There have been times since Australia lost the Ashes series at Trent Bridge when Michael Clarke has not seemed all that concerned about his Test send-off, but on the first day of the final Investec Test at The Oval, Australia promised to give him a good one all the same.
This was a vision of the Ashes series as many had envisaged it. Australia will delight, as they should, in the success for their upcoming leadership team of captain Steven Smith, who conquered scratchy beginnings to deliver an unbeaten, old-fashioned 78 (well, vinyl is in again, after all), and vice-captain David Warner, his pugnacious moustache removed as if he was determined to prove he can adhere to the responsibilities of middle management, and whose 85 set the tone with its controlled aggression and sound judgment.
For Clarke, an incumbent captain trying to keep body and soul together before he retires – with some relief he says – there was less personally to celebrate. He was fortunate not to be out first ball and reached 15, a lofted on-drive against Moeen Ali has most assertive moment, before he feathered a ball from Ben Stokes to the wicketkeeper. Clarke reviewed, but Real-Time Snicko confirmed an edge sensed by umpire Kumar Dharmasena but too faint for Hot Spot.
The upshot of Australia’s diligence – diligence it should be said on a surface that became less testing as the day progressed – was that they closed the first day handsomely placed on 287 for 3 and, having stabilised themselves for the first time since their victory at Lord’s, they will be questioning what exactly occurred in the feverish period at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge when a decent, but far from exceptional, England attack took on the status of world beaters.
Win this Test, incidentally, though it was looking a tougher challenge, and England would leapfrog Australia on their way to No. 2 in the rankings. It would take a strong response with the second new ball, due imminently, for that ambition to be confidently voiced.
There has been such an insanely addictive quality to this Investec Ashes series that a normal, hard-fought day of Test cricket at times had a depressive feel about it. The Oval pitch largely behaved itself, despite all predictions to the contrary, and more to the point Australia’s batsmen behaved themselves, too, punctiliously so. Everybody was behaving themselves. It was all thoroughly virtuous.
Nothing wrong with that many will properly say. Test cricket must be allowed its occasional longueurs. There was much nous and skill on show. But there will have been England supporters at The Oval who will have found normality hard to bear, grousing, as Confucius did, that virtuous people often revenge themselves for the constraints to which they submit by the boredom which they inspire.
London has treated Australia well; it is the rebellious outposts which have caused them such grief. They won at Lord’s and, south of the river, all the punditry about whether The Oval would unveil a pitch that was green, greener or greenest, was somewhat exaggerated.
Summer has hardly happened in England this year, as a lush square and outfield testified, but this square rarely turns upon batsmen. Even though the weather was overcast, England’s pace bowlers found no swing and when they did occasionally find the edge, a sluggish surface ensured the ball often did not carry.
Culture shock was at its most apparent before lunch as The Oval reacquainted cricket followers with that strange phenomenon: attritional cricket. Eighty-two runs at a touch over three an over is hardly pedestrian on the first morning of a Test match, but it felt like another world.
Australia, whose batting has been characterised by impatience throughout the Ashes summer, survived the first morning without losing a wicket, Rogers and Warner, who showed serious intent from the outset, achieving something neither side had managed in the first four Tests.
Warner has been the one Australia batsman in this series who has given the impression of gaining an education in English conditions, the ever-admirable Rogers having completed the course years ago, and Warner’s half-century – his fifth of the series – was bagged 10 minutes before the interval when he drove Steven Finn to the cover boundary. Even at his most watchful, he naturally scores at a decent lick. Rogers was a vigilant ally.
Expectancy was high after England won the toss – how could it not be after Australia had been blown away for 60 at Trent Bridge? – and Stuart Broad, whose eight wickets did the damage on that occasion, was not too far away with an lbw appeal against Rogers in the first over. Cook resisted a review and the ball was slipping down leg.
But Broad, not quite as straight or full as he had been when conditions were tilted in his favour at Trent Bridge, was not at his best and, after Australia’s vigilant first hour in the most challenging period of the day, it soon became clear that England would have to settle in for a long day. Once it became established that Stokes would not summon the pronounced swing he found in Nottingham, Warner and Rogers were eager to establish supremacy. His next four overs disappeared for 32.
England took two wickets in the middle session. An opening stand of 110 came to grief when Rogers, on 43, lost his normal compact shape and edged a catch, taken at the second attempt, to Alastair Cook at first slip. Warner followed to a regulation slip catch by Adam Lyth as he pushed forward to an offspinner from Moeen that turned slightly. He might not be England’s favourite opponent, but he is averaging 46 for the series and even they could not have fairly begrudged him a first Ashes hundred in England.
Clarke narrowly avoided a freakish first-ball dismissal seconds after walking through an England guard of honour with a capacity crowd at The Oval rising to applaud him as he came out to bat in his farewell Test.
A scoreboard showing 161 for 2 represented uncommon luxury for Clarke during a troubled Ashes series, but his contentment was almost short-lived. Clarke set off for what he imagined was a single off the mark as he worked Moeen behind square, wrongly believing that the ball had passed Ian Bell at leg slip, but Bell could not quite rescue the ball from behind his body to throw down the stumps.
Clarke can look proudly upon a Test record of 8643 runs at 49.10 but in this series he has been part of an Australia middle order, from Nos 4 to 6, that has averaged less than 17 as England’s pace bowlers have found scant resistance on helpful surfaces. He did nothing to change that statistic personally as Stokes removed him, but Voges and Smith began to smooth it over and had assembled an unbroken stand of 101 when bad light intervened with the second new ball only two deliveries away. All a little too late, obviously. Clarke, whose time is almost done, will feel that more than anyone.