Friday, December 6, 2013

Pommies being thrashed yet again

It has been a while since an Australian captain has looked as serene during an Ashes Test as Michael Clarke did at the Adelaide Oval. During a period of England domination, the uncomprehending exasperation of Ricky Ponting has been followed by Clarke's lurking fear that his own Ashes story could be debilitated by injury.

Yet here Clarke was, the second day into the second Test, continuing his love affair with this ground with an unflustered century which with every graceful moment stated his intent to become the Australian captain who regained the Ashes. The blissful manner in which he dealt with the England attack, with his vice-captain Brad Haddin offering sterling support, will only quicken the belief in Australia that the balance is shifting irrevocably in their favour.

That sensation also resides in the figure of Mitchell Johnson, only more violently. Nothing England contrived came close to his immediate threat. He sand-blasted Alastair Cook aside with his 10th delivery, every ball above 148kph until the kill was applied, the ball searing past Cook's outside edge to strike off stump.

Michael Carberry and Joe Root stabilised England for the rest of the 20 overs they had to survive, but they were distinctly fortunate to survive some high jinks in the final over. Root's eagerness to see out the day drew him into an inexcusable off-side single which would have run out Carberry had Chris Rogers hit the stumps. Then Australia opted not to review the final ball of the day when replays showed Carberry would have been out lbw. Root had reason to be as relieved as Carberry.

Australia had hammered home their authority by the time they declared 10 overs into the final session. Clarke reached 148 in five and three quarter hours when he became the first Test victim for Ben Stokes, seeking to work him through square leg and chipping a gentle catch to short midwicket off a leading edge.

Clarke's stand with Haddin was worth 200 in 51 overs, a new record for the sixth wicket for any team in Adelaide. Haddin fell for 118 to Stuart Broad in the third over after tea, his fourth Test century reaffirming in aggressive fashion that he has turned the back-to-back Ashes series into one of the most productive periods in his Test career. England had designs upon dismissing Australia, 5 for 273 at the close of the first day, for around 350, only to become increasingly bereft as they gave up another 297 runs in 68 overs. England conceded 12 sixes, five to Haddin, a tally assisted by Adelaide's short square boundaries.

Australia's total was their highest in Ashes cricket since they amassed 674 for 6 declared against England in Cardiff in 2009, a match in which England also combined the spin of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar with little reward. England had fielded two spinners in Australia for the first time for 33 years, but the gamble demanded that they remained in touch in the first innings in the hope of dividends later in the game.

By the time England followed up Clarke's dismissal with more consolatory wickets, a victory to tie the series at 1-1 looked an increasingly unlikely proposition. Mitchell Johnson hoicked Swann's offspin to mid-on and Stokes, occasionally revealing an ability to leave the right-hander off the pitch, had Peter Siddle caught at the wicket. But Ryan Harris deposited Swann for two successive slog sweeps into the members to keep Australian spirits high and after tea became the eighth Australian to pass 50 in a series that is not quite two Tests old. That statistic, above all, should trouble England.

Michael Clarke brought up his sixth Test century at Adelaide, Australia v England, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 2nd day, December 6, 2013
Michael Clarke brought up his sixth Test century at Adelaide at a higher average than even Don Bradman © PA Photos
Clarke's sixth Adelaide hundred in nine Tests, and his 26th of all, was his second in succession, following his century in Brisbane when Australia's domination was assured. This one was a perfectly-constructed affair with the Test in the balance, made all the more noteworthy because of occasional suggestions that first his back and then his ankle were troubling him more than the England attack. When he was dismissed, his average in Adelaide Tests was 104.75, a standard that even The Don - Adelaide's most revered figure - could not quite match.

Virtually everything that could go wrong for England in the morning did as Clarke and Haddin batted through the morning session with commendable enterprise. Stokes missed out on a first Test wicket because of a no-ball and the list of half chances to elude England grew as they failed to press home their hard-won position of equality from the first day. They were in a rush to take wickets with the new ball 10 overs old at start of play, but their threat softened even before the Kookaburra ball did.

England will reflect that the morning might have turned out differently. Clarke's determination to dominate the left-arm spin of Panesar from the outset almost went awry as he skipped down the pitch to his first ball of the morning and spooned it over extra cover, marking his fifty with relief as the ball evaded Stokes. But by the time Panesar was withdrawn after four overs, the mood was set.

England also had a glimmer of a chance to dismiss him when he was 91. Again Clarke's foot movement was ambitious, this time to the offspin of Swann, and his glance thudded through the hands and into the ankle of Ian Bell at backward short leg. A tough catch missed, Bell, and the wicketkeeper Matt Prior, then failed to gather cleanly to pull off a run out as Clarke dived back into his crease and rose with the sense that fortune was favouring the brave.

Haddin was an impressive accomplice, but he, too, had one or two moments which fell his way. James Anderson, with no swing to sustain him, looked listless, but when he produced a good bouncer to Haddin, on 30, the hook shot fell short of Panesar, who reacted cumbersomely at fine leg as the ball sailed out of the unfinished stand. It was barely a catch, although in keeping with the ground works, Panesar also seemed to be wearing concrete boots.

Stokes imagined that his first Test wicket had come in his third over of the day when he produced an excellent delivery to have Haddin, on 51, caught at the wicket. He had already fielded congratulations from his team-mates for his first Test wicket when replays showed he had overstepped.

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