England is a nation which has long become obsessed with odd characters, perhaps in lieu of real sporting success. Eddie the Eagle might be the perfect example, but without question the most pertinent current specimen is Monty Panesar. That’s him smiling above, having just played a not inconsiderable role in scraping a draw for England from the yawning jaws of defeat. I have to say that this was the most enthralling last session of a win-impossible test match since Graeme Smith and his broken limb strode purposefully (but ultimately fruitlessly) to the wicket at the SCG six months ago.
Unlike that instance, when South Africa froze on the brink of pulling off an unlikely draw on the way to a dominant series win, the game was already an outlier, a consolation prize for an aging team on the verge of some public and private humilations. Here we’re being asked to believe that a team with a few substitutions is now young and dynamic, balanced by age and experience in a few key areas. That description far more aptly fits this English side, who had an appalling game, particularly with the ball, but will come out of this shot full of adrenaline, whereas Australia will be thoroughly deflated.
That the latter could dominate so comprehensively and still be psychologically damaged from the match is, in large part, down to the courage and cockeyed skill of James Anderson and Monty Panesar. This is noteworthy because, as mentioned above, the English public largely took Panesar to heart because he can play the part of the fool so well. He has been a very effective spin bowler for a team which suffered through the Wiseman-esque era of Ashley Giles for a number of years, but it is the way he approached the other elements of the game of cricket which drew the obtuse love of his public.
Put simply, Panesar was a bumbling incompetent at all disciplines save the one he was selected for. He has amassed 14 ducks in his 51 innings test career, and scored zero in six of his first ten turns at bat. His fielding was similarly awful, he would bound around the boundary from wherever Michael Vaughan had tried to hide him, and collapse in a mess of limbs while the ball more often than not eluded his enthusiastic attention. And let’s not start on his arm from the deep. For these reasons the deeply perverse English sporting fan embraced him with a rare fervour. The fact that he was a patka-wearing Sikh, a brown face the country could wholeheartedly embrace when race riots and tube bombings were ringing in its ears, surely added to his appeal.
But this evening he used the bat which had so bemused him early in his career to help England to a draw which stretched unlikely to the limits of its definition. I can only hope that every one of the 20 newly-contracted New Zealand cricketers was watching, because the bravery Collingwood, Flintoff, Swann, Anderson and Panesar displayed today was stirring stuff, and starkly contrasted with our own recent efforts to save games which appeared lost. After Pieterson went at 31, and Strauss not long after, few in the boistrous Cardiff crowd would have had much hope for the match, but they were treated to a near-classic in the end.
This was as much due to the Australian bowlers as the English batsmen, which raises my hopes that this series might challenge the ’05 version for interest, if not quality. Hilfenhaus looked penetrating, asking pertinent questions in both innings, Hauritz was searching and Siddle (who sported some truly appalling slave beads – Austrlian cricketers’ pieces of flair are invariably truly frightening) balanced a couple of critical four balls late in the day with the absolutely essential wicket of Collingwood. Mitchell Johnson though, who I picked, with little originality, as the breakout star of the series, was terrible, spraying a new ball which should have perfunctorily cut through the lower order all over the crease. He was not the worst Australian of the day, though.
That honour goes to Ricky Ponting, who appeared to lose his nerve with England nine down, and began equating balls bowled with chances created. He gave North and Hauritz the final few desperation overs, when Hilfenhaus should have been bowling yorkers on middle and off, and as a result gave numbers ten and eleven the seeds of confidence which would grow to a draw which felt like an emphatic win.
The series moves to Lord’s, and England will need to reflect their averages and (sometime) reputations with the bat to change the script. With the likes of Cooke, Strauss, Flintoff and even Pieterson underperforming, and an opposition attack which is solid but not lethal, that is a good possibility. The country is definitely engaged now, which should help, and the way an oddball spinner wielded the willow will galvanise his teammates – now they have to turn this minor miracle into resolve and strength, and make this series sing like it has so many times in the past.