Sport Cricket England show some spine, but Ashes defeat looms

England show some spine, but Ashes defeat looms

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England find themselves staring down the barrel of a second-straight Ashes defeat after a day in which they lost their top six chasing a notional target of 531, after Michael Clarke, with more than one eye on the weather, gave his bowlers the full two days to dismiss the visitors with an overnight declaration.

The Barmy Army haven’t had much so far in this series to cheer, but the rasp of Billy Cooper’s trumpet continued as Joe Root led a spirited fightback that belied his tender years. Surely, though, with the tail needing to bat throughout a day not promising too much poor weather, it is too little, too late.

Amid the well-warranted Australian triumphalism, the reaction among fans and the English press has been furious, even if the Barmies do continue to sing. The news of another collapse for those rising back home becomes harder each morning and suggestions that heads must roll are becoming more vocal. The feeling that this Australian side – inventive, attacking, united and industrious – have overtaken a once-fine England side now in free-fall was whispered after Brisbane, but is shouted now.

Jonathan Agnew used his BBC column to slate England’s feeble Saturday batting, saying: “Perhaps the saddest thing about it is that it was rather predictable, because England have lost all semblance of confidence with the bat.” Former captain Michael Vaughan was equally damning: “It’s been pathetic, feeble – there is no way you can protect this batting today. This is as bad as I have seen from an England side.” They are not alone.

Sunday, though, was a better day for England. They shed a number of unwelcome statistics that had hung over them and showed fight not seen in Saturday’s feeble 172 all out. They reached 200 for the first time in the series. Joe Root and Kevin Pietersen became the first English pair to share 100. Root and Stokes, both 22, played gutsy knocks and handled a barrage of abuse from Australia’s yelping fielders admirably. Matt Prior spent time in the middle, Pietersen curbed his naturally attacking instincts to bat far a two-and-a-half hours for 53 and, crucially, for the first time this series, the middle order didn’t crumble.

Clarke left it until ten minutes before play’s resumption to announce his declaration, denying Dave Warner, who was electric in the field all day, a fifth Test century. Whether this caught Cook off guard we do not know, but the hook shot he played off the fifth ball of the day was the stroke of a man not at one with his game. It was the shot of a man who needs a break.

With the tourists 1-1 and their captain back in the hutch, the chances of reaching day five looked bleak. When Michael Carberry, so superb when compiling 60 in the first innings, fell in the same manner, hooking a ball he should have left alone, you could have forgiven batting coach Graham Gooch for tearing what is left of his hair out. By the time Ian Bell slapped Steve Smith to mid-on later, all of England’s top five had fallen to a leg-side catch playing an attacking stroke, in the space of just over 24 hours. It was grossly irresponsible.

Root and Pietersen set about building a stand of patience and care as the first signs of English resistance emerged. The stand was worth 111 when Pietersen played on to Peter Siddle, the ninth time his indefatigable, probing bowling has dismissed the flamboyant right-hander. The England pair put away the bad ball – three times Pietersen deposited Smith into the stands – but both curbed their attacking instincts. The first 50 of their partnership came in 81 minutes, and the second in just 48.

When Bell followed before tea, Australia sensed a victory inside four days. It was tough going for the hosts on a flat track and Root, looking a bona fide Test No. 3, sensed a hundred. With the floodlights on under milky skies, 87 became England’s unlucky number and he became Brad Haddin’s 200th Test catch as the ‘keeper snared him diving forward off Nathan Lyon. The youngster deserved a third Test ton and had to drag himself from the crease, as if heading for the gallows.

Stokes and Prior continued the resistance. Twice Stokes survived optimistic reviews, and should have been given out lbw when the hosts had run out of referrals. They shared 39 and reached the new ball, before Stokes was hurried by Harris and edged to second slip. He and Root had worn a barrage of abuse from the Australians, some of which required intervention from the on-field officials, but Stokes played a plucky innings that should see him retain his place in Perth. Prior and Stuart Broad, the latter evidently keen to play his shots, survived to see England reach the close at 6-247, still 284 adrift. More verbals were exchanged as the players left the field on an ill-tempered day. This was the first time the Australians hadn’t had everything go their way in the field and they were clearly frustrated.

Root, who responded to Johnson’s taunts with a series of angelic grins, was in a buoyant mood at the close, saying: “We wanted to show some fight today and we’ve taken the game into day five.”

A good day for: The obvious choice would have been the cherubic Root, but Matt Prior’s unbeaten 31 will perhaps have been the most pleasing aspect of the day’s play for the England management. The wicketkeeper, hopelessly out of form, showed pluck to see off some early nerves and looked in decent touch by the close as he saw off the new ball. Prior, along with potential inclement weather, hold the key to any hopes of English survival. It may seem like a lifetime, but it’s just nine months since Prior and Panesar valiantly hung on for a series-saving draw in Auckland. He’ll need to summon that spirit.

A bad day for: You can’t rack up 1-517 watching from the boundary, so December 8, 2013 won’t make the highlights packages when Alastair Cook’s fine career concludes. Clarke declared with the weather in mind and Cook’s stickability made him the major threat to a seemingly inevitable Australian victory. Cook’s rash stroke told of the muddled mind that he’s currently carrying.

Key Moment: As the Adelaide Oval crowd filtered in, nursing weary faces hiding heavy heads that told of a lively Saturday at the cricket, Cook set about on a similarly forlorn trudge back to the Don Bradman Pavilion after a stroke that will haunt his nightmares all the way to Perth, and perhaps further.

Shot of the Day: Ben Stokes played a valiant hand in his second Test innings, grinding away for a 90-ball 28. Sledged to high heaven, his doughty knock was laced with panache, too. Back-to-back boundaries – first a well-timed sweep and then a push through cover, off Nathan Lyon – brought up England’s 200. Harris eventually did for him, but not before he’d pushed the new nut down the ground for a perfectly timed straight drive.

Ball of the Day: Clarke turned to Steve Smith as he looked to unsettle England’s settled batsmen. Smith couldn’t be accused of consistency, but eventually he produced the goods. Three times Pietersen smites saw him removed from the attack, but with tea approaching he returned. He tempted Bell to chase an ugly full toss that soon found itself in Johnson’s welcoming hands at mid-on. Smith and his pals wheeled away in jubilation, leaving Bell motionless, unable to believe he’d missed an open goal. It wasn’t pretty, but it sure as hell worked.

Stat of the day: Smith may have just nine Test match wickets, but he’s already found himself a bunny. His dismissal of Bell was the third time he’s accounted for the silky right-hander.

What Monday holds: Tempers frayed on day four and, with the gates open free of charge, don’t expect the jubilant atmosphere in the stands to be reflected on the field. Australia will be looking to see off the Poms with the minimum of fuss – firstly to beat the rain and, crucially, to avoid over-exerting their trump card, Magic Johnson