The Ashes: Series sparks into life

ThE Ashes is alive and well and thank goodness for that. Reports of Australia’s demise were exaggerated and a contest is in the making.

Kevin Pietersen, pictured, and Ian Bell produced vital knocks at Old Trafford but England aren't yet assured of avoiding the follow-on. Picture: PA

Lord’s, hopefully, was an aberration, Australia are not as bad as feared and if they have good fortune in the next two days they could well win this Test match. The follow-on is still a possibility as England need another 34 runs and the complacent ideas of a 5-0 whitewash by England can be disregarded. Instead the conversation can move to how the difference of 14 runs at Trent Bridge is proving so crucial.

How has everything turned round so quickly for a side that was in disarray, whose opening bowler James Pattinson bade a tearful exit with a stress fracture and was suffering a rift in the dressing room as wide as the Grand Canyon?

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Psychologists would love to investigate and find theories to fill a million textbooks but the truth may be simpler. Ten days off, some soul searching, no doubt plenty of honest talking and then win the toss on a good pitch and bat for over five sessions. That is all Australia have done and they look a different side for it. Indeed they look a good side and one that could easily test England for the next six months both home and away.

The lead, as it so often needs to, came from the captain. Michael Clarke’s 187 set the tone for his team as it took the best part of seven hours. Slowly, assuredly and with great elegance he gave Australia the dominance an imposing score provides. The pitch has been good throughout but after two long days in the field under a hot sun and with a large deficit to eradicate batters can wilt.

It started on Friday evening with Joe Root and Tim Bresnan dismissed but it was yesterday that the gnarled, competitive Australia showed itself.

They bowled the most disciplined lines, gave absolutely nothing away in the field and demanded England work and exert above and beyond the call of duty for every single run. It was aggression disguised as attrition and it was splendidly executed. The run-rate hovered around the 2.5-per-over mark as Clarke elected to try and frustrate England out. Many believe that aggression has to be gung-ho and swashbuckling; Sun-Tzu, the military philosopher, would disagree and it would have been so much better if Australia’s use of the DRS review system had improved.

The major partnership of 115 for England was between Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell and yet television replays showed both received very lucky reprieves. Bell was particularly fortunate as a forward prod against Mitchell Starc elicited a hugely enthusiastic appeal from the wicket-keeper, Brad Haddin, but little support from the bowler and laughing bemusement from both Shane Watson and Clarke in the slips.

Replays showed the tiniest of feathered edges, albeit one that Hotspot did not show. However, if it had been reviewed the image of the ball hitting the edge and then the ball’s rotation changing immediately afterwards may well have been enough for the third umpire to overrule his on-field counterpart. Then again, considering the controversy that the DRS system has created thus far in the series and this match with the Usman Khawaja fiasco, it is impossible to logically extrapolate what decision would have been given.

Bell’s innings was in its infancy and if it had been a dismissal would have left England five wickets down before lunch and struggling. He is in the best form of his career so an extra life just means more suffering for the bowlers and he completed another aesthetically pleasing half-century before the persistent Ryan Harris hit the top of his off-stump with the new ball.

Pietersen’s was less obvious and he did have 62 at the time. He skipped down the wicket, or appeared to, but was defeated as the ball nipped in and hit him below the knee-roll. It looked lbw and Watson, the bowler, appealed vociferously. He garnered little support from both Haddin and Clarke behind the wicket but replays showed it out regardless of the on-field umpire’s decision.

It is understandable that Australia’s previous ineptitude with the review system – only two successful appeals from 15 – would leave them cautious but they really need to develop a strong policy of use and possibly study and analyse what types of decisions and dismissals are most frequently successful. Pietersen made good use of his fortune and reached his 23rd Test century with a wonderful upper cut. It was an innings that mixed imperiousness with frustrated caution. One pull shot off Starc was as dismissive as a batsman could ever be to a proper bowler but there were also periods of introspection.

Partly this was due to Australia’s tactics of thwarting runs but also Pietersen’s appreciation of England’s parlous situation. His assault on Nathan Lyon was wonderful to watch, successive sixes into the stands thrilling the crowd, but was also indicative of how seriously Pietersen considered him a threat. With another maximum from Bell it seemed England were deliberately targeting him to get him out of the attack as he had looked threatening the evening before. Bold but calculated and reliant on exact execution.

It was compelling viewing but Lyon was not cowed. He could have taken a wicket but Clarke decided to remove him and protect runs instead of offering Pietersen the continued challenge of hitting boundaries. It did slow the run-rate appreciably but should not be seen as a judgment on Lyon, who bowled very well. Ultimately it worked as many overs later when Pietersen was out, lbw to Starc, the follow-on was still 48 runs away and Australia had fought hard to eke every advantage in the game.

With the pitch playing well it was a notable effort. Their only concern must be the time it has taken. Is there enough cricket left in two days to force a win? Quite possibly, and Australia are in charge – which considering the shambles they were at Lord’s could be seen as a triumph on its own.