Australia in control against England at The Oval
Centuries from Shane Watson and Steve Smith leave hosts with work to do
Steve Smith of Australia leaves the field after his innings of 138 not out during day two of the 5th Investec Ashes Test match against England at the Oval. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
England are chasing the game. Australia ended an abbreviated second day at The Oval in a commanding position from which it would at least seem improbable that they could lose, and given time, good weather (not a given by any means) and a deteriorating pitch, they could conceivably go on to win.
If Australian hundreds had been in short supply earlier in the series then to those of Michael Clarke at Old Trafford and Chris Rogers at Chester-le-Street can now be added not just Shane Watson’s bludgeoning first-day ton, but a maiden Test hundred from Steve Smith, an unbeaten 138, runs scored with style and some panache, not least in the way in which he chose to reach three figures.
That means that both sides have scored four centuries in the series, the difference being that three of England’s have come from Ian Bell. As each of the Australian centurions averages over 40 in the series and Bell alone does for England, it does throw the 3-0 standing into some perspective.
Clarke’s declaration, at 492 for nine, left England a challenging, potential 75 minutes to bat, all but five of which they managed before bad light finished play. In this time Alastair Cook and Joe Root added 32 for the first wicket with little alarm save the odd ball going past the outside edge.
To stay in the game, or at least retain an interest in winning, England had to make inroads while the second new ball, seven overs old overnight, was still hard. The rain and pervading dampness suggested that even a pitch devoid of grass might offer the seamers a little more than before, and both Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson found some zip, beating the groping blades of Smith and Peter Siddle.
It was more than an hour, though, before Anderson clipped the top of Siddle’s off stump with one that left him, a delivery that would have dismissed many players but which was made to look even better by the batsman playing all around it.
Australia made their intentions clear. The weather forecast for the weekend suggests further interruptions and, not wishing to feel deprived, as they most certainly did after Old Trafford, they decided to hurry things up.
England took the opposite tack, slowing the over rate down so much that it must have been fed beta blockers. It is easy to argue that other sides in their situation would have done the same, as was the case at Old Trafford where desultory would have amounted to skittish.
But without getting too pious about it, spectators do have the right to expect more than to see professional athletes ambling about the arena. One delivery shy of 39 overs in three and a quarter hours, when there have been no mitigating factors such as reviews or injuries, is unacceptable.
So is the umpires’ reluctance to do anything about it. Cook might get fined, but unless there is the threat of a ban as well, that is a shrug and “whatever”. This is for International Cricket Council to address properly.
Smith, meanwhile, had played a superb hand once he had got away with his first-ball, fresh-air adrenaline swish at Anderson the previous day. Michael Clarke may no longer be a selector, but there is evidence (if a conversation between two prominent members of the Australian management – inadvertently overheard by a colleague when they parked themselves next to him in a Worcester coffee shop before the series – is anything to go by) that Smith’s inclusion from the start of the series was more at the captain’s instigation than otherwise. He might have completed his maiden hundred at Old Trafford had the moment not got the better of him when it was there for the taking and he heaved a catch to midwicket.
But here he drove strongly, used the off-side angles well and then, with Brad Haddin for company during a stand of 65, did indeed reach three figures for the first time in a Test by clearing his front leg out of the way and cudgelling one of Jonathan Trott’s medium-pace occasionals for six, back over his head and into the OCS stand at the Vauxhall end. Fearless or foolhardy, it worked.
England’s cricket had been sensible enough at the start with Anderson and Broad and then Chris Woakes plying their seamers’ trade.
But it took Trott to remove Haddin immediately after Smith completed his hundred, and there had been no sign of Graeme Swann, never mind Simon Kerrigan, whose first-day meltdown must have caused Mark Bawdon, the team psychologist, with overtime. When Swann finally did appear, after tea, James Faulkner, another debutant in the match, had provided Woakes with a first Test wicket, not the grandest way to break your bowling duck, heaved as it was to deep square-leg where Trott completed an excellently judged catch, but forever memorable for the bowler.
Woakes had done no less than he does, which is bowl diligently at a gentler pace than Test cricket really requires. When Swann finally replaced Woakes, his second ball did for Mitchell Starc (“Inspired captaincy,” said someone. “What took him so bloody long,” muttered another). More merriment from Ryan Harris ended when Anderson, sniffing a potential five-for, ran 30 yards to extra cover to take the mother of all caught and bowleds. Some more blows by Smith, and Clarke called them in. Eleven overs and five balls after tea had produced 95 runs.