THE ADELAIDE OVAL ASHES TEST MATCH EXPERIENCE 2006

Adelaide sweltered under a late November heat wave, with daily temperatures up to the Fahrenheit ton, while rural South Australia baked and was fried and roasted by bushfires in the Mid North, the Riverland, Eyre Peninsula and the South East. Heat, dust and smoke had loomed over the suburban extremes until the official start of summer – also Day One of the Test – when the South Westerley blew up from the Southern Ocean and the breathless early summer heat surrendered to blustery coolness.

All roads led to the city centre on December 1. No one envisaged a Test of such extraordinarily metronomic run-scoring on a placid pitch, a near record batting collapse and an unlikely, yet glorious Australian victory at the Adelaide Oval to go 2-0 in the Ashes. A large horde were there on Day One for the occasion that the Adelaide Test always provides. For three days the pitch itself was the bad guy, but the Australians grabbed the match and put one hand on the urn, by exploiting its Day Five vagaries, with Warne underscoring his genius once more. Both he and Man-of-the-Match Ricky Ponting rated the Test win as the greatest in their respective careers.

The cab company castigated me for not booking much earlier, as there was an unheard-of hour-long wait (minimum) for their services on the first Friday of December. English themed pubs had been booming all week. The cross of St George was everywhere. Backpacker hostels were turning them away. City pubs needed extra beer stocks. One would never have known that England had been crushed ruthlessly in Brisbane a few days previously.

Early season heat with local drought-induced water restrictions can bake the Adelaide centre square – under its customary pale green surface – into something akin to the centre court at Roland Garros. I saw curator Les Burdett on Day One in the afternoon and he didn’t look happy, hunched near his tractor and intent on the voice in his ear via his mobile. Freddie Flintoff won the toss and England enjoyed the advantage for nearly three days.

In the past, you could expect the first morning to offer something in Adelaide. It would start to play fast and true after lunch and continue that way for the next two days. Come Day Four it would begin taking spin, while most of the tricks, like the low bounce, only came a bit on Day Five. In more recent years it’s been great for batting on the first three days, before the variable bounce kicked in to make it interesting on the fourth afternoon and through to the last day.

This pitch only started to break up after tea on Day Four, but it didn’t seem to matter with a draw looming and way over a thousand runs on the board for just seventeen wickets by stumps . Climatic change and water restrictions notwithstanding, there are challenges for the South Australian Cricket Association. A close look at the first hour of play on Day One provided all the insight that was needed to fathom the runfest that were the first four days of the Adelaide Ashes Test match.

Strauss and Cook appeared to have all the time in the world to play Lee (34-1-139-1) and McGrath (30-5-107-0, his worst ever Test match figures). Neither bowler could swing or seam the ball and the batsmen eased effortlessly behind the line or into the cut, pull or drive, while the score mounted steadily, if not spectacularly.

The first bowling change produced the result, as Strauss (14) sliced one to Martyn from Stuart Clark’s (34-6-75-3) first over, as the 30 year old seamer journeyman outbowled his more illustrious New South Wales and Australian teammates. When Clark had Cook (27) caught behind at 2-45, it felt that things might be proceeding according to the Australian script, but a dogged 60 from the unheralded Ian Bell reminded us that England had come to play and its batsmen had started to find their feet in Australia, albeit courtesy of an unusually placid Adelaide featherbed.

Bell’s three hour vigil for 60 presided over the England recovery that first asserted itself after lunch, but grew in substance the more Collingwood (206) grafted against the determined but largely ineffective McGrath and Lee. His was a virtually chanceless knock, a monumental display of concentration and largely sober shot selection that stretched from before lunch on Day One to the stroke of tea on Day Two.

In Australia, the only thing worse than a Pom called Collingwood getting a hundred is a Pom called called Collingwood getting two hundred. The pitch flattened further; Australia toiled, while England ground on. Bell’s dismissal from a top-edged attempted hook at Lee, which the bowler caught despite the rapid approach of Langer from the on side, was the last look that Australia had at parity in the match for at least three days. A match and possibly series shaping partnership of 310 between Collingwood and Pietersen kept the Barmy Army happy and drove many a local, including your correspondent, towards the Beer Solution ‘out the back’.

This year the facilties behind the Mostyn Evan, George Giffen and Edwin Smith stands were better than ever for members. The marquee covered about half of Adelaide Number Two ground, while the food and drink options were more varied. As the Englishmen built their seemingly impregnable tower of runs, thousands of members helped make a couple of Barossa wine barons even richer, while the shareholders of Lion Nathan would have had little to complain about either. On the Eastern side, the Chappell Stands were augmented by several corporate marquees in the same distinctive domed-tent-style rooves and the total attendance for each of Days One to Three surpassed 30,000, consistently large crowds not seen in Adelaide for decades.

Part of the Barmy Army wedged into the Chappell Stands and a large phalanx placed themselves under the scoreboard at the Cathedral End. Your correspondent was not the only one saddened at Cricket Australia’s refusal to allow Barmy Army trumpeter Cooper to enliven the atmosphere, while at the same time our august body permitted patrons to be deafened by endlessly loud and inane ads on the video screen.

Warne’s entry into the attack provided no serious problems for the batsmen. Immediately, he was tossing them up, seeking loop and bounce, as the only turn there was slow and possible to read off the pitch. Collingwood was able play back, while Pietersen (158) was comfortable waltzing down the pitch to meet Warne on the half volley, which he did many times in his pugnacious innings.

The rest of Day One and the first two sessions of Day Two belonged to England, with Australia’s only joy being the dismissal of Collingwood. Clark’s disciplined line finally found a tired edge from Collingwood in with the last ball before tea. The score had risen at a steady three an over, as England sought to repay the Australian first innings batting clinic from Brisbane with one of their own in Adelaide. This was steady, measured run accumulation, low risk strokeplay and studious defence being the foundation. Even after tea, as quicker runs were sought, the rate did not rise greatly. Flintoff (38*) managed a couple of big blows, but needed to give his bowlers some room to move before stumps on Day Two.

Matthew Hoggard proved to be the go-to man on Day Three, but it was the captain who made the early incision before stumps on Day Two. Taking the new ball at the River End in place of the still errant Harmison, he dug one in short to Langer (4) who got it near the splice and Pietersen did the rest, diving low and forward. The blustery South Westerley blew a chill through the members, without diminishing the frivolity out the back. The more statistically minded individuals reminded each other that 351 were needed just to avoid the follow on. Ponting eschewed the nightwatchman and with Hayden saw Australia to a shaky 1-28 at stumps.

Day Three began with Hoggard steaming in from the Cathedral End. Unlike Lee and McGrath, the Yorkshireman was able to shape the ball away from the right hander, but it was the left handed Hayden (12) who feathered one to Jones and Australia was in trouble at once. 2-35 became 3-65 not much later, when Damien Martyn (11) edged to Bell playing away from his body, having caressed a similar ball for a boundary from the previous delivery. Meanwhile, Ponting (142) was looking assured until – curiously – he completely lost sight of a harmless, very full and wide ball from Harmison. He ducked, perhaps thinking it was short and it appeared to rattle him.

Shortly after he skied a pull shot only to be dropped at deep mid wicket overhead by Giles, prompting the line: ‘You just dropped the Ashes, Giles.’ Shortly after he edged just short of second slip and would have been out by a couple of metres had a throw from Collingwood not missed the stumps. However, Ponting seemed to gather himself again and – just before lunch – he caressed two superb boundaries on either side of the pitch, the first raising his fifty.

At last Australia actually won a session. Ponting and Hussey added 80 without loss until tea, the batting much like that of Collingwood and Pietersen the previous day. It speaks volumes for Flintoff and particularly Hoggard that the line remained tight enough to keep Australia’s scoring rate down to just over three an over. Meanwhile, Harmison seemed to rediscover his radar and Anderson, whose Brisbane experience was very forgettable, stayed tidy and beat the bat a few times as well.

Ashley Giles rarely threatened, but at least attacked the off stump around the wicket to the right hander more often than he tried over the wicket containment, pitching a metre outside leg. Ponting raised his 33rd century a little before tea, becoming the outright Australian record-holder in Tests, surpassing his former skipper, Steve Waugh.

With all the spectacle and colour of this Ashes Test, it must be said that beefed up ground security and Cricket Australia’s no-trumpet policy robbed the match of some atmosphere. The Barmy Army was visible and audible, but not as deafening as in the past. The showers of plastic beer cups at the start of the Mexican Wave were absent, as video surveillance now makes it possible for the legion of uniformed thought police to identify ringleaders and finger them to the police. There was even minimal cheering and wolf-whistling the pretty girls who always sashay past the scoreboard at big matches.

Ponting and Hussey resumed after the tea break and stayed in charge, while Australian supporters breathed a little more easily. Ponting’s last 52 tests have seen him amass well over 5000 runs at nearly 75, numbers approaching Bradmanesque in stature. He was batting as if he had set himself the task of a triple century, being on record as saying that he felt Australia could still win. His batting carried the imprimatur of a man who sought to be as good as his word. If he and Hussey could stay together till stumps and continue for much of Day Four, a lead could be posted and England would be the team battling for survival on a fifth day Adelaide pitch starting to keep low. Ponting’s faith was rewarded by a famous victory, but not from his blade alone.

England’s go-to man Hoggard swung the last delivery of the first over with the second new ball away from Ponting sufficiently for him to feather it through to Jones. Not long after Hussey inside edged the Yorkshireman onto his off stump and Australia’s salvation rested with Clarke (30*) and Gilchrist (13*), the latter immediately subjected to the now expected round-the-wicket examination from Flintoff. His revised game plan against this strategy did not get past his third ball in Brisbane, so his innings in this match would attract close scrutiny. He played some attractive strokes before the close, but the fourth morning would tell the tale for him and for the match.

Day Four dawned warmer and cracks in the pitch were evident. Another substantial crowd was in, hushed before the start and mindful of the mountain Australia had yet to climb. A few deliveries into the day it was clear that the pitch was slower again, but would keep a little low as well. Australia resumed, needing to get as close as possible to England, with Ponting now contemplating a declaration, conceding a first innings lead and challenging England to respond in kind, to manufacture a result.

Just how close to this scenario the match would play hinged upon Gilchrist and Clarke. The former appeared to be using his wrists more when cramped for room around the wicket. With addition of just nine runs in the morning, he played one slightly in the air towards Pietersen in the gully, which the fielder took on the half volley, then cut another riskily in the air through off side for just a single.

The first hour went Australia’s way, with the follow on all but averted, 38 added and no wicket falling. Harmison, Hoggard and Flintoff all probed outside the off stump, seeking the edge that was not forthcoming. Harmison in particular seemed to improve with each over with rhythm and radar returning and he put one yorker length ball right through Gilchrist, who responded next over with two glorious cover driven fours. The pressure was on and the class was apparent.

After drinks the batsmen put the foot down to the tune of around 20 off the first two overs and in a blink of the eye Gilchrist had his fifty. Then he was sixty and Clarke’s second consecutive Ashes fifty was on the board. However, crucially, Giles got the breakthrough, ending the 98 run union for the sixth wicket by having Gilchrist (64) sky one to Bell at midwicket.

How close could Australia get now to the England mountain? Would Gilchrist’s demise hasten the Australia gauntlet-down declaration? Warne backed himself in hitting across the line, while Clarke continued with less adventure until lunch, when the score sat at an intriguing 6-417, the morning session adding 105, thanks to Gilchrist’s fireworks and Clarke’s determination.

The afternoon sun beat down gloriously as play resumed in warmer but still pleasant conditions. Two individuals shone – one a seasoned Yorkshire pro and the other a young gun from New South Wales with a point to prove. Hoggard (42-6-109-7) probably turned in his greatest Test performance, with a leonine display of aggressive, tight, swinging, sharp seam bowling, while Clarke (124) underscored the value of a new, more mature ‘Pup’ at six, who can sensibly and patiently accumulate a century and bowl a bit of passable slow left arm orthodox spin..

Shane Warne regularly saves his best batting for an Aussie crisis and his role in the 118 run union with Clarke was characterised by aggressive strokeplay and determined defence. He saw the Australian total over 500 before he was trapped in front by one from Hoggard that jagged in from the off and stayed down a little.

This year, sadly, the pressing dictates of the day saw me depart the Bradman Dining Room and the happy panel of ‘Yesteryear’s Pundits’ all-too-quickly, in apology releasing a Transferable Members Ticket for another fortunate soul to see the final day’s play from the bucolic splendour of the George Giffen Stand, its garden seats and many marquees ‘out the back’ on the tennis courts and the Number Two ground.

Matthew Hoggard upset Stuart Clark’s leg stump for a duck after the sometimes dangerous lower order hitter tried to swipe him into the Members, while Glen McGrath (1, not enhancing his average of 7) lasted 21 balls before Anderson had him caught behind for a consolation wicket..Freddie Flintoff bowled just four overs and spent some time off the field, as England nursed their key player.

The drama was not yet done. Questions over Langer, Hayden, Martyn and even Gilchrist loomed large in Australian cricket fans’ hearts, while Glenn McGrath came crashing to earth after his triumphant Test return in Brisbane. England made it to 1-59 by stumps on Day Four, a lead of 97 with nine wickets in hand. On a wearing pitch, the rules can change. Maybe Australia could spin England out and steal a famous victory? On the eve of Day Five, a draw was the likely outcome. Australia was 50-1 or thereabouts with most bookies for a win.

Warne and Clark bowled the last ten overs, regularly troubling the batsmen, with Clark dismissing Cook (9), after that unfortunate had taken a heavy blow on the helmet from a ferocious Gilchrist shot earlier in the day. Warne had a close lbw turned down. In a match so delicately poised, an early England collapse might open the door, while a bold showing could upset the balance yet again.

Day Five was a little warmer, but still very pleasant for all. The sun really did shine on Adelaide in this match, as it did on the Australians that morning. The local attack began circling like the white pointer sharks cruising that day near the shallows of Sellicks and Aldinga Beaches, scattering the bathers like so many seagulls.

At 1-69 (overall lead 117), having added ten laboured runs, England looked in reasonable shape to grind some score on and absorb overs to salvage the draw, their first and most lethal mistake. In 43 overs of frenzied death panic, England lost 9-60. Warne struck, cobra-like, spitting from the rough and swerving sharply across the right-hander, soon causing Strauss (34) to pick out Hussey.

An over later, Bell (26), rabbit-in-spotlight-style, tried a suicidal single. Warne gathered the return wide but threw down the stumps neatly. Then Warne went over the wicket to Pietersen and ripped a spitting cobra ball out of the rough wide of leg that crashed into off stump and was like a dagger in the England heart.

Collingwood (22) seemed to lose the will to play strokes, while Flintoff and Jones fell in quick succession to Lee, who at last found some radar and bowled a tight line fairly full, as did McGrath who shared the River End with him, while Shane Warne (32-12-49-4) mesmerised the England batsmen in an unbroken 29 overs from his favoured Cathedral End. Warne removed Giles and Hoggard and McGrath finally struck, picking off Harmison and Anderson, both trapped in front.

The Adelaide Advertiser ran a feature not long ago about England’s glorious capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Pietersen’s sorry walk back through the Player’s Gate reduced England to 4-73 at drinks and memories of callow youth gunned down in Flanders fields might have been less gloomy than the mood in the England dressing room. While the Barmy Army chanted and the Aussie crowd found their voice in answer, the lead stood at just 121 and the toss-winning scorers of 6-551 were reduced in the ensuing 40 overs to a paltry 129 all out, a lead of just 167, which England had 36 overs to defend.

Australia had the final session to win the match. Langer (7) smashed the second Hoggard delivery for a boundary but soon holed out to the Yorkshireman, whose bowling in a less extraordinary test might have won him to Man of Match trophy, while Hayden (18) managed two big blows before he found Collingwood’s safe hands from Flintoff’s bowling. Neither veteran Australian opener had an impact in the tumultuous win, a fact that will be reviewed in the near future..

The dream had become a nightmare for the England captain, as Australia aggressively attacked the target at as much as five an over on the wearing pitch. Ponting (49) was joined by Hussey (61*), tellingly promoted above Martyn, perhaps as a strategy to counter the deteriorating surface. Calling upon their experiences together in India, they eased into one day mode, nudging singles to the field set just deep enough to allow them and punishing the occasional short ball or loose one from Giles, who was kept on two or three overs too many.

With just over fifty needed, Giles (10-0-46-1) finally induced an error from Ponting, with Strauss taking the catch and then Flintoff struck for the final time, removing Martyn cheaply. The game might have been on again with another quick wicket, but Hussey was having none of that. Joined by Michael Clarke (21*), the man known as Mr Cricket kept the scoreboard moving, so that the march to victory became a stately canter, with the giant video screen counting down the runs required from 20 on the backdrop of the Australian flag.. Flintoff gave Harmison and Anderson a try for the first time in a final, futile gesture of dismay at being the England captain presiding over only the third toss-winning 550+ first innings scorers who went on to lose the Test.

The final day was possibly the greatest ever in Test match history at Adelaide Oval, as Australian overwhelmed England’s batsmen and then made light of a target of over four an over. The ground bulged by quarter to six with people flooding down from work in the city, while the stands seethed with the faithful fans and the still-vocal, maintain-the-faith Barmy Army, who absorbed a full five days of one of the truly remarkable, fluctuating, absorbing Test matches. The tents behind the George Giffen Stand still echo with Muke Hussey’s loud and prolonged ‘Yes!’ as he took the winning run.

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