Following on from my previous posts (here and here) about the First Ashes Test in Cardiff, I can’t help adding a quick post about my visit to Lord’s yesterday (Saturday) to see the third day’s play at the Second Ashes Test.
The circumstances of the day’s play were a bit different to those at Cardiff, to say the least. On the first day England had batted first, starting in great style but then surrending some silly wickets. At the end of day 1 England were 364-6 with Strauss unbeaten on 161, the total score not being dissimilar to that on the first day at Cardiff. On day 2 Strauss was out almost immediately and it looked like it was going to be a disappointing day for England. But the last pair added 47 runs and England got to 425 all out. When the Austalians batted, however, England took control of the game, reducing them to 156-8 by the end of Day 2. I don’t know what got into the Ozzies on Friday but most of them lost their wickets to daft shots rather than good bowling. Perhaps it was nerves.
I arrived at Lord’s on Saturday morning, about 9.15. I have been to Lord’s a few times before but not recently and never as the guest of a member of the MCC (Anton). I joined the lengthy queue for member’s guests but made it into the ground in good time to find seats in the Warner Stand (next to the Pavilion) and then have a look around the cricket museum (where the Ashes themselves are on display).
It was a considerably posher occasion than Cardiff, with MCC ties, blazers and other paraphernalia on display. Picnic hampers were in evidence around the enclosure and champagne corks popped at regularly intervals. I contented myself, however, with lager and a bacon butty from the bar behind the stand.
Before the start of play the talk around the crowd was all about knocking over the last two Australian batsmen quickly and then enforcing the follow on. (If the team batting second doesn’t get within 200 runs of the team batting first then they can be required to bat again by the captain of the other team, which is called “following on”.) As it happened the tailenders clung on doggedly and it looked for a while they would close in on the 225 runs needed to avoid the follow-on. However, the last two wickets did eventually fall for a total of 215, leaving a deficit of 210 runs. England could have asked Australia to bat again but, to the consternation of most of the crowd, the England captain Andrew Strauss declined to enforce the follow-on.
There are pros and cons making a team follow on. One of the pros is that it maintains the momentum of the bowling performance. One of the cons is that the bowlers have already bowled an entire innings and have to do the same again almost immediately. They might be a bit tired, which could hand the advantage to the batting side if they can avoid losing early wickets. If the Australian batsmen had scored well after following on then England might also have needed to bat last on a pitch that may have started to break up. Batting last in a Test match is usually quite difficult.
I think Strauss is quite a cautious man and I think he decided that Australia’s strong batting display at Cardiff was enough evidence of ability for him not to want to risk them posting a huge second-innings score. England’s brittle second-innings batting performance at Cardiff provided further reason for not wanting to get into a run chase.
Strauss obviously wants to win the game but he also won’t want to lose it from this position. Test cricket isn’t just win-or-lose: there is also a third possibility, a draw (like at Cardiff). Often the biggest chance of winning a game is to give the side batting last a target that they might try to chase in risky fashion and get bowled out. However, if the batting side are good they might actually get the runs. Too big a target and they won’t be tempted to go for it, too small and they might well reach it. Maximizing the probability of winning does not miminize the probability of losing in this situation. If England simply didn’t want to lose they would bat out time, accumulate a huge total and give Australia insufficient time to make the runs. England might still win in such a strategy but a draw becomes much more probable.
It was clearly Strauss’ judgement was that England needed more runs but he wanted to get them quickly enough to declare and try to force a result in the two remaining days. The England batsmen came out just before lunch to try to push on to a huge lead. They started very brightly but unfortunately both openers Strauss and Cook were out shortly after lunch. There then followed a very turgid couple of hours when Pietersen and Bopara struggled to score runs. Pietersen, usually a prolific hitter, apeared to be struggling with his Achilles injury while Bopara is clearly out of touch at this level. Both batsmen scratched around unconvincingly for most of the session and then got themselves out.
At 174-4 it was looking like another collapse might be on the cards and the Australians might have to chase a total under about 400, which appeared to me to be eminently achievable with two full days play available after Saturday. However, Collingwood and (especially) Prior batted superbly well together taking the score to 260-5 and then Flintoff and Collingwood carried it onto 311 before Collingwood was out.
Many members of the crowd were screaming for a declaration now, but the weather intervened. It had been getting very dark for some time and finally started raining about 6.30. The umpires called off play for the day with England at 311-6, a lead of 521 with two days left to play, a good position to be in by any standards.
Unless the weather turns very bad over the next two days then it seems to me a draw is a very unlikely possibility now. If England declare overnight and Australia can bat for two days they will score enough runs to win the game, but in doing so they will have to surpass by some margin the highest ever total reached in the last innings to win a Test match. Frankly, if they can do that they deserve to win! On the other hand, England have plenty of time to bowl them out even if a bit is lost to the weather. I actually think Strauss’ decision to bat again was probably a good one and I think he should carry on batting tomorrow to get another 100 runs or so. There will still be time to bowl out the Ozzies, but the chance of them scoring enough to win the game is smaller.
I left the ground and walked to Paddington to get the train back to Cardiff and was home by 10pm. A very satisfactory day.
Postscript. I just looked at the scorecard of today’s play (Sunday) before posting this. England declared their innings closed on 311-6 and Australia went into bat this morning. At lunch they were 76-2. The odds are in favour of England winning, but Ponting is still in. It’s nicely poised.