When did we last say “England’s day” with true conviction? And when will we say it next? Today, the tourists had their tails up on a number of occasions but, as they have all series, the big moments found them wanting. Saturday was not “England’s day”.
England had seen off Steve Smith, whose century lit up day one, and Mitchell Johnson within Saturday’s first five overs but allowed Australia’s final two wickets to add 47 more. Later, Alastair Cook and Michael Carberry coasted to 85 for no loss before their top four fell for 61. This collapse was not Johnson-inspired or as dramatic as those suffered in Brisbane or Adelaide but, in terms of the fate of England’s tour, it was just as devastating.
The tourist’s day started brilliantly. Twenty-four hours too late, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad found the fabled “WACA-length” and the latter produced a beauty first up to get rid of Johnson before the former was rewarded for his toils with the wicket of Smith, albeit on review, after the most feathered of inside edges through to Matt Prior. Falling on England’s unlucky number “Nelson” 111, Smith left the field shaking his head.
Once again, though, Australia’s tail wagged like an excitable puppy as Cook failed to plug the gap between third slip and gully – not only costing catching chances, but leaking runs too. This is a WACA track with pace and carry – Cook seemed the only man in the ground oblivious to the need for further enforcements behind the wicket on the off-side as Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris nicked away with abandon. The pair both eventually succumbed to edges but not before Siddle and Nathan Lyon put on the sort of stand that has frustrated England all series long. Before play started on Saturday, England would have taken dismissing Australia for 385 but the manner in which the lower order thwarted their bowlers, especially in comparison to their own tail’s effort against efforts against Johnson and co, will be of grave concern to Andy Flower when this series is over.
Cook and Carberry were left with a tricky 25 minute period against Harris and Johnson before lunch that they survived with just the single scare – the skipper’s edge presented a tricky chance that Smith, at third slip, couldn’t cling on to. Both batters freed their arms at times and, with the game moving on rapidly, they arrived at lunch 24 without loss.
Carberry, who has fallen three times to the short ball so far this series, survived a major scare shortly after the break as square-leg, wicket-keeper and fine leg all converged on a skied top edge, but the ball somehow fell to safety. Carberry, appearing resigned to his fate, had to be hurried through for a single by his partner. At this stage, with England nearing 0/50, it finally appeared to be shaping up to be the tourist’s day. Until now, such chances have found their way into welcoming Australian palms. Slowly but surely, the openers seized the initiative, and Carberry greeted Nathan Lyon by hoisting him for a straight six.
Eventually, though, Michael Clarke got it right when he needed to, as he has done all series. As he felt the impetus slipping away, he decided to squeeze the opposition. For a well-set Carberry, the pressure had told in Brisbane, when he fell to Lyon, and in Adelaide against Watson. Once again, the plan worked in Perth. As the runs dried up, Carberry misjudged another late leave and played on to Harris. “One brings two”, thought Clarke, and the hosts smelt blood.
Joe Root’s dismissal provided the first serious DRS controversy of the series – with no evidence of an edge and the batsman adamant that he hadn’t, he was mighty unlucky to have to depart; but depart he did, as the on-field umpire received the benefit of the doubt and Kevin Pietersen strode to the crease with just minutes before tea.
At first, Pietersen appeared to have brought only the edges of his bat with him. Always a nervous starter – today, with the temperature of the pressure cooker, in terms of this Ashes series and Perth’s blistering heat, rising, he looked all at sea. With both batsmen looking scratchy and the depth of quality in Australia’s bowling attack on show, Cook passed his second 50 of the series.
With England well and truly in their shells Friday’s high run rate, despite a quick and true Perth pitch, seemed a thing of the past. Cook played a beautiful cut shot to send Lyon to the fence but, attempting a repeat dose, could only find David Warner at backward point. Cook’s was a fine innings but his dismissal, when his team needed a century most, was not just untimely but uncharacteristic, too.
This moment, for no apparent reason, saw Pietersen go from first to fifth gear and, inevitably Johnson’s departure saw the introduction of the comparatively sedate Siddle, who Pietersen duly slapped to mid-on, where Johnson took a fantastic overhead catch. Australia celebrated the back-to-back departures as if the Ashes were won.
What followed was a painstaking period of cricket. With Australia on the attack, there was little counter-punching from Ian Bell or Ben Stokes, who bravely played out 16 overs to reach stumps with little alarm. Once again, this most absorbing of series produced a fascinating period of play that England, as ugly as they were, survived to reach the close at 4/180 and another night to curse missed opportunities. Today, the courage was there. Once again, the application at the key moments was not.
Moment of the Day: Oh DRS controversies, how we’ve missed you. Despite spending more time discussing technology than cricket during the Northern Ashes, Steven Smith leaving the field shaking his head after the faintest of edges this morning was about as good as it had got this time round. Root’s dismissal, also caught behind, brought about an immediate review and the cherubic batsman was left flabbergasted when Tony Hill allowed the decision to stand. “Real-time Snicko” showed a sound, but only after the ball had passed the bat.
Shot of the Day: Cook had to graft hard for his 72 and looked scratchy throughout his doughty knock. Typically for a man searching for form, he looked troubled early doors, surviving a scare as Smith shelled a tough chance at third slip. Immediately after, he looked determined to make the Aussies pay though, punching Harris, then Johnson, down the ground, the ball pinging off the middle of his willow for a pair of perfect straight-driven boundaries.
Ball of the Day: Broad got England off to a flyer on Saturday, though, his second ball fully pitched and moving subtly in the air before going the other way off the seam. This was all too much for Mitchell Johnson, who nicked it through to Prior. Many finer batsmen would have fallen to this jaffer.
Stat Alert: Kevin Pietersen special: On Saturday, KP’s miserly 19 was enough to make him the fifth Englishman to pass 8,000 test match runs but it was also his slowest start to an innings in Tests. After 40 balls, he had just 4, far slower than his previous low of 9 from his first 40. Pietersen’s well-documented troubles against Peter Siddle continued though – not only did he fall to him for the tenth time but his strike-rate against the banana-loving right-armer now stands at 43, against a career strike-rate of 63.
What Sunday holds: This really is last chance saloon for England. If the lower half of their order capitulates as meekly as it has of late, they can kiss goodbye to the Urn. Ian Bell, who dug in courageously late on Saturday, holds the key. Three times he saved England with tons in the Northern Ashes. He’ll need to do that one more time if England are to stay in the series.
Will Macpherson writes for Back Page Lead.