Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Stokes on fire but Australians get closer to Ashes

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Ben Stokes on fire but Australians get closer to Ashes after win at Lord’s.

Stuart Broad’s batting has seen better days. The man with a Test highest of 169 has been a genuine tail-ender for a long time now, and is rarely keen to hang around for long. How does one then explain the veteran seamer taking one body blow after another from Australian pacers, landing a few punches of his own, and stitching what could have been a match-winning seventh-wicket century stand from a near-hopeless situation? Even No. 11 James Anderson, a veteran of 180 Tests, and rookie Josh Tongue suffered for a long time when the cause was seemingly lost.

Stokes

Steve Smith is one of the great catchers in contemporary cricket, whether close to the stumps or in the deep. How does then one explain him dropping a relatively sitter of a skier, which would in all probability have given the visitors a 2-0 lead in the five-match Ashes series with much less drama?

There is a certain magic about Ashes series that many in the subcontinent may not get. They may not appreciate what all the fuss is about. But what happened on Sunday would make believers of most cynics. It just matters more to England and Australia.

Make no mistake, the real protagonist in whatever happened on the final day of the second Test at Lord’s was England captain Ben Stokes. There were his 2019 Headingley heroics, but four years later he took it a few notches higher. Contrary to the Leeds game, Stokes’ 155 off 214 balls with nine fours and as many sixes couldn’t take his side home as the Aussies prevailed by 43 runs on another day of enthralling Test cricket. But the fare on offer for the second game in a row would force fans to keep coming back for more.

Stokes had been battling a bad knee, and was hit at various other spots on the body during his knock, but his track record – be it in white-ball World Cup final or marquee Test matches – shows that he relishes the big occasion when everything rests on his shoulders.

Flashpoint

It all may have been ignited by a bit of “dozy cricket” by Jonny Bairstow, in the words of some commentators, when he wandered out of his crease after ducking under a Cameron Green bouncer. It was the last ball of the over, but the umpire at the bowler’s end had not called ‘over’. Wicketkeeper Alex Carey had already gathered the ball and when his underarm throw hit the stumps, Bairstow was already well out of his crease.

The ball was not ‘dead’ and the batsman was deemed stumped.

For about 90 minutes either side of lunch on Sunday – from the moment Bairstow was dismissed – Lord’s was an unusually febrile place. Forget polite applause, every English run was vociferously cheered while every Australian intervention was met with jeers.

Stuck with the long English tail, and probably riled by the manner of Bairstow’s dismissal, Stokes decided to take matters into his own hands. He turned on his beast mode, and got into T20 style, smashing the living daylights out of the Aussie bowlers. The left-hander kept peppering the short leg-side boundary, profited from at least two dropped chances, and hit Green for three successive sixes to bring up his 13th Test hundred.

His stand with Broad brought 108 runs. They had come together when the target of 371 was still 178 runs away, and took England to within 70. Cummins & Co didn’t seem to know what hit them and had to regroup at the drinks break. They then focused on bringing the scoring rate under control, and when Stokes miscued an attempted pull shot into the leg-side off Josh Hazlewood, with the resultant leading edge being gobbled by Carey, there was only going to be one winner, even though the last English pair tried its best to delay the inevitable.

Bigger picture

Apart from the dramatic final day, this Test will also be remembered for the amount of short-pitched stuff resorted to by both teams, with a good deal of success. The two-paced nature of the pitch may have had something to do with it, and even on the final day, when Stokes was going berserk, Australia resorted to the same tactic, as there was not much help from the pitch and they were missing their premier off-spinner Nathan Lyon, who would have been expected to do the business in the fourth innings.

Even after Stokes’ dismissal, the eighth and ninth wickets fell to bouncers, before Mitchell Starc broke Tongue’s resistance with a yorker.

This series was billed as a face-off between Bazball and Australia’s more considered, traditional approach. Both matches so far have gone almost to the wire, with the slightly more conservative approach coming out on top both times. After their more gung-ho style at Edgbaston, there was a bit more pragmatism displayed by England in the second Test, manifesting in the bouncer barrage midway through Day 4, which brought them back into the game. It dried up the runs, and with several fielders on the boundary, it made taking the short ball on a high-risk option.

With a fielder at short leg and one at leg-gully, riding a bouncer was also not easy. It was an effective strategy, but made for turgid viewing, quite at odds with England’s stated mission of playing entertaining cricket and making a spectacle of it.

If the Aussies succeed in winning the Ashes series in England for the first time since 2001, it could be the coming-of-age moment for Cummins as captain. He has already led his team to World Test Championship glory, but doing what the likes of Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke failed to achieve would put him in elite company. Apart from his tactical and man-management qualities, Cummins has led from the front with both bat and ball, and late in the evening on Sunday had the energy to bowl at full pelt and chase the ball to the boundary himself with all the fielders surrounding the England tail-enders.

Winning at Lord’s despite getting the worst of the conditions while batting and bowling, and being a key bowler down for most of the game, is a feather in the cap for the impressive Australian skipper.

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Also read: West Indies Can be No.1 Team in World Cricket: Gambhir

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