By Zaheer E. Clarke
(Published August 10, 2015)
It was Jamaica’s Independence Day, yet my focus was in the homeland of their old colonial masters, England, as I was about to experience, once again, the Holy Grail in cricket: the Ashes, a rivalry of almost 14 decades. Antsy with anticipation, I took my seat in the Trent Bridge ground near the Pavilion End, or so it seemed. The stands were beyond electric. The Fanatics, Australia’s loyal cricket followers, occupied several coordinated sections in their honey gold and baggy green outfits while the faithful English public buzzed like a sea of bees, eager to witness their team inject another sting. England was up 2-1 heading into this fourth Test of the five-Test series, and from the ebbs and flows of the series, it was Australia’s turn to strike back. The English attack was depleted. They had lost their spear’s tip, Jimmy Anderson, the most accomplished English bowler of all-time, to injury.
Fifteen minutes before the start of the match, a sprinkle from the clouds emerged, and the groundsmen scampered on with covers to keep the pitch dry. Ten minutes later the covers were off and I then realized why they were raring to keep the pitch as is. Unlike 12 months earlier when the pitch was described as “poor” by the International Cricket Council, today was perfect. Eight millimetres of evergreen grass overlaid on the clay pitch, which meant that in these overcast conditions, bowling first was dagger-perfect. Fortunately for England, their captain Alastair Cooke had won the toss half an hour before and decided to send Australia in.
The match starts five minutes past eleven. Stuart Broad bustles in from the Pavilion End, one short of 300 wickets in Test cricket: a feat only four Englishmen have ever crossed. The first two Broad deliveries were almost a replica of the searing third. From around the wicket to Chris Rogers, the air swirled still. The ball swerved through the air, pitched, and like a laser-guided bomb, dove towards Roger’s off stump. With his bat as his only defence, the ball nipped off his bat’s edge and rushed in the direction of the slip fielders. Captain Cooke, as if planned for weeks before the toss, collected the catch, and the Barmy Army of English supporters erupted in ecstatic applause. Broad high-fived all his teammates. They hugged him or gave him a pat on the back. That was his 300th Test wicket, a memorable milestone for any Test bowler.
For Australia, the number one batsman in world cricket, Steven Smith walked to the crease to plug the tapped opening stand. After his first two deliveries faced, six runs were scored off his bat and Rogers’ demise of two balls earlier were a far removed thought. For his sixth and final ball of the over, Broad ran in like a lion, seemingly from the edge of a Safari park. Smith premeditatedly moves across, covering his stumps. Broad’s biting delivery leaps off the pitch and threatens Smith’s chest and exposed neck. Desperately, Smith tries to fend off the death attack, but only loops the ball to the safe hands of another slip fielder. The Australian Army is dead silent and the English kegs are bellowing like a bell.
In the next over, Anderson’s injury replacement, Mark Wood gets his fifth bite at the Test cricket cherry and bowls to the most aggressive Test batsman around, David Warner. Before I could finish a sip from the bottled water I bought, and before Australian captain Michael Clarke could finish his morning cup of tea, Warner was out caught and Clarke was due in. Clarke walks into five slip fielders, a short leg, and the buzzing English spectators like vultures lingering over a fluttering wounded prey.
Bombastic Broad returns for the third over of the innings and in four balls Shaun Marsh is on his way to the pavilion. Commentator David Lloyd is beside himself and exclaims through my headphones over the radio: “They are tumbling all over the place”. I check my watch and unbelievable only 15 minutes have gone in the match and Australia have lost four wickets for 15 runs. The Australian ship is definitely signalling Mayday; however, cool Captain Clarke is at the helm, out in the middle.
At the start of the fifth over, Voges, the last recognizable lieutenant (or batsman except Captain Clarke) abandons ship when England’s Ben Stokes produces a superman-type catch with his body fully stretched, and parallel to the ground. Two overs later, the Captain too abandons ship, when his opposite number Cooke plucks the ball out of the air. The Australian tailenders are left to salvage anything possible with bustling Broad now bowling to six slip fielders.
I hear spectators shout: “Pietersen, who?” as Andrew Strauss is shown on the big screen, applauding as Michael Clarke exits the field. Earlier this spring, Strauss delivered the last stake in Pietersen’s possible return to the English setup. Simultaneously, Strauss was assured the security of his job as director of cricket even if England lost the Ashes this summer. This seems to be a justified move and England now have one hand or both, firmly on the Ashes trophy, or so it would seem, even though this is still the first inning.
Nevertheless, by the end of the Australian first inning, Broad drew level with the great Fred Trueman at 307 Test wickets and produced his career best of 8 wickets for 15 runs. Unsurprisingly, the hometown boy Broad bowled 50 dot balls out of 57 balls delivered. The English supporters relished the fact that the Australian innings was the shortest-ever first innings of a Test: 18 overs and 3 balls. Bragging rights I guess for the next Ashes series. Cricket’s superstitious statisticians were also beside themselves to highlight that the Australian innings was equivalent to the Nelson: 111 balls (18 overs and 3 balls). Some spectators joked: “Extras top scored!”
As I looked at my watch, 20 minutes to 1 P.M., I realized England had scored the perfect hundred. In about 100 minutes, they virtually secured the Ashes in what many will call a perfect session of play. It certainly was.
Until next time …
© Zaheer Clarke
From the “Lies & Statistics” Column in the Western Mirror (Published Monday, August 10, 2015)