Danny Byrne = “Late September sunshine and the Australian captain’s strange decision to bowl first; Day One at the Oval
When I checked out of the Renuka City Hotel in Colombo the Hotel manager’s final words asked me to take the rain with me. The following evening I was back in London when I received an email from Nick with a photograph of a beautiful sunset in Negombo. In the 15 days I was in Sri Lanka I don’t recall ever seeing the sun. The rainfall for August was well above the average level for the time of year and my uncanny reputation for creating precipitation wherever I go was further enhanced. However, it isn’t always directly my responsibility when it rains.
Two days before the start of the final Test Match Terry was being instructed not to open umbrellas in the Beehive garden for the foreseeable future. Donal was struggling to explain the Butterfly Effect. When a butterfly flaps its wings in New Mexico it will eventually produce a hurricane in China. Terry didn’t look convinced so I tried to elaborate. When Donald Trump opens his trap in Florida the fish off the shores of the Philippines instinctively swim a hundred metres deeper.Perhaps I wasn’t helping the situation. On the first day of the Old Trafford Test a group of us were watching play on one of the large TV screens while enjoying a quiet drink when Terry suddenly appeared from the cellar carrying an umbrella. At precisely the same moment in time the rain started falling in Manchester and it looked like the afternoon was going to be spoiled. Terry was dispatched to the far side of the garden, the umbrella was put away and the rain suddenly stopped. It provided a salutary lesson for all those left drinking in the pub. If Terry could have such a devastating effect on the weather 300 Km away just imagine the chaos he could be capable of causing at a ground less than 300 metres away.
Fortunately the BBC Weather forecast suggested we would be safe from the effects of any other umbrellas Terry might have hidden in the cellar and when the two captains met in the middle of the pitch half an hour before the scheduled start of play the Australian captain won the toss and made the strange decision to ask England to bat first. With Ben Stokes unable to bowl due to a shoulder injury England left out Jason Roy and played Sam Curran in his place allowing them to field five front line bowlers as usual. Chris Woakes was recalled at the expense of Craig Overton in the only other alteration to the home team sheet. Australian sides normally make do with only four front line bowlers but on this occasion Mitchell Marsh was selected instead of Travis Head to add another seam bowler into the mix. Peter Siddle was preferred to Mitchell Starc in a move that made as much sense as the decision to bowl first particularly given Marsh’s inclusion.
It was only the fourth time in the last 19 Tests at the Oval where the team winning the toss had inserted the opposition. More significantly perhaps only three of the 101 previous Tests played at the Oval had been won by a team winning the toss and electing to bowl first. Burns and Denly walked out to bat in cloudy humid conditions. Burns survived a tricky first over from Cummins and managed to get off the mark by pushing the ball through the extra cover region for a boundary off Hazlewood. Burns was given out lbw to Hazlewood in the fourth over and the Surrey captain immediately called for a Review. Fortunately for England the ball was shown to be going over the top of leg stump. Denly also had a lucky escape when he edged a delivery from Hazlewood wide of gully at shoulder height. Siddle replaced Hazlewood after only 3 overs and England had scored 24 without loss from the first 7 overs.
Denly hit Siddle for three through extra cover to take the partnership to 27, the highest by either side in this series and the highest by the England openers for the entire summer. Denly’s luck finally ran out when he attempted to drive at a wide delivery and was caught by Smith at the third attempt at second slip off Cummins ( 27 – 1 ). Root started efficiently, cutting two boundaries behind square off Siddle before Hazlewood took over from Cummins at the Pavilion End. Siddle’s first spell proved to be uncharacteristically expensive conceding 18 runs from 3 overs. He was replaced by Marsh immediately after the drinks interval. Cummins returned from the Pavilion End and Root pulled a short delivery straight to Siddle at fine leg but the chance was spilled. The 50 partnership was completed from only 78 balls before Root was dropped again off Cummins’ next over, this time by Paine diving in front of Warner at first slip who looked set to accept the chance. Lyon bowled a solitary over before the interval and at Lunch the score was 86 – 1 from 25 overs.
Root was dropped again immediately after the break by Smith diving to his right at second slip. He had been given an extra life when on 24, 25 and 30. It was the first time he had ever been dropped three times in a Test innings. He shrugged his shoulders and carried on. A glorious cover drive took his tally of Test runs to 7,000 making him the third youngestplayer to achieve the feat after Alastair Cook and Sachin Tendulkar and the twelfth Englishman. Things were looking good for the hosts until Burns failed to deal with a short delivery from Hazlewood and hit the ball tamely to Marsh at mid-wicket having made 47 from 87 balls ( 103 – 2 ).
Cummins replaced Hazlewood at the Pavilion End and Stokes hit his first delivery for a boundary. 11 came off the over and Marsh replaced Siddle at the Vauxhall End. Stokes became the third batsman to be dismissed to a poor shot when an attempted pull to a short delivery from Marsh was somehow hit high in the air to Lyon at gully ( 130 – 3 ). Siddle replaced Cummins and Bairstow nailed him with back to back boundaries. Root went on to complete his half century from 105 balls and Bairstow completed 4,000 Test runs. At Tea the score was 169 – 3 from 52 overs with 83 runs having been added in the session for the loss of two wickets from 27 overs.
The first four overs after Tea were all maidens delivered by Cummins and Marsh. The pressure had been applied and the first ball of the fifth over knocked back Root’s off stump ( 170 – 4 ). The Australians were convinced they had Buttler caught by Paine down the leg side but an unsuccessful review highlighted what proved to be another excellent decision by Marais Erasmus. Bairstow was lbw to a yorker from Marsh and he wasted a review before leaving the field ( 176 – 5 ). Curran astonished players and spectators alike by pulling his fourth delivery over the head of the fielder at fine leg for 6 but was lbw two balls later playing across the line to the leg side. He had almost reached the boundary before third umpire Pallyagurige remembered to check for a no-ball. Cummins had over-stepped and the Surrey all-rounder had been reprieved.
The Test Match Special commentators were talking about graffiti for some reason and it brought back fond memories of something I remembered from thirty years ago. The good people of Vauxhall had certainly suffered under the Conservative Government at the time and someone had painted “Thatcher Out” in enormous letters under one of the bridges close to the train station. By the end of the 1989 Ashes series someone else had added “lbw Alderman.” Thirty years on from then we had floodlights at the Oval and by 5 pm they were shining brightly. Curran hit Marsh for a thunderous boundary through the covers before attempting a drive to Marsh and being comfortably caught at head height by Smith standing in his customary place beside Warner at second slip (199 –6).
Hazlewood replaced Cummins at the Pavilion End after an excellent 6 over spell after Tea. Marsh continued from the Vauxhall End and Woakes was plumb lbw to another attempted yorker ( 203 – 7 ). Archer pulled Hazlewood to the mid-wicket boundary but was soon caught behind to a good delivery from the fast bowler that appeared to swing away ( 226 – 8 ). Buttler hit successive sixes into the Pavilion off Hazlewood and Paine started juggling his bowlers in a desperate attempt to finish off the innings. When Marsh returned for another spell he suddenly pulled up suffering with cramp and had to leave the field for treatment. Cummins completed the over before Buttler pulled Hazlewood high over mid-wicket into the crowd to complete his half century from 60 balls including three 6’s and five 4’s. Labuschagne was given an over and when the new ball was available it was taken immediately with the score 269 – 8. Leach and Buttler survived until the close of play adding a further two runs to their partnership which was now worth 45 valuable runs. Only 82 overs were bowled in six and a half hours and unlike in Sri Lanka the slow rate was not due to the batsmen constantly asking for drinks and fresh pairs of gloves. The weather forecast is for sunshine for the next two days and if the Australians take advantage of the batting conditions then Paine’s strange decision to bowl this morning might not look so silly by the end of the third day.