Melbourne delivers sunshine and the Ashes

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  • Melbourne delivers sunshine and the Ashes
    29.12.2010 09:36

    Australia’s total of 98 all out in their first innings of the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne ranks among the lowest Ashes scores.

    Aside from some highly questionable shot selection, was there any outside influence to explain the parade of fallen wickets?

    The finger of blame is often pointed at the weather. It seems to have had little direct influence in this instance on the failure of Australia’s batsmen to rack up a competitive total, although they did have the bad luck of losing the toss for a match where the pre-match consensus was that there was some advantage to be gained by fielding first.

    The pitches at the MCG are of the “drop-in” variety, meaning that they are cultivated away from the playing field and inserted according to necessity. The wet spring and early summer in Victoria means that the wickets this season have been initially rather green, meaning that they have been even more likely than usual to aid the bowlers early in the match.

    Events on the first day would seem to confirm that prognosis. The ball was not swinging extravagantly even given the cloudy skies under which Australia batted; nor was it especially humid. In fact, it was rather chilly for a summer day in Melbourne.

    However, England’s bowlers proved adept at extracting just enough movement in the air but more importantly off the slightly-moist pitch to catch a rapid succession of edges that meant all the Australian wickets fell to catches between gully and wicket-keeper.

    Late movement off the seam ensnared the batsmen so often because of the discipline of England’s attack in pitching the ball up on a good or even full length. This invited the Aussies to drive, which all too often they did far too loosely.

    As soon as England’s openers strode out the sun burst through the cloud; but it was more the correct and patient technique of Alistair Cook and Andrew Strauss that enabled them to see out the first day while overtaking Australia’s total in short order.

    During the second day the sun continued to shine and temperatures rose a little higher, into the twenties Celsius, warming the ground and gradually dying it out, thereby slowly deadening the pitch. As well as aiding batting, this eventually made it more amenable to the wiles of England’s pre-eminent practitioner of spin, Graeme Swann, in Australia’s second innings, as evidenced by his frugal bowling analysis.

    What that also served to do was to dry the outfield, causing more abrasion to the ball and leaving it in a condition which aided reverse swing – something which England’s bowlers seem better able to exploit than Australia’s, notwithstanding Mitchell Johnson’s swing that did for the English in Perth. This seems to have been more of a result of the cross-breeze and was something of a fluke that not even Johnson himself could properly explain.

    To save the MelbourneTest, Australia had the monumental task of batting through two days with only four wickets standing (in reality three given Ryan Harris’s injury).  With pleasantly warm sunshine through the fourth day the weather was never going to come to the rescue, and England easily retained the Ashes.

    Winning the series outright is another matter. The final Test begins in Sydney on January 03 at the SCG. This is traditionally a place where spinners feel at home but Australia’s fast bowler Peter Siddle ran through South Africa’s line up in 2009, taking eight wickets in a 103 run victory.

    Rain before the Test may help the pace men, and although it is a long way ahead to be forecasting with any certainty, it looks like there will be sunshine over New South Wales into the New Year but the first couple of days of the Test might be plagued by rain or even thunderstorms. An engrossing Ashes series could therefore run the risk of ending in a tame draw.

    By: Stephen Davenport