Sunday 26 November 2006

Pietersen plants late seeds of hope

First Test, Brisbane
Day 4 Comment

After 261.1 overs, two declarations and three abysmal days, England finally turned up to Brisbane and injected fire into the Ashes.

Of course, it’s all a little too late, but the performance dragged some much-needed momentum back into England’s Ashes campaign. It has exposed some of the weaknesses of the home side that the visitor's shoddy performance has so far masked so effectively. More surprisingly, it has left England with the most miniscule of chances to pull off a draw.

It’s a strange and unnerving thing being a die-hard England fan. Like a twisted form of love, you can be mistreated, uncared for, utterly dismayed and angry for three days, but when offered the smallest signs of care, all is forgiven. Almost without realising it, the acceptance of defeat morphs seamlessly into blind optimism again.

The farce of Australia’s imposed second innings ended with Justin Langer reaching a meaningless century and Ricky Ponting sustaining a back injury. This gave England the impossible task of batting five-and-a-half sessions in an attempt to spare being ridiculed all the way to Adelaide. It was a task that would require patience, composure, skill and the smallest of miracles.

The opening scenes were familiar. Andrew Strauss, for the second time in the match offered little, hooking needlessly down deep to square leg early in the innings for just 11. When Warne dismissed Bell with a slider a duck, England seemed to capitulate. Collingwood also started off unconvincingly, stuck on the crease as if waiting to be dismissed, before the welcome lunch break.

Whatever talks took place over England’s lunch table had been badly missing two days ago. England took the field looking positive, determined and crucially decisive. Cook battled hard, before being caught at short leg via the inside edge off Warne, and would have learned much from his 43. Pietersen then enjoyed the first classic contest of the series with his pal Shane Warne. After playing himself in with maturity he took the game to the Australians, using his feet well and flicking him through mid wicket before unleashing his trademark slog sweeps.

Together with Collingwood, the pair dominated Australia in a determined 153-run stand. Suddenly with Ponting unable to take the field with his dodgy back and McGrath showing his age with a bruised heel, Australia may have exposed some seeds of doubt. England were finally able to punish them with an authority that has been badly missing since 2005.

Just as he always does though, Warne struck the decisive blow towards the end of the day. Collingwood had played calmly and superbly, but with barely 15 overs left of the day, fell victim to Warne’s trickery, waltzing down the pitch and getting stumped on 96. Flintoff then got to the wicket, stroked a couple of commanding boundaries before mistiming a pull from a Warne long hop and skying it to mid on. It was a cruel blow after such a convincing performance, only firing another nail into England’s coffin.

Australia has been in complete control of this game, but it was vital that England clawed some self-confidence back with a good performance. Tomorrow Pietersen and Jones will need to apply themselves and continue much in the same vain as today, steering the game well into the afternoon at least. And whisper it quietly, but there is mention of rain late tomorrow.

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