THE most gripping Test of the 2005 Ashes series wasn’t, I would venture, the dramatic encounter at Edgbaston, when Michael Kasprowicz gloved a Steve Harmison thunderbolt to the wicketkeeper with Australia just one big hit from victory. It was the following Test at Old Trafford, when last pair Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath had to see out a nerve-shredding final four overs to earn a draw.
That tells you everything you need to know about the difference between Twenty20 and Test cricket. One is at its most exciting when the batsmen are slogging the ball around, and the bowlers are ripping the middle stump out of the ground. The other is at its most exciting when two tail-end batsmen are holding out grimly for a draw, when defeat seems certain.
Against all the odds, England held out grimly for a draw against Australia in Cardiff this evening – and it was enthralling to watch.
It didn’t look likely when England’s top order collapsed, leaving them five wickets down at lunch and two sessions to bat out to save the game. Fortunately, Paul Collingwood appeared to have been taking batting tips from Geoffrey Boycott, taking almost six hours to hit 74 runs. And although the 74 will take precedence on the scorecard, it was the time he took to make it that proved crucial.
I should be careful, I suppose, comparing Collingwood to Boycott, as there is a little bit of history between the two, dating back to the previous two Ashes series. When England regained the urn in 2005, every single playing member of the England squad was awarded the MBE. That included Collingwood, despite the fact that he had only played in the final Test at the Oval, and only scored 17 runs in that match.
As England’s 5-0 series humiliation Down Under was secured in Sydney a few days into 2007, Collingwood found himself drawn into a sledging match with Shane Warne, who took umbrage at Collingwood’s MBE.
Boycott, who has an OBE, sided with Warne when discussing the incident with BBC colleague Jonathan Agnew at the end of that day’s play, leading to the following exchange:
Boycott: I tell you what would niggle him [Warne]. For 18 years, Australia have been beating England every two years. Suddenly, when England win, all hell breaks loose. They all get gongs at the Palace.
Agnew: Well, it’s our country. We can give gongs to who we want, can’t we?
Boycott: No, we can’t. People like me played 100 Test matches to get one. I didn’t play five Tests and get one.
Agnew: But you didn’t play for the gong, did you?
Boycott: No, but why should they get a gong?
Agnew: Well, if someone chooses to give them a gong, then give them a gong.
Boycott: Listen, I feel so bad about mine, I’m going to tie it round my cat. It doesn’t mean anything any more. It’s a joke.
Agnew (laughing): I shouldn’t have brought this up, should I?
Boycott: No, you shouldn’t.
Boycott, I imagine, would probably cut Collingwood a little more slack these days. Although it’s unlikely he will be putting Colly’s name forward for a knighthood.
England shouldn’t really have been in a position where they needed such a gutsy innings to save them. On a pitch that didn’t offer huge amounts to the bowlers, they batted poorly, with Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Strauss and Matt Prior all dismissed cheaply before lunch. After his ridiculous dismissal in the first innings, Pietersen owes England a big performance in the second Test at Lord’s.
When Collingwood was caught by Michael Hussey off the bowling of Peter Siddle with 11 and a half overs to go – and England still six runs behind – that looked to be that; just as when, at Old Trafford four years ago, Australia looked doomed when Ricky Ponting’s heroic innings was ended with his team four overs from safety.
But for Lee and McGrath in 2005, read James Anderson and Monty Panesar in 2009. Somehow, they not only held out, they managed to muster enough runs between them to carry England into the lead. Bloody hell, Monty even scored a boundary. When he hit Marcus North’s delivery through a tired-looking Nathan Hauritz at point for four, the entire Australian team seemed to shrink in stature.
It won’t have gone down too well at Old Trafford, the scene of that Aussie last stand by Lee and McGrath. This was the Test that Lancashire felt it should have had. It’s still a sore point in the corridors at Old Trafford, that Glamorgan – backed by money from the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Tourist Board – were able to outbid them for an Ashes Test this time around. Jim Cumbes, the Lancashire chief executive, appeared on the local news bulletins here in the North West to make that point.
Cardiff, though, put a lot of effort into its bid, which included a rebuilt Sophia Gardens (renamed the SWALEC Stadium), and got the dramatic finish that organisers would have hoped for. And it means that England will go to Lord’s – where they tend to struggle – still in with a fighting chance. (A shame for Panesar, after his batting heroics, that he may be dropped for that game to make way for another seamer.)
Come out of that one unscathed, and they might start to dream of regaining the Ashes. But on the evidence of their display over the last five days, that is a big ‘if’.