The first Test of the Ashes series is on the verge of fizzling out into a one-sided finish after the first three days had promised enthrallingly close contest.
In that respect, for the fans around the world salivating for a close contest, the collapse of England in the second innings came as a disappointment. Apart from a brief while when Joe Root was stitching partnerships with Mark Stoneman and Moeen Ali, and to a lesser extent during the brief association of Moeen and Johnny Bairstow, there was always the shadow of inevitability looming ominously over the English innings.
Followed by that, the Anderson-Broad pair could not quite sink their teeth into the second Australian innings, and as David Warner and Cameron Bancroft settled down, the second line of English seamers and the side-spin heavy offerings of Moeen seemed rather inadequate to challenge the Aussies at home.
Yet, even if the Test has failed to live up to the enormous expectations it had set during the first three days, it has been a thoroughly entertaining one in one particular respect.
Both the youthful captains are not only two of the best batsmen in the world, they have also proved themselves to be extremely innovative in their approach to tactics and field setting.
All through the Australian first innings, Joe Root had posted fielders in unconventional but highly effective positions. There were moments when five men stood in a circle in front of the batsman, short extra cover, two short mid-offs, short mid-on and short straightish mid-wicket. Directly in the eye-line of batsmen. There were times when the mid-off was left open, and the field was almost uniformly square and fine, encouraging the short delivery and even encroaching on the monk-like equanimity of Steve Smith, enticing him into attempting a tennis overhead smash.
It was not innovation for the sake of innovation, as we see sometimes in modern cricket. It bore results as well. Shaun Marsh fell to a planned move in the first innings, driving a slower ball from Broad into the hands of short mid-off. Perhaps Smith outwitted the English methods by eschewing the drive for most of Day Three and thus found other ways of notching up a magnificent century, but Root’s tactics did allow England to keep the runs in check and Australia under constant pressure, preventing even the best batsman of the world from running away with the game.
And let me add that when a single resulted in changing the batsman on strike, the field was painstakingly readjusted. It was well thought out, cerebral execution. Ashes contests have come a long way from the day Archie MacLaren refused to send Lionel Palairet across the Old Trafford as left-handed Joe Darling came on strike for the last ball of the over; and Fred Tate, good only in the slips, dropped a skier at deep square leg, leading to England losing the Test.
When England batted, Smith’s captaincy did not require that amount of off-beat thinking. With a man of Alastair Cook’s experience hooking his way to his downfall early in the innings, there is hardly a reason to tinker around with standard methods. But, when the need arose, or opportunity presented itself, the captain did invoke subtle novelties.
Not the least of which was the manoeuvring of the third man fielder, bringing him in by a few yards, and converting the traditional boundary patrolman into a catching option. That was how Bairstow fell, bringing the England hopes crashing down.
In modern cricket, with batsmen trained to play the upper cut to near-compulsion, and with bowlers capable enough to send down deliveries that carry enough bounce and pace to allow a glide travel far and fine, the thirdman is much more than a position to cut off steers and edges. It can be an aggressive attacking option. And Smith saw it as one. It was the masterly execution of an intelligent plan and bore excellent results.
One may argue that Jake Ball was destined to be out soon enough, in one way or another. But once again, with Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins eager to pepper him with short stuff, the fly slip that Smith stationed was a sign of active thinking.
With the opposition nine down for not too many, one can fall into the comfort zone of waiting for the last wicket to knock over on its own. Not so for Smith. With bounce and pace the two weapons at his disposal, Cummins running in round the wicket, the Australian captain placed Peter Handscomb in the deepish catching position of fly slip, a seldom-used option for some reason. And Ball had little option but to literally play into his hands.
There was the leg-slip stationed as well, another position which seems incredibly effective, planting seeds of doubt against the regulation leg-glance or the much used fended single to fine leg. Even that is somewhat hesitatingly used by captains, especially for faster bowlers. But in this Test, we have seen men stationed there for both sides.
For the purists who love the nuances associated with Test cricket, these cerebral strategies definitely add to the charm of the game. And apart from being excellent batsmen, both Root and Smith have added plenty of spice to the contest with the thought they have put into the game.