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Match Coverage

Killing me softly: Ashes fifth Test, day 3 report

by Matt Thacker 5 minute read

There was an overriding sense of end-of-series ennui on Day 3 – Jane McGrath Day – of the fifth Test, writes Matt Thacker from Sydney.

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That’s why it’s called Test cricket, they say. Because it’s meant to be a test, they say. But surely they, whoever the bloody hell they are, mean for the players? Not for everyone in the ground – more than 43,000 at a sun-splattered SCG again today – and for thousands more watching on TV. Well, it was testing alright. Thirty-degree cloudlessness, Australian remorselessness, English doggedness. And an overriding sense of end-of-series ennui.

A combination that makes for pretty difficult watching.

Usman Khawaja moved serenely to 171

This was a long, slow, lingering death for England, a Steve-Bucknor-decision kind of day, as they manfully and hopelessly continued their quest to rescue something – anything– from this unsettling Ashes tour. The home side simply ground down England’s game but limited triers – worryingly the best available bar the one elephant-in-the-room exception – session by session, over by over, ball by ball. Successive partnerships of 85, 188, 101 and an unbeaten 104 from the Marsh brothers, drew all the fire from the visitors’ popgun attack. England have never not tried, would never not try, but they have been outbatted, outpaced, outspun, and outmanouevred in dark and murky off-field arts. Sure there’ve been times when England have been competitive but they have been very few and very far between. And today was indubitably not one of them.

This morning, if you’d asked any member of the travelling hordes what was going to happen today, as one they would have said that the Aussies were going to pile on the runs, not lose any or many wickets, and Smith was going to get a big to very big hundred. Well, they’re not right about everything. But they are about most. And for possibly the first time in the series, even those who are paid handsomely to build up the competitive nature of the series had given up saying how huge the first hour was.

Press and disgruntled supporters alike have seen these déjà vu Test matches unfold, confirming all their hopes or fears, depending on which hemisphere they’re from. They’ve clocked the early patterns at Brisbane and Adelaide, they’ve seen them repeated, then repeated, and repeated again.

Warner gets runs; Broad and Anderson are noble and skilful workhorses but everyone knows horses don’t travel well; Cook’s class might endure but is on the wane; Vince is flighty, Smith is mighty, and the Aussie bowling attack – Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood and Lyon – is just better, not by masses and masses, but by plenty enough at this top level. Those four bowlers have taken 18, 19, 20 and 21 wickets. No other Australian bowler has taken any. That’s a consistency across an attack that England would dearly love to have. The pressure has never really eased up on the England batsmen, except at a Starc-less MCG, and in the end it’s been too much. Four bowlers trumps two any day.

This Ashes has been like watching a run-of-the-mill (if well-loved) sitcom, Ever Decreasing Circles maybe, (as Jon Hotten said today, there’s a quiet, unacknowledged and deep-running despair to it) where you know the cast far too well, you know their foibles, you know what’s going to happen when character A interacts with character B. It can be funny, there can be the odd surprise but ultimately, everything takes place as you know it will. The script is written. And it’s got a terrible theme tune, in this case the incessant chanting of the Barmy Army, for whom gallows humour is a beer-stained badge of honour.

Sure Australia played well. For the record, England took two wickets all day while conceding 286 runs, including 114 in the last session as Mitch Marsh upped the ante. Steve Smith made 83 before he was caught and bowled by Moeen, his failure to convert coming as a total shock to two nations. And Usman Khawaja made a tremendous 171 before he became Mason Crane’s first Test victim.

Crane persevered, puppyishly enthusiastic, bouncing and bounding in, indefatigable. When he chases after the ball in the field you feel as if his life depends on it. He’s a joy and the fans’ new darling. He is also two years younger than Shane Warne was on debut (1-150 remember) and can obviously rip it. If control comes without resorting to safety-first tactics, then he’ll be a good’un. When he was no-balled after what would have been a successful LBW shout – a marginal but correct decision – you thought he might burst into tears.

England have played five leggies – Hobbs, Salisbury, Schofield, Borthwick and Rashid, in living memory. None of them has more than Salisbury’s 15 appearances and none more than Rashid’s 38 wickets. He should be nurtured.

There’s an end-of-term, skittish feel at the SCG. There’s no tension, no jeopardy except for future tour places. Of course the players are trying, of course it means something. But not for this series. Sport is at its best when its immediacy grabs you, when anything could happen and you have no idea what that’s going to be. Here, of course, we already knew Australia had won the Ashes, but we were also pretty sure they were going to win this game, which is worrying.

The result – on Jane McGrath day at the SCG – Australia are very much in the pink while everyone else is hot, and not particularly bothered.

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