There’s something to be said for Test matches like these, when the terms are so clear.
Everyone knows the Ashes are beyond England’s reach. Australia have them safely tucked away, already packed in their cases for when they board their return flight home after three months on these shores.
Even at 10am on this first morning of the match, the Bee Hive pub – a Moeen Ali flicked six away from the Kia Oval – was rammed with punters spilling out into the streets. All to be expected on a Test-match Thursday. Routines are routines, and each of us has our own. Right down to whether you choose to get out at Vauxhall or Oval Tube Station.
It was also clear this was going to be a different fifth Ashes Test to 2019’s version. That also began with Australia 2-1 up, but the backdrop was far less invigorating – subdued, almost, given the limp manner in which England had surrendered their Ashes hopes at Old Trafford after the high of Stokes’ Headingley heroics.
This one, however, was going to be different. The tourists had a wrong to right by winning a series here outright for the first time since 2001. England’s motivation to triumph was geared towards boasting of a superiority on points, depending on which of the judge’s scorecards you wanted to believe the most. Even after a physically and emotionally taxing six weeks, both groups have spent the days between Tests talking up their respective aims. At the very least, this was an opportunity to go at each other one last time (one last time ever, in the cases of the senior core of both teams) and be done with it.
Yet, arriving here on Thursday morning, there was a whiff of uncertainty about the place. The skies were overcast, yet the sun burned bright enough to shine through and let us know it was here. Wednesday’s rains now hung in the air, creating a humidity you only appreciated when the chilled winds picked up. Pat Cummins, despite suggestions from team-mate Marnus Labuschagne to call heads this time, was finally rewarded for five calls of tails with a first toss win of the series.
Given the conditions, there were no qualms about asking England to bat first. And, as ever when such a call is made, to be batting by the end of day one, on 61 for 1 after 25 overs, vindicated Cummins. A straightforward decision had produced the desired result. Australia thought they had a decent day.
Typically, so did England. But for the actual scoreline, it would be hard to gauge who is ahead in this “well, actually” of an Ashes series. And as their first innings of 283 all out from 54.4 overs swirled around with ice in their glasses at the end of the day, their appraisal – certainly that of top-scorer Harry Brook – seemed sincere.
“We were all talking about 250 being a decent score at lunchtime and got 33 more than that,” Brook said, after top-scoring with 85 from 91 deliveries. “We were happy with the way we scored our runs.”
As were those in the stands, for the most part. The runs came at 5.17 an over, the 12th time an entire England innings has come at a pace in excess of five since Ben Stokes filled this old car with his rocket fuel and Brendon McCullum kick-started it with a flick of his cigar. Only one other team – Bangladesh against Afghanistan last month – has done similar in that period.
The 11th, last week in Manchester, was the most spectacular. The trio of Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood were taken for hundreds each as England peeled off 592 in their only innings of the rained-off fourth Test. But with the elements in their favour this time, the same three recalibrated their lines, pulled back their lengths – but not by too much – and asserted control. And yet there were still moments when they were put on the racks.
How you reflect on those moments is based entirely on your own opinions of England’s approach to batting in this era. Much like the viral phenomenon of whether the dress that is black and blue, or white and gold, Bazball is either the reason they made it to what looks a decent score on a tough wicket, or why they spurned the chance for a hundred more runs.
They made hay early on, Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett strumming to 52 after 10 overs – only the second time England had reached that stage without losing a wicket, for their highest score, no less. Having made it to 62 for 0, three wickets fell for 11 in 22 deliveries, before a further stand of 111 off just 18 overs between Brook and Moeen Ali, whose untimely groin injury persuaded him it was time to “tee off”. Then came the second collapse of 4 for 28, before Chris Woakes and Mark Wood, the heroes of the Headingley chase, reunited for 49.
Pick your fruits or poison among all that. There were stunning boundaries, whether it was Duckett charging Hazlewood and almost flaying him through Crawley’s shins, Brook’s flipped six off Hazlewood in the penultimate over before lunch, or a lame Moeen lifting Cummins over square leg, struck sweetly off the middle of a bat that had earlier been used as a walking stick for a “quick” single.
But among the good passages seemingly relinquished – notably 184 for 3, and Brook’s chasing of a wide Starc delivery when looking nailed on for a first century of the series – were other incidents for Australia to rue. Duckett was dropped on 30, Brook on five, who then benefitted from a wayward throw from Cummins which should have run the Yorkshireman out on 50. There were edges through gaps, balls passing just past stumps as batters gave themselves room to thrill. And by stumps, the match was in a very familiar position of not quite knowing who was the more correct of the two teams, but knowing this argument of philosophies had chalked up another thrilling day’s play.
It’s worth looking at the scorecard of this corresponding Test in 2019 for some contrast rather than context. England were inserted in similar climes and eked out 294 from 87.1 overs. They are in broadly the same position in the match, yet with more to lament given how they had things their own way. But you always have to remember, this approach is taken with the view that – had they opted for survival, with straight bats down the line of the ball – they probably would not have made it to a competitive score in the first place.
As ever with this England team over the last month, winning this match will dictate they were right. And losing it might, too.
If 2019’s Oval Test had an end-of-term feel, this was very much the Last Night of the Proms. A few classics from the last months, and still some familiar hits to come from what has been a show-stopping series.
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