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Ashes 2023 — where the word ‘clinical’ does not exist in either side’s dictionary

Last updated on 29 Jun 2023 | 08:33 PM
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Ashes 2023 — where the word ‘clinical’ does not exist in either side’s dictionary

‘Being ruthless? Nope. We don’t do that here’

You know, you really have to hand it to both England and Australia. 7 days deep into Ashes 2023, both sides have been absolutely allergic to driving home an advantage.

Are we sure Stokes and Cummins did not sign some kind of pre-series pact where they both agreed to deliberately take the foot off the accelerator whenever things got too easy in order to let the other team back into the game and make the contest even and interesting?

Because, erm, this is now getting bizarre. 

At Edgbaston, both England and Australia tried their level best to lose the contest; eventually, it was the hosts who succeeded. That match see-sawed like crazy, to the point that it even ended up driving the neutrals insane. There, the word ‘clinical’ did not exist in either side’s dictionary.

Two days into the Lord’s Test, it seems that both England and Australia are hell-bent on continuing to do what they did at Edgbaston. 

‘Being ruthless? Nope. We don’t do that here.

First, it was England who squandered the advantage of the toss and the overhead conditions. Somehow, despite having a pitch tailor-made for their seamers in the perfect bowling conditions imaginable, they let Australia score 315 in under 75 overs while taking just three wickets.

At 315/3, England were on the ropes, and the Aussies had a golden, golden opportunity to deliver the knockout blow by posting a total close to 550-600 and batting their opponents out of the game. Of course, at 315/3 was when the Kangaroos decided to bat like a club cricket team, gifting their last seven wickets for just 100 runs. 

The pitch no longer had demons when England began their innings — it was as flat as a pancake — and in the blink of an eye, the Three Lions raced to 188/1. They’d brought the deficit down to just 228 runs with nine wickets in hand (great!!) but from an English perspective, there was even better news: Nathan Lyon blew his calf and ended up ruling himself out of the contest.

So 30 minutes after Tea on Day 2, England had two set batters (Duckett 90* and Pope 42*) batting like a dream on a flat surface against an attack that’d been effectively reduced to three specialist bowlers (all seamers). Australia, despite being 228 runs ahead, were on their knees. Two more hours of ruthless batting could — probably would — have finished them off for good. 

What unfolded in the next 45 minutes is rightly being unanimously described as the craziest, inexplicable, incomprehensible passage of play witnessed in Test cricket in a very long time.

Long story short: from 188/1, England were reduced to 222/4 in the span of 45 balls. But as is the case with most things in life, the devil lies in the details. 

So for about 35 overs, the Australian seamers were bowling your typical ‘Test match line and length’ to no avail, but once Lyon tweaked his calf, Cummins had his Eureka moment.

The only way Australia can get back into the contest on this now-docile track with a key bowler down, he reckoned, was by making England lose their mind. The way to do that, he knew, was turning the contest from a game of cricket into a game of ego. 

There are several ways of achieving the above, but knowing very well that this English team hates to back down, Cummins quickly realized that he could play with the England batters’ pride by asking them to take the short ball on. 

That’s it. That was his plan. So he pushed the fielders back — or, alternately, set ‘funky’ fields — asked his seamers to keep bowling bouncers and told the batters to take the short balls on. 

‘Oh, you think you’re revolutionaries? Great. If you’re as good as you think and say you are, why don’t you try hitting these next few bouncers over the ropes?’.

In the situation England were in at that point — 188/1 on a flat wicket against a Lyon-less Australia — every English fan was begging for Pope and Duckett to not fall for the bait.

Spoilers: the English batters fell right into the trap.

Not one, not two, remarkably, Australia ended up getting THREE English wickets in a 45-ball period, including that of Joe Root. And astonishingly, all three batters that perished — Pope, Duckett and Root — fell trying to take the short ball on.

Ollie Pope was the first of the three to go. Despite having already batted 62 balls and scored 42 runs, Pope was far from his best. How much the right shoulder troubled him, we don’t know, but he was fidgety and, outside a couple of hits, unfluent.

So when Cameron Green was asked to be an ‘enforcer’ by Cummins, Pope saw it as an opportunity to assert his dominance. 

Having already delivered a handful of bouncers, Green went short again on the very first ball of his fifth over — head high around off-stump. Pope went back, shuffled, and got into position to hook the ball over backward square leg, but, to his dismay, ended up shanking it; the ball came right off the toe of his bat. The catch was gobbled up by Steve Smith, and BOOM, Cummins’ plan had instantly worked.

In walked Joe Root next, and much to everyone’s surprise (and KP’s shock), Australia stuck to the same field and the same ploy. An outraged KP said he was ‘baffled’ to see Australia have no slips for Root, but clearly, Cummins knew exactly what he was doing.

Two balls in, the plan worked — until it didn’t. Green bowled a similar delivery, albeit this time the line being outside leg-stump, and like Pope, Root too got sucked into going for the big hit. Seeing the line of the ball, Root went for the hook, but the slowness of the surface meant that he ended up gloving the ball to the keeper due to throwing the shot early.  The Aussies rejoiced, but their joy lasted only for a few seconds. Indeed, Green had overstepped. 

That moment was a major buzzkill, but it didn’t stop the Australian seamers from bowling short. If anything, they went even harder after that no-ball, religiously sticking to the plan.

They toiled hard without any reward for the next 22 balls, but on the second ball of the 43rd over, they reaped rewards for their persistence as Ben Duckett, 2 runs shy of a maiden Ashes ton, ended up hitting one straight to Warner’s throat at long-leg.

Now this one, though Duckett was in the 90s, was always coming. The southpaw had been living dangerously for a while and was looking visibly uncomfortable versus the short ones. Him getting out always looked like a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. To his agony, his moment came when he was on 98, but the end result surprised no one. 

188/1 had become 207/3. England had been rattled.

Enter Harry Brook, and Australia stuck to the same plan. The chaos factor tripled once Brook walked in — he was looking to hit every other ball out of Lord’s.

Brook, like Duckett, lived dangerously, but while he survived, his partner at the other end, Joe Root, did not. 19 balls after Duckett’s dismissal, Root tried to hook a short one from Starc but completely miscued it. Smith took a blinder, and bam, he too was gone.

188/1 had become 222/4. England got sucked into the ego battle by Australia and ended up paying the price for accepting the bait.

It took Ben Stokes to turn into Zen Stokes to restore sanity. The skipper, who at times as full-time captain has tended to mindlessly slog, played no attacking strokes and refused to get sucked into Australia’s trap. 

He was prepared to play the patience game and was more than willing to take body blows to preserve his wicket. Such was his determination to not play any attacking strokes that he collected just 11 runs off his first 40 balls — his second-lowest score at the 40-ball mark after becoming full-time skipper last year.

Even then, things could still have gotten uglier for England. Brook pulled Cummins straight towards Marnus Labuschagne at square leg, but, for once, the Queenslander ended up spilling a catch. 

188/1 could have turned into 243/5, but England ended the day on 278/4.

So, who is gonna go ahead early on Day 3 before inevitably throwing away the advantage?

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