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England grinds away on day of attrition

Time against Australia as England ends Day 3 on 247/4, still 245 runs behind
A day of grimly determined batting on The Oval’s placid pitch had Australia’s hopes of a belated Ashes win ground out as thoroughly as a cigarette butt in bushfire season, as England slow-burned its way to 247 for 4 on day three in response to Australia’s declaration on 492 for 9. If the rain forecast for day four arrives on cue, any hope of reviving the spark will be firmly extinguished, along with the opportunity to further labour any combustion-based metaphors.
Before this match, Alistair Cook had spoken of his team’s need to become ruthless, and their “desperate” desire to win 4-0. After day two, David Saker, their bowling coach, was adamant to the point of irritation that of course England was still out to win this Test. All that was made to look rather foolish in the morning, as Cook and Joe Root set the tone for an innings that made a funeral march look like a Carnivale parade.
England added just 65 runs to lunch, Cook’s crawl to 25 from 88 balls taking him halfway there. Having just survived an lbw review, uncertainty outside off stump cost Cook once again when he nicked behind from Ryan Harris. Australia, though, lacked penetration. Mitchell Starc’s inaccuracy continued from the previous day, consistently giving away runs on the pads. Harris also looked to be feeling the wear of his unprecedented four-Test streak. James Faulkner was tidy without being threatening. With no seam movement at all, Nathan Lyon posed the most danger with a touch of turn.
Whether the bowlers or pitch were more to blame, or the discipline of the batting to be credited, Australia could never get a run on. England’s first partnership spanned 31 overs, Root and Jonathan Trott batted out 22, Trott and Kevin Pietersen 26, Pietersen and Ian Bell 20, while Bell and Chris Woakes finished the day unbeaten having faced 15.
The second session had the most intrigue, with Root’s dismissal for 68, gloving a sweep from Lyon to Shane Watson behind square, setting up an interesting battle between Lyon and Pietersen. Pietersen looked ungainly against the spin, with Lyon causing all sorts of problems bowling over the wicket, including two in quick succession that were edged barely wide of Steve Smith at short leg.
Pietersen battled through, but in the shadow of the tea break, Trott was pinned lbw in front of leg stump by Starc, his challenge of the decision struck down. Eighty-four runs had been added that session, and as haze drifted across the ground and flat grey skies glowered above, the crowd were reduced to jeering singles, with no England batsman having raised his strike rate past the 30s.
Pietersen, as ever, provided the only entertainment. Australia cost its second review by a Peter Siddle delivery that was going on to firmly hit off stump, but struck Pietersen’s pad marginally outside the line of off. Siddle beat the bat shortly afterward, apparently by sheer force of personality, and then Pietersen raised his 50 with a bottom-edged pull off Faulkner that bounced just past his stumps and away to fine leg. It was an appropriately ordinary shot for the day.
That was as far as Pietersen got. Six scoreless balls later, he flashed at a wide yorker from Starc and somehow squeezed it to slip. There were brief and terrifying flickers of the endless Trent Bridge discussion, with the Australians having burned both reviews and the umpire looking like he would give it not out, but an umpire review to check the bump ball was invoked, and Pietersen was on his way, having once more played an important part in thwarting the opposition.
When Woakes drove his first ball square with a flourish for four, the wildest ovation came from the Australian fans, who positively rejoiced. Just briefly, Woakes had a strike rate of 400, an immensely refreshing tonic to those consulting the scorecard. There was also something to cheer about towards the dying stages, with the crowd turning most of their attention to the far more exciting and equally nebulous contest of beer snakes, and Bell and Woakes essaying a couple of nice shots, culminating in a scintillating run of four boundaries in seven overs.
From there though, they settled back into their attritional mode on the way to stumps, batting out the last nine overs for six runs, grimly opposing the Australian salient like the 10th Royal Hussars. It was up to the allegiances of the individual to decide whether England had played as consummate professionals or selfish dullards.
While it was no great advertisement of Test cricket to new audiences, perhaps it was a great vindication of its traditions for the longer-standing (or, in some cases, still-standing) devotees pining for the days of Bill Lawry and Geoff Boycott. The latter was apparently a lone presence in the Test Match Special box, booming down the airwaves without respite every time an unfortunate soul clicked the dial.
Boycott is the only man in the world who is medically incapable of being bored to death by virtue of his own naturally occurring antibodies. A grinding England innings at two runs an over to reach a rain delay and avoid any chance of defeat in a series it has already wrapped up? While his colleagues in commentary apparently expired around him, this was exactly the sort of day’s cricket that Sir Geoffrey would have loved.

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