed by much of England's second-innings display.
This is not to say that the Australians failed to keep pushing until the day's closing over; the spirit was shown to be willing to the very end even if the flesh was relatively weak. In the final half an hour, Paine spelled Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins after two and three overs respectively with the second new ball, and was rewarded when their replacements Marsh and Siddle struck in successive overs. Smith's catch to remove Woakes was as good as any his right hand had ever grasped, while Labuschagne's snare at deep square leg to dismiss Jos Buttler was almost as good on a difficult seeing ground.
"The last hour today, our energy was still really good in the field," Paine said. "I think our bowlers have run in every single day we've asked them to. They've done a fantastic job. The only thing that's been a little bit upsetting this Test match is catching and our referrals, but that's not anything new - with our referrals we've had some issues all this series."
Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that the game's administrators see more sense than to concertina a World Cup and an Ashes so close together in the future. Should they repeat this sort of thing, Gower's F-bomb might well be worthy of a re-run.