In the early hours of Wednesday 29 December, the English cricket team achieved a feat that had been beyond their grasp for 24 years. When Tim Bresnan, a surprise inclusion at the expense of series leading wicket taker Steven Finn, claimed the last wicket of the Australian second innings, he secured the retention of the Ashes in England’s favour. The result of the match had been decided on the first day however, as Australia capitulated to a miserable 98 all out as the English seam bowlers made full use of the helpful conditions available to them. Such an inauspicious beginning to the match was reinforced by the painful statistic that only five times in the history of Test cricket has a team dismissed for less than 100 in their first innings gone on to win the match; the last occurrence was in 1907, and the other four occasions were in the nineteenth century.
Although England enjoyed the best of the conditions, the bowlers still had to perform to the best of their abilities to take advantage of bowling first. A nervous beginning to the match saw Watson dropped twice, by Collingwood and Pietersen respectively, Anderson the unlucky bowler on both occasions. Chris Tremlett was rewarded with Watson’s wicket however, when he got a ball to kick off a length, resulting in a simple catch at gully for Pietersen as the ball spliced off the bat. Bresnan, making his first appearance in an Ashes Test match had Hughes caught in the gully attempting a wild slash outside his off stump, and Tremlett snared the important wicket of skipper Ponting with a superb delivery fended to second slip. Australia were looking to rebuild at 37-3 with Clarke and Hussey at the crease, but England claimed the vital wicket of the in-form Mr Cricket just before lunch as Anderson drew the thinnest of edges from Hussey to Prior to spark jubilant celebrations.
Australia performed little better after the interval as Smith and Clarke both edged Anderson to Prior prodding tentatively forward, before Bresnan dismissed Haddin who slashed needlessly at a wide delivery. Anderson’s dismissal of all-rounder Mitchell Johnson prompted an Australian commentator to admit that the side was indeed in disarray. Tremlett claimed the final two tail-end wickets to ensure that the total of 98 was the only time that Australia have been dismissed for under 100 in the first innings of an Ashes Test match. All ten dismissals were catches behind the wicket, with Matt Prior claiming six catches, only the fourth time in Test cricket that a wicket-keeper has claimed six catches. Strauss and Cook proceeded to bat serenely in the evening Melbourne sunshine and closed day one on 157-0. The first day of this Test match must surely be considered one of the best in England’s Ashes history, as the team enjoyed a 59 run lead overnight.
England’s openers were both dismissed fairly early on the second day after compiling half-centuries as a determined Siddle tried to get Australia back into the match. Pietersen and Trott however continued with the same rapacious appetite for runs, adding another 92 before Pietersen was adjudged lbw for 51. Both the out of form Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell were dismissed for single-figure scores, and both were dismissed in identical fashion; hooking short balls from Johnson straight to Siddle at fine leg to leave England 286-5. After an early reprieve, Prior finished the day unbeaten on 75 and with Trott on 141*, having provided a batting masterclass for the Melbourne wicket, England closing on 441-5.
The third morning dawned with England hoping to rapidly extend their lead, but the lower-order was veritably blown away as they collapsed from 459-5 to 513 all out, although Jonathan Trott remained unbeaten on 168. Siddle was the one Australian bowler to emerge with any credit, claiming 6-75 in a consistent and workmanlike display. Hilfenhaus was economical but only claimed two tail-end wickets, the enigmatic Johnson was well below-par and Harris limped off injured with an ankle problem. England took to the field 415 runs ahead, seeking to claim an unassailable 2-1 lead in the series. The Australian batsmen showed more spine the second time around, until Hughes was run out following more disastrous running from his partner Watson, with the score on 53. An inswinging delivery from Bresnan was left by Watson and he was adjudged lbw, despite reviewing the initial decision. And Bresnan continued his impressive display to claim the two vital wickets of the struggling Ponting and then Hussey in quick succession to leave Australia in deep trouble at 104-4. Swann and Anderson picked up a wicket apiece before the close, those of Clarke and Smith, the hosts finishing the day on a calamitous 169-6.
With a great air of expectation around an MCG filled almost solely with England supporters, Tremlett clean bowled Mitchell Johnson early on. Despite this breakthrough, and the fact that Harris would not be able to bat due to his injury, Siddle proved an able companion to Haddin, batting admirably to get to 40 before he was caught on the boundary off Swann. It was perhaps apt that it was Bresnan who claimed the final wicket of the match, dismissing Hilfenhaus to secure a comprehensive victory and to retain the Ashes for England. Upon the fall of the last wicket, Sky Sports commentator David Gower memorably exclaimed, ‘Australia are beaten, well-beaten, beaten into the earth’.
I think it is important to emphasise the character shown by England to bounce back from such a large defeat in Perth, where Australia had won by 267 runs. For the England side to respond to losing by such a margin, to then win by an innings and 157 runs is hugely impressive. The England squad have been extremely well prepared by their backroom staff who deserve praise: the likes of Andy Flower, bowling coach David Saker, batting coach Graham Gooch and the team’s first full-time fielding coach Richard Halsall have put in an enormous amount of effort to ensure that the English players have the edge over their Australian opponents in all departments. This victory was England’s largest over Australia since the famous Jim Laker Test of 1956, and has meant that for the first time in history, Australia have lost two Tests in a home series by an innings.
Looking ahead to Sydney, Australia look set to replace the injured Ponting with Usman Khawaja, who will become the first Muslim to represent Australia at Test cricket. It also appears likely that Michael Beer will receive a debut in place of the unavailable Ryan Harris, as the Sydney wicket is known for being conducive to spin bowling. Strauss may consider the possibility of resting Collingwood due to his poor form, possibly providing Eoin Morgan with an opportunity, although England are likely to remain unchanged. They must now push on and ensure they win the series at the SCG, as they seek to establish dominance over Australia, and to climb the Test ranking table.