Thursday 14 December 2006

Perth's lift raises England's spirits

Third Test, Perth
Day 1 Comment

The plaudits will go to Panesar but the real hero today was Cameron Sutherland - the head groundsman at the WACA. This series so far has, inevitably, failed to live up the hype that preceded it. Injuries and and a desperately defensive approach from England have played thier part but primarily it is because the first two tests were played on slow, low, boring featherbeds.

It was promised before this test that the once lethally quick Perth wicket had lost its venom and become yet another Australian batsmen's paradise. Thankfully for everyone, the pitch had carry, some pace and occasionally some seam movement. As a result batters could play through the line and on the up, yielding exciting results. Bowlers could run in with purpose knowing, if they bend their back, the pitch won’t ignore them. It produced an exhilarating days cricket.

England, strangely, found themselves free of their self-imposed shackles. With nothing to lose they decided, finally, to play their most attacking side. Ashley Giles made way for Monty Panesar and Jimmy Anderson for Sajid Mahmood.

The approach of both sides was different to the previous tests. Australia, just a game away from the Ashes, set out to dominate and crush what they sensed was a vulnerable England team. Hayden, who had spoken bullishly about his plans to go after Hoggard was initially aggressive, but ultimately too frantic as he was found out for the sixth time by Hoggard’s nagging accuracy and cunning.

England, as is their sporting heritage, revelled in their backs-to-the-wall position and came out firing. Somehow, Stephen Harmison managed to produce a quick straight ball that defeated the Australian captain. Wickets fell steadily through the day but all the while Mr Cricket was quietly counter-attacking, repeatedly stroking the ball to the cover boundary. The best passage of play was a classic battle between Monty Panesar and Andrew Symonds. Both players were recalled to the side but for Symonds this was last chance saloon. A towering figure and world-beating one-day player, he had yet to make his mark on the test arena. At 31, he won't be given many more chances. He had promised everybody and himself that he would go out and play his natural, destructive game. It was the power of the bludgeoner versus the delicate variations of finger spinner. After a couple of watchful overs he launched Panesar for two towering sixes and a four in an over. It’s the first time that Monty has been genuinely attacked in his career and it left Flintoff with a difficult choice of whether to persist with Panesar. Bravely he kept Monty on, and in his next over, he had Symonds caught behind. It is this sort of aggressive, attractive cricket where both sides are at their best, and is what fans have been craving for all series.

In the end, England probably edged the day, but the two late wickets left Australia on a high and as is always the case, the first hour tomorrow will be crucial.

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