• The Ashes

Root fights but Australia tighten grip

The Report by David Hopps at Adelaide Oval
December 8, 2013 « Late birdies save Tiger's round | Chartbeat test »

England 172 and 6 for 247 (Root 87, Pietersen 53, Prior 31*, Broad 22*) need another 284 runs to beat Australia 570 for 9 dec and 132 for 3 dec
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Joe Root scored 87 before he was caught by a diving Brad Haddin © Getty Images
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As Joe Root led a stubborn England rearguard action in a third Test that logically seems as good as lost, perhaps the name of Faf du Plessis occasionally sustained him. It was du Plessis who stonewalled for seven-and-a-half hours on this ground a year ago as South Africa escaped with a draw.

The task for Root was even more extreme: he would have had to bat for 12 hours, plus overtime, and find England batsmen to stay with him to stave off an inevitable defeat - and there had been little sense at the start of his innings that an image of Faf du Plessis was pinned to every England kit bag.

Ultimately, Root managed only four and a half hours and, dismissed for 87, did not even have a hundred to sustain him. But for England, even if they go 2-0 down in Adelaide, the resistance was far from futile. Root reminded England that their pressing priority in this Ashes series is to see off Mitchell Johnson's short, violent spells, to make him so weary that his performance levels drop, and to turn the series into 11-a-side again.

They will tell themselves they began to achieve that that by taking the Test into a fifth day, with four wickets still intact (albeit, against the second new ball, looking about as secure as a wobbling coconut), although the draining effect might have been lost on Stuart Broad, whose shining countenance at the crease was enough for Johnson to stroke his melodramatic moustache with anticipation and crank it up above 145kph again. Broad survived and the day ended heatedly with Johnson sledging and Broad tapping the side of his helmet to communicate that he was a bit of a nutter.

Root's departure, nine overs into the final session, came in a sedater phase of the fourth day and denied the young Yorkshireman what would have been a meritorious hundred. Nathan Lyon, the offspinner, had a day to forget, persistently failing to get the ball across the right-hander. The same was true of the ball that dismissed Root, but he got an inside edge onto his thigh as he played leg side and Brad Haddin scooped up a catch that found its way to the off side of the stumps.

England awoke to headlines proclaiming that they were so spooked by Johnson that another 5-0 whitewash could be on the cards. When Michael Clarke declared Australia's innings 15 minutes before play began, with a lead of 530, it was time for an England captain to stand up and be counted. Alastair Cook did just that - and immediately it all went horribly awry.

Cook's decision to hook the third ball he faced from Johnson - a head-high bouncer designed to clear sleep from the eyes - was appropriate enough for a few hard-wired batsmen of yore who believed in fighting fire with fire, the former Australian captain Ian Chappell among them, but others looked on in disbelief as Cook's top edge was efficiently held by Ryan Harris, anticipating well and moving purposefully, at fine leg.

Johnson's 7 for 40 on a sunlit Adelaide Saturday had been the best return by an Ashes fast bowler in Adelaide, a ground where batsmen have normally dominated and a fast bowler's boots fill with blood. The shock still lingered on Sunday morning for England's travelling band of supporters, many of whom were still staring blankly at their breakfast burgers when they heard that their captain had been dismissed a second time.

Cook is a good hooker, and it was Cook whose example three years ago was the prime source of England's Ashes win in Australia. But what was certain was that as an attempt to stifle Johnson's terror, his response had failed in its execution. To add to England's misery, Michael Carberry followed in similar fashion in the 12th over when he whipped a short ball from Peter Siddle off his hip and this time picked out Lyon, another decent catch, at long leg.

Kevin Pietersen stood firm alongside Root for 35.3 overs, both making half-centuries in a partnership of 111 on a dry and increasingly lifeless pitch. It was England's most considered batting of the series, but the pair could not see through the afternoon session, Peter Siddle exposing Pietersen's searching defensive shot and bowling him off an inside edge.

Pietersen, dismissed by Siddle for the ninth time, had until then borne his responsibilities seriously as he often does in an innings immediately following condemnation for recklessness. Australia goaded him with two short midwickets again, but this time there was no attempt to take up the challenge. Only when met with Steve Smith's legspin did he allow himself a strut or two, depositing a full toss straight for six.

Root's most impressive period came in Johnson's third spell, post lunch. He eschewed the hook, left well and when he was compromised by a straight, short one, punched it dead in front of his feet with his glove. Johnson snarled at a grin which was beginning to irritate him. He played with great selectivity against an Australian attack not quite at its best. Unlike his captain, he settled in cautiously, five runs from 34 balls, before a full toss from Lyon drew him into a productive rhythm that he never relinquished. His place at No.3, in preference to Ian Bell, looked increasingly appropriate for both parties: both look settled where they are.

Bell, so impressive in the first innings against the ferocity of Johnson, succumbed to a low full toss from Smith. It was not the first time in these back-to-back Ashes series that Smith has lulled Bell into something ill advised, this time an on-drive which was efficiently taken by Johnson at mid-on. Every other England batsman lies awake at night thinking about the violence of Johnson's bouncer and Bell is troubled by a vision which could easily be adopted as a child's bedtime story.

The series has borne little resemblance to the statistics which preceded it: England unbeaten in 13 Tests, Australia with seven defeats in nine. England have talked sternly of a need to make 400-plus totals again but they was grateful to pass 200 for the first time in four attempts, a minor marking point achieved when Ben Stokes swept and off drove Lyon for boundaries in the same over. Stokes is a rumbustious hitter, but it was not the position to prove it. He resisted for two hours for 28, surviving an Australian assault against a cumbersome front pad.

There was a strong argument for Clarke to rest his fast bowlers ahead of the second new ball, but he was impatient to get the match won. It was Harris who made the new-ball breakthrough, Stokes pushing at one to fall at second slip, but Johnson missed the off stumps of Matt Prior and Broad by a whisker. Prior, who was on 18 when he braced himself for a death rattle that never came, will tell himself it might be the personal turning point he needs.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

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