Michael Clarke walks onto the Cardiff ground the day before the Investec Ashes starts. He stops halfway to talk to the assistant groundsmen. Soon Darren Lehmann joins him. They get down on their hands and knees, they really look at the pitch. Both ends. Clarke jumps up and down at times. Lehmann limps along, puts his coffee down, and gets as low as his body allows him.
Clarke walks down and talks to the head groundsman, Keith Exton. They chat for a bit, before Clarke rejoins his coach. There is a clear worry about the pitch.
Joe Root did not play a pretty innings at Cardiff. He was not in control. His innings could have veered off the road at any time. But it did not. The Brad Haddin drop almost gave him a license to counterattack, and he threw everything he had at Australia. It was ugly and gutsy, and he ended up as the one hundred of the match. He ended up as the Man of the Match.
Who needs a top order when Root will save the day, Ben Stokes slapped like a kid in a fairytale, and Moeen Ali is laughing it up with the tail. England made over 400, at over four an over, and turned Australia’s monstrous quicks into plush toys.
Then they just needed to be clever, and patient, with the ball. They watched Australia walk the plank against Moeen while being aggressive to the point of self-parody and get trapped in a 17-38 middling score of mediocrity. England just needed to execute their plans and rack up Australia’s errors.
With a lead, they were always in charge, and with Root saving them again, they were more in charge. Counterattacking again. Saving the day again. Ian Bell, one of their most misfiring members of the tragic top order, stood up as well. It gave them a total that Australia could only ever fail at.
At nearly one hundred with only one wicket down, was the only time that Australia ever had a realistic chance of winning, and it was no real chance at all. Alastair Cook discovered his inner Mike Brearley and every single move he made seemed to work. This was not England sitting back and waiting for a win, this was a proactive captain rocking team funky with their new England magic.
Australia might have dropped an important catch; they might have been nullified by a dead pitch. They could have lost Mitchell Starc, lost faith in Shane Watson, lost control from Mitchell Johnson, gifted wickets to a bowler they do not rate, and even given up their many starts, but they could not argue that they had been smashed in the face in every single way it mattered. The slow pitch and England had destroyed them.
The cheer of the full Cardiff crowd at the last wicket was louder than any complaining about the pitch.
England had played their perfect ‘New England’ Test. They had upset the favourites. They had attacked. Their five-man bowling attack was working as a team. Their eight batsmen line up looked freakishly long. It was a golden Test of new England. They were not expected to win, they were not expected to be this perfect. Cardiff was bathed in the golden light of their magnificence.
England lost the toss at Lord’s. But when David Warner lost his mind, they knew that patience would work against this Australian line-up. The Australian batting line-up had been misfiring on or off for over ten years. One wicket would bring in the comically out of form Clarke. Two and it was Adam Voges in his fifth Test. Three was Mitchell Marsh on his comeback and in his first Ashes Test. Four and Peter Nevill was playing his first Test, in an Ashes, at Lord’s. There was no reason to panic.
After tea on the first, Smith was still there.
Cook tries Broad. Then Moeen. Then Root. Then Anderson. Smith is on 82 for Broad’s over, one ball into Anderson’s over he has his hundred.
Cook had placed eight men on the off side, there is only a mid-on. Anderson drops short outside off stump and Smith shuffles over to the off side and hoicks a pull shot into the turf to the right of mid-on to bring up his hundred. Cook watches on as Smith swings his bat in celebration, points at the crowd and receives a bear hug from Chris Rogers.
England could suggest that Smith has still not succeeded in English type conditions, but until they prepare some, it means very little.
It was Stokes in a quality Ben Stokesian spell of aggression and intent that forced the error from Smith that went to Bell. But Bell did not take it. There was not another chance until the next day.
Broad was the only one of their bowling pack who bowled well, and Australia showed patience against him. Root was the only other multi wicket-taker. Their five-man attack suddenly looked like a tired James Anderson, a fully functioning Stuart Broad, a lost Mark Wood, a desperate Ben Stokes and an easily milked Moeen Ali. There were no obvious four frontline bowlers, and at times, it was hard to remember how they did well in the previous Test.
They could not maintain pressure, they could not take their chances, they could not hit their spots, they could not rely on Australia, they could not, they could not.
566 was the final total. It could have been a million.
When Adam Lyth jerked himself at his second ball, England’s second ball, England’s second ball of the second Test, England’s weakness was opened up again. Gary Ballance was blown away. Bell played a bad shot to a super ball. Root tried to counterpunch again, this time Australia caught him. That was a big difference. Root was not there to make the bad start fade away.
The Australian bowlers who had been stuck in treacle at Cardiff were suddenly dangerous. The two main Mitchs were not leaking runs, they were taking wickets. Six years on from Johnson’s last time at Lord’s he was exorcising his demons and reheating England’s. Together with Starc and Josh Hazlewood they bowled, fast, full and swung the ball. It woke up Lord’s, it terrified England. England did not have a top order, they had a topless order. Bare, naked, afraid.
There was calm, and a rearguard, as Stokes attacked while Cook defended, their assured batting mocked their top order on this still flaccid wicket. With some luck, they could have batted to until tea, set up Jos Buttler and Moeen, frustrated the short fuse Australians. Instead there were two inside edges.
The inside edge is a peculiar thing as it comes from a technical mistake, but it always feels unlucky. Inside edges can go anywhere. But Stokes and Cook both found their stumps. Maybe it was unlucky, maybe it was a technical mistake, maybe it was the pitch just slightly deteriorating.
It was also one of Australia’s changes. In Cardiff, Watson’s bowling lacked his usual tightness, and had his normal lack of wicket-taking. By the time Marsh had Cook out, he had taken as many wickets in away Ashes Test as Watson ever had. With him bowling well, and Nevill taking his chances, Australia just looked like a better team.
And when Stokes went just before lunch, England lost their seventh straight session of cricket. They lost their eighth just after that when their long batting order batted much like their soft top order, and the follow-on was never even properly flirted with.
Then they bowled again. The million-behind-third-innings bowling trudge. If Anderson was not tired already, he was tired of this. He was tired when another catch went down in his now inconsistent slip cordon. He was tired as he watched the other bowlers bowl these pointless overs as England rested him as best he could. He looked very tired for a man with no wickets to his name.
Cook and his new found flair was trying to find ways to stop Smith. With an atom bomb not at his disposal, Cook could not even stop Smith from doing a draw shot. Rogers got dizzy from counting his own runs. Warner bashed third-innings runs. Marsh seemed to hit Moeen into the stand with the back of his bat. And even Clarke found form.
And then England had to bat again. It might have been a flat pitch, but it was anything but a flat attack. Five sessions is a long time. It is longer without a top order. It is a long time against a team with Mitchell Johnson in it. Or with Starc. Or with five bowlers.
It turned out two sessions was a long time.
In the last innings it didn’t matter that England batted until No. 8, as they never actually batted. It didn’t matter that Moeen had taken regular wickets. It didn’t matter they had a five-man attack. It didn’t matter how positive they were. It didn’t matter that Australia had a debutant at Lord’s. It didn’t matter that Cook had improved as a captain. It didn’t matter that they had come in unchanged. It didn’t matter that they won the last Test. It didn’t matter that Australia’s middle order was untested. It didn’t matter that the pitch was slow. It didn’t matter that Australia still had flaws. None of it mattered in this innings, or in this Test.
England had been to the mountain top in Cardiff, and without even enjoying the view they toppled straight back down at Lord’s. If Cardiff was perfect and golden, Lord’s was violent and bloody.
It turned out two Tests was a long time.