There are many ways to lose a Test and Australia have lost this one in a manner that will cause them much disquiet. They would have had to make history to chase down 412 in Cardiff. Instead they made an unholy mess of things, surrendering five top-order wickets in 12 overs from the stroke of lunch to make a thumping England victory in the first Investec Test inevitable.
That victory came in the 17th over of the final session: the margin 169 runs, the forecast of rain until mid-afternoon on the final day an irrelevance. The pace bowlers were having a rest in anticipation of a second new ball that was not needed and Joe Root, man of the match for his decisive first-innings hundred, even nipped in with a couple of wickets and the final catch.
A defiant, clean-hitting half-century by Mitchell Johnson, with the ball soft, the pitch napping and the pressure lifted by the prospect of certain defeat, provided some window dressing, but by the time he fell at slip for 77 from 94 balls, he had provided apt commentary on Australia’s middle-order failings as England went 1-0 up in the series. The favourites beaten at the first attempt: we have a series on our hands.
Australia initially put up determined resistance in challenging batting conditions. No side had ever successfully achieved such a fourth-innings target in an Ashes contest, but Australia made a solid start before the departure of David Warner, the second wicket to fall, in the final over before lunch, rallied England’s spirits. Things were never the same again.
There were doubts before the series that England’s attack had the capacity to dismiss Australia twice. But in Cardiff they have made much more disciplined and resourceful use of a slow, dry and occasionally inconsistent surface. Stuart Broad and James Anderson have been rejuvenated by another Ashes skirmish, Mark Wood has bowled straight and purposefully, Ben Stokes has raised his reliability levels and Moeen Ali, although not finding the turn uncovered by his Australian opposite number, Nathan Lyon, has nevertheless had the guile to spirit five good wickets in the match.
The loss of Warner, for 52, abruptly changed the outlook at the end of a morning session when Australia, at 97 for 1, had done their utmost to insist that in an Ashes Test there was no such thing as a done deal. Moeen Ali ran a ball into Warner’s pads, he was bemused as he edged back when he might have gone forward, missed the ball by a notable distance and the umpire’s decision fell to England.
That wicket must have been a particular relief for Moeen, who had been given an early outing by Cook, but whose two overs cost 22, including a six over midwicket by Warner, as he failed to settle. Lyon had taken four wickets on the previous day on a responsive surface and Moeen was bearing heavy expectations. It was a good call by the captain to take another look as the morning session ticked away.
Chris Rogers had been the first wicket to fall, his sequence of Test fifties ending at seven, and a share of the record. Stuart Broad capped a probing new-ball spell by dismissing him for 10 as he angled one into him from around the wicket and a defensive push flew low to Ian Bell at second slip. Rogers stood his ground, to England’s discomfort, before TV replays confirmed the catch was clean.
Warner had begun to settle in ominously before his dismissal and England had already jettisoned one review against him when a ball from Broad had actually flicked the top of Warner’s pad. Broad also sensed another lbw when Warner was 15, his brain not entirely computing the presence of a big inside nick. There could be no more liberties with only one review remaining and Broad curbed his ambitions, holding his hands to a reddening face like a teenager suddenly realising on the last bus home that they had left their mobile phone in the lavatory.
England could be satisfied with the standards they achieved, and could point at numerous examples in the morning session when fortune did not quite fall their way. Broad and James Anderson combined in an insistent opening salvo, passing the bat regularly.
There was not the same swing available as there had been earlier in the match but England wisely pulled back their lengths slightly, in the expectation that a dry and variable surface would come to their aid.
Five Australia wickets for 25 in 12 overs was an emphatic turnaround. Seven balls into the session, Smith was gone, steering a wide ball to Bell at second slip, the second time in the match he had been out for 33. It was a reward for the plan England have followed all Test against Smith, bowling at fifth or sixth stump, calculating that a batsman who walks so far across his crease to cover his stumps by the time the batsman delivers will not be best placed to put a bit more mileage in.
Clarke will be equally disappointed by his departure. He was searching for a delivery from Broad that he could only drive to backward point. Broad has now dismissed him 10 times in Tests: once it reaches double figures, one can assume that a pattern is probably developing. Broad, stirred by England’s rush of wickets, three of them his, beckoned for the crowd to get involved. The old football staple of “You’re not singing any more” wafted towards the banks of Australia supporters, the ultimate criticism, of course, when delivered in the Land of Song.
Voges, in common with Rogers, has a traditional English approach about him. He was not about to try to knock England’s bowlers off their lengths, certainly not in only his third Test at the age of 35. He made only a single before edging Wood off the back foot, a reward for the bowler’s excellent line.
From 106 for 5, Haddin’s glowering aggression was not about to stem the tide. His failure to catch Joe Root, on 0, on the first day would be a turning point in the Test that he would just have to learn to live with. Wood bounced him twice; Haddin got off the mark with a streaky pull which barely cleared the stumps and then grimaced as he was struck in the groin.
It was the seemingly futile resistance of an old soldier and it was ended not by Wood but by Moeen, who tossed up his first delivery for Haddin’s ugly heave to be excellently caught, second attempt, by Cook at short mid-on, a productive position on this slow surface, where Smith had also come to grief against Moeen in the first innings.
England had only to add a favourite toy to the pram to make their afternoon complete. Wood sprang into his gymnastics run, a straight, full ball exposed Shane Watson’s front-foot plant and, as Watson reviewed the decision without avail, it gave everybody time to update that damning statistic: that is 29 lbw dismissals in 109 Test innings (14 in 35 against England) and while he remains in the side it is a fair assumption that the figure will keep on rising.
The final session saw Johnson hit straight and often as England suddenly looked as weary as the pitch. But Root popped in for an encore. Lyth alertly held Johnson at slip after Cook’s parry from gully, Lyth again held the catch as Johnson fell more conventionally and then, as if he could do no wrong, Root wandered off into the deep to hold the winning catch.