Match Report by Neil Robinson 24/08/04
The summer of 1928/29, the season in which a precocious youngster by the name of Bradman made his first appearance for Australia against the rampaging Poms, was the last time Englandís cricketers won seven Tests in a row. Three quarters of a century later the opposition was not quite so formidable, but a convincing 10-wicket victory over Brian Laraís hapless West Indies in the fourth and final Test of this series at The Oval was about as good an exposition as you could hope for of a rejuvenated England team, which looks the most powerful to have come out of the old country in twenty years or more.
The 4-0 whitewash was widely expected after three demoralising defeats in rapid succession for the tourists, but once again they flattered to deceive, getting into strong positions from which they might have fashioned a victory of their own, only for the chance to slip through their fingers like a slip-catch through the hands of Ramnaresh Sarwan. And what a good chance it was. Two quick wickets early on day two left England reeling at 321 for 7 on a good pitch with no recognised batsmen left at the crease. But 52 from Ashley Giles, 38 from Matthew Hoggard and a bludgeoning 36 not out from Stephen Harmison brought a further 149 runs from the last three wickets, a total which almost accounted for that of the entire West Indies first innings.
It is a symbol of how well things are going for England that crucial runs have come from the tail whenever the top order has fallen below it usual reliability. Gilesí run scoring potential has long been recognised, but Hoggard and Harmison have reaped the rewards for hard work in the nets in the shape of averages of 27 and 26 respectively. It is an impressive return for two players regarded as no-hopers with the bat when they first came into the side. Harmison the bowler was also back on top form in this match, and a welcome return to form by James Anderson and some inspired catching made this an impressive all-round team performance by Michael Vaughanís team.
But it was some fine, disciplined bowling from the West Indies which defined the opening exchanges on day one. Following a steady opening stand of 51 Strauss was frustrated into a top-edged pull, Key flashed outside off-stump and Trescothick clipped loosely to square-leg. 64 for 3 made for a stern test for Ian Bell on his Test debut, and a nasty blow on the shoulder from the fiery Fidel Edwards made it clear that courage as well as talent would be required. The young man came through with flying colours, helped by the calming presence of his captain, whose own introduction to the Test stage came at 0 for 2 in Johannesburg.
Bell showed a cool head, a compact technique and an impressive variety of shots as his innings progressed. Comparisons with Michael Atherton have been made since he first emerged as a Test prospect, and they could be seen in his back-foot play in particular, but there were hints of Nasser Hussain in his footwork against the spin of Gayle and Sarwan, and a look of Damien Martyn in his composed set-up at the crease. With Vaughan playing with quiet authority, only occasionally unfurling that trademark off-drive, West Indies heads were soon beginning to drop, and when Bell began to dominate, pulling and cutting with a flourish, a debut century looked on the cards.
Ten fours had come in his 70 when Lawson found a thin edge and Baugh took the catch. Not long afterwards Vaughan misjudged a drive on the up against Bravo and edged to slip. Another stutter from England, another opportunity for the West Indies, but Andrew Flintoff and Geraint Jones came together during the extended evening session to wrench back the initiative for England. These two have already established themselves as a partnership to be reckoned with for England, and theirs was another brilliant display of orthodox strokeplay, Flintoff slamming 13 boundaries, most of them straight along the ground reaching 72 before the close.
The prospect of seeing this partnership grow to match-winning proportions would have attracted everyone coming to the ground on day two. But both batsmen fell early without adding to their overnight scores, Jones edging a drive to slip, Flintoff skying to mid-on. That should have been the cue for West Indies to finish things off, for the pace of Edwards and Lawson, the control of Collymore and the cannyness of Bravo to sweep up the tail without undue cost. Instead a partnership of 87 between Giles and Hoggard hammered the first of a bagful of nails into the West Indiesí coffin.
As much as anything it was a failure of tactics. Giles is known for his strength through the off-side, so the West Indies bowled a strict line two feet outside off-stump, trying to tempt him into an indiscretion. By the time he had lashed them away through cover point for the umpteenth time, it was clear they had no plan B. As for Hoggard, there seemed no plan at all, save to bowl the same defensive line wide of off. Hoggard hit 8 fours in his career best 38, some of them were streaky, but one drive through extra cover could have been played by Vaughan, Boycott or any number of his fellow Yorkshiremen.
There was a further chance for West Indies when Giles and Hoggard fell in rapid succession, but the fun was only just beginning as Harmison unleashed an assault as brutal as anything he has produced with the ball. Taking a wide stance at the crease and swinging his bat like a golf club, he lofted two huge straight sixes, clipped another over square-leg, and dominated a stand of 60 with Anderson which saw the West Indies go to pieces. Harmison had one basic method for his assault, swing the bat in a wide arc and hit it so far that it doesnít matter where the fielders are, and yet Lara persisted in bowling the full length and off-stump line which gave him the room to get those long levers moving. In the end it was left to the accurate off-spin of Gayle to pierce the defences of Anderson. But by then it was too late.
The West Indies could hardly have been lower when they began their response, but soon they were in free-fall as the wrecking-ball that is Harmison at his best smashed through the facade of their innings. Gayle could only glove a nasty lifter over his shoulder to the keeper, Joseph fended to Giles at gully, and that was only the beginning. Final figures of 6-46 reflect the awesome weapon that Harmison in this mood can be. Now that Troy Cooley has ironed out his technical weaknesses his whole action flows smoothly, from the way he almost glides across the turf in his approach to the leap into his high delivery stride, where he hangs in the air like a cobra poised to strike, to the final whiplash release.
This fine bowling was backed up by some superb performances in the field. Andrew Strauss filled the slip vacancy left open by the injured Graham Thorpe with two comfortable catches, Robert Key pulled off a stunner at square-leg, grabbing a full-blooded pull by Chanderpaul low and one-handed to his left. At the other end from the carnage Brian Lara played a half-inspired, half crazy innings, the backlift higher than ever, the bat-speed bewildering to the eye. He seemed to be lashing out in a blaze of fury and frustration against the inadequacies of his colleagues and his own inability to deal with it. This may be his last full tour of England, and a century would have taken away some of its pain. But it was not to be, on 79 he was tricked by Harmison into expecting the bouncer, found himself ducking a ball only slightly short of a length, managed to play an improvised hook from his crouched position, only for it to fly high down to Bell at long leg. He was eighth to fall, a daft run out made it nine, and with Dwayne Smith not back from hospital for a scan on a side strain, West Indies were all out for 152.
Michael Vaughan has been reluctant to enforce the follow on when he has had the opportunity this season. But with only 37 overs bowled and no more Tests to play there was never any question this time. A flurry of boundaries from Chris Gayle began the second innings, every ball of Hoggardís second over fizzing to the boundary, the first time in Test history that such a feat had been achieved. But this was a distraction from the main event, as Harmison blew out Joseph and Sarwan before the close, the latter to a stunning catch in the gully from Bell.
There was greater defiance from West Indies on what turned out to be the final day, but it was too late to affect the outcome. England chipped away at them all day and never looked like letting it slip. Gayle smashed his way to a whirlwind century, his 105 coming from 87 balls with 18 fours and a six. When on form he is impossible to keep quiet, there seems to be no ball he is incapable of hitting to whichever point on the boundary he chooses. He has been an inspired sight this summer, an irritation for England, but never a stumbling block, for there always seemed to be a feeling that however fast he was scoring, however unstoppable he looked, the mistake would always come, England would get him in the end, and before he had done too much damage.
So it was here, although to be fair it was good bowling rather than poor batting which proved his downfall. James Anderson has had a very tough year. He still has major technical problems which affect his bowling. The way his front foot splays out towards gully at the point of delivery drags his left shoulder and head down and his chest open. If you copy his action yourself, and try to stay upright and side-on you will feel the tremendous strain it puts on the lower left back. Apart from the fact that this means he is looking at his boots when he delivers the ball, too often it means his arm is pulled beyond the perpendicular, from where it is impossible to bowl outswing. But what he has in his advantage is a near perfect wrist action, propelling the ball down the wicket with a superbly straight seam. So when he does get it right, he gets late, dangerous swing at a lively pace. So it was here.
Perhaps it comes down to rhythm. Good momentum from his run-up helps his action continue towards the batsman rather than being dragged towards gully. Whatever the technical cause, here he produced two spells of the highest class, finding an ideal length, good pace and swing into and away from the batsman with no discernible change in action. Lara fell for just 15, following an outswinger and caught brilliantly low at slip by Trescothick. That catch was bettered by Flintoff, who plucked the ball one handed off the top of the grass when Gayle too followed one that left him.
The real resistance came from Bravo and Chanderpaul. Suitable it was too, for Chanderpaul has been the one real thorn in Englandís side this series, selling his wicket dearly on every occasion. For his part Bravo has provided the reassurance that West Indies cricket does have a future, a three dimensional cricketer of immense promise who has shown the willingness work and learn, and an exceptional amount of guile for a 20 year-old. There was ill-luck in Chanderpaulís dismissal, given out caught behind off Giles when the ball seemed to clip pad rather than bat, but the wickets that followed rather took the edge off the defiant innings they ended.
Bravoís composed innings came to an end when he padded up to Hoggard, his first error being in padding up to a straightish ball, he second being that he did it when the umpire was the unforgiving Darrell Hair. Dwayne Smith, striking the ball impressively through the on-side despite his rib injury, square drove loosely to backward point. Carlton Baugh hit an entertaining 34 before gloving Harmison to the keeper, his bat hanging out as if giving slip-catching practice. The mode of dismissal was identical to his first innings demise.
By then Collymore had already edged an Anderson outswinger, and that left just the last pair to try and make England bat again. Lawson square drove Harmison to the boundary to bring the scores level, but before another run could be added Anderson removed Edwardsí leg-stump to make Englandís second innings run chase a three ball formality.
4-0 for the series, 7-0 for the summer. England have made so much progress in the last few months it is hard to keep track. Hoggard and Giles have seemed new men, confident match-winners not the bit-part men of old. Flintoff has matured into a world class all-rounder, brilliant in all three aspects of his game, taking vital wickets, brilliant catches and scoring more runs than any other England batsman this series. Hussain, Butcher and Thorpe began the summer, Strauss, Key and Bell have ended it with no apparent weakening. Quite the reverse in some respects. Butcher and Thorpe will return, no doubt, when fit. But England have glimpsed the future this summer, and boy does it look rosy.
England 470 (Flintoff 72, Bell 70, Vaughan 66, Giles 52) & 4-0
West Indies 152 (Lara 79, Harmison 6-46) & 318 (Gayle 105, Bravo 54, Anderson 4-52)
England won by 10 wickets
England win series 4-0
Man of the Match
Men of the Series
England: Andrew Flintoff
West Indies: Shivnarine Chanderpaul