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Cook takes Ashes urn at The Oval

Clarke’s Australia breathe life into a dead game, but succumb

Cook takes Ashes urn at The Oval - Cricket News
Alastair Cook celebrates with a replica of the Ashes urn after the 3-0 series victory.
An utterly thrilling finish ultimately ended in farce in the fifth Ashes Test at the Oval, after England’s chase of a sporting Michael Clarke declaration was abandoned for bad light as it reached its climactic point. Chasing 227 from 44 overs in the final session, the match was on the brink after an attacking half century from Kevin Pietersen, but with 21 runs required from 24 balls, the umpires had no option but to order the players from the field under the constraints of the ICC’s regulations.

Clarke’s tea-time declaration was made to tempt England into a chase in the hope that Australia could take wickets during the pursuit. Given England’s ultra-defensive Test, few thought it would go for it. But after Joe Root fell early, caught behind off Ryan Harris to give Brad Haddin the world record for wicketkeeper dismissals in a Test series, an unexpectedly positive partnership between Jonathan Trott and Alistair Cook started to make it look possible.

Over 15 overs the two steadily lifted their rate, culminating in a 10-run over from Nathan Lyon and a 12-run over from James Faulkner. But Clarke kept both bowlers on, Faulkner coming back to slant a ball into Cook that struck him in front of middle on 34. Cook’s enquiry to Trott about the advisability a review was met with an adamant negative.

Come the moment, enter the man. Kevin Pietersen is key in any chase, and with England at 86 for 2, 141 runs short with 24 overs to spare, the stage was perfectly set. Any thought he might shy from the spotlight was dismissed the way he dismissed Faulkner, smoking two boundaries from the first over he faced.

A terrible referral after a bat-pad appeal was the first indication Australia were getting rattled, though Clarke retained his attacking fields with three catchers round the bat and most of the field up. But with Pietersen taking three boundaries from Starc’s sixth over, Watson and Faulkner came on to contain and Clarke finally switched to the defensive, with five or six men in the deep.

Faulkner in particular was excellent, showing his canny one-day skills with a variety of change-up deliveries. But Pietersen kept finding ways to score, notching the fastest Ashes half century by an Englishman, 50 from 36 balls.

He fell for 62, the first ball of Ryan Harris’ new spell ending in a fine running catch from David Warner at long on. The next over, with 57 required, the support man in Trott departed for 59 when Faulkner trapped him shuffling across his crease. In the meantime, the two teams had collectively set a new world record for the most runs scored on the final day of a Test match.

From there it was a one-day finish, and a fine one-day player in Chris Woakes came to the crease. Needing a run a ball, he and Ian Bell found regular ones and twos and the occasional four, while the Australians missed a couple of half chances for run outs. The atmosphere around the ground grew more electric with each ball, the crowd screaming every single and booing the Australians for conferring in the field.

Australia finally took a run-out chance in the 40th of 44 overs, with the target into the 20s. Starc produced a brilliant piece of fielding, stopping a scorching Ian Bell drive with his foot, then seizing the ball and hurling down the striker’s stumps before a bewildered Bell could u-turn back into his crease. The feeling inside the ground at that point could not have been more tense, but excitement soon turned to frustration.

The light had been steadily declining for several overs, with the players’ four-way shadows clearly visible under the floodlights, and several fieldsmen struggling to pick up the line of the ball. Under ICC regulations, the umpires have no option but to come off when light drops below a certain point, and as much as Umpires Dar and Dharmasena had resisted looking at their meters, they eventually had to give in. The players were ordered from the field as the crowd looked on incredulous, still buzzing with adrenaline but with the finish to the game taken away.

A scoreline of 4-0 would have been desperately unfair to an Australian team that has been competitive throughout, but such was the pressure of the scoreline that left it desperate for a single win. The finale here had been set up by Australia’s efforts to create a sort of mini-Test on Day 5, with part of three separate innings in the day after one and a half in the previous four.

It was Faulkner who made the biggest contribution early, taking four of England’s remaining six first-innings wickets after his bullish comments the previous day. Bell was out just past the follow-on, giving Faulkner his first Test wicket with a leg-side catch to Haddin. Matt Prior and Graeme Swann frustrated the Australians, with 13 fours and a six between them, Prior making 47 and Swann 34 before Faulkner had Prior caught at mid-on, Anderson edging behind and Swann bowled. Finishing on 377, their highest score for the series, England had whittled the Australian lead down to 115.

Australia unconcernedly lost wickets as it chased quick runs to set up a target. Shane Watson’s successful stint at No. 3 was kept to one innings, making 26 as an opener with David Warner. A sort of slapstick comedy batting order followed, with Faulkner (22 runs) at three followed by Haddin (0), Clarke (28*), Smith (7), Harris (1) and Starc (13*). As at Old Trafford, Clarke was the most composed and least dismissed in the run-gather, declaring at tea on 111/6.

With Australia having to bat longer than they wanted, no-one thought there’d be a result in the final session. It was a sliver of Australian hope versus the likelihood of a pragmatic English draw. Wasn’t it?

As it has turned out so often in this Ashes, presumptions were little use. Had Australia managed to lose, there would have been debate about Clarke’s declaration. But others would have admired the Australian captain’s spirit, and critics of his questioning the umpires about light should remember that it was only his two declarations that made a result possible in the first case.

In a team whose performances can be modest, attacking play is an important driver, and on other days it will reward Australia. For now, bizarrely, they will have to be content with a series in which the scoreline reads like an abject thashing, but the losing team have not been disgraced. Far from it. England, meanwhile, were still left to celebrate among the fireworks with a 3-0 win, and will no doubt be philosophical that their opportunity at a fourth was handed to them. If the world is fair, England should receive plaudits for choosing to attack that opportunity, the ICC should re-examine the light rule, and Clarke and Australia should leave The Oval with reputations enhanced.

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