The Ashes 2013
There’s a bizarre quirk in the amazing test career of the great Mike Hussey. For the bulk of it, his highest score was an innings no one remembers. An epic 182 crafted on a raging Chittagong turner in April 2006.
It got lost in the hysteria surrounding the efforts of the man at the other end. A performance which defied belief. It was, of course, Jason Gillespie’s unbeaten 201 as a nightwatchman. A freak performance that made flying pigs seem pedestrian.
There were other occasions too. A masterful 150 not out at the SCG. Don’t remember it? Probably because a bloke named Michael Clarke put together 329 at the same time.
What about the 142 in Sri Lanka back in 2011? Ring any bells? That’s probably because of the ton Shaun Marsh cracked on debut.
Perhaps it’s the middle-order players lot. The constant among the capricious. It may be something Phil Hughes needs to get used to.
Batting at number six for the first time in his 25-test career, this was the best we’ve seen of this raw talent at the highest level. Not his highest score by any means. Eighth on that list in fact. But this was an innings made of different stuff.
Arriving at the crease late on day 1, with Australia teetering at 4-53, Hughes dropped anchor and took responsibility in a crisis. We all know he’s got the shots. Sharper than Edward Scissorhands on the cut. There’s a touch of Ferrari in the cover drive. But they were kept in the cupboard for fairer weather. For instinctive craftsmen like Hughes, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
Day 2 started with a working over. England, true to their word, peppered Hughes in and around middle and leg. They zeroed in on his hip where they truly believe he is at his most uncomfortable. Most are.
When they strayed, Hughes pounced. His opportunities were rare. James Anderson was putting a on a live show in the art of reverse swing. Graeme Swann had the ball doing somersaults as the pitch threw it’s first tantrum.
Where Hughes survived, colleagues perished. 5 for 9 the toll. There and then, the test match looked gone. There was space between it and Australia’s fingertips. The tourists had lost their grip.
What happened next defies belief. Not because of who was involved. But the circumstances. Ashton Agar can bat. Very well in fact. He made a half-century batting at 10 in just his second first-class match for Western Australia. A match-winning, unbeaten 71 in his third. A few weeks ago he beat up on Scotland. 42 of his 56 runs came in boundaries and beyond.
24 hours earlier the world was asking “Ashton Who”? Now the young man who looks like Adam Scott and wields a cricket bat like the US Masters champion swings a one wood was being hailed as “Agar the Honourable.”
He may have been very fortunate. The umpire review system has had its issues already this test. Doubt very much swung Agar’s way on a stumping chance when he was just six. A guilty verdict wouldn’t have been surprising. If golf is the game of inches, cricket proved again it relies on minute and magnified metric measures. Even then it’s inconclusive.
His response was stunning. And incredibly swift. If Anderson isn’t the best swing bowler in the world he’s in the final. Agar took him down. Steven Finn is England’s quickest. Agar liked what he saw. Swann is among spinning’s global elite and was performing a few tricks on a magicians surface. His figures took a battering. If Alistair Cook had his time again, he may have approached his field settings with more tactical aplomb.
So, with Hughes assuming the best seat in the house, Agar ripped in. He belted the first half-century by a number 11 on debut in test cricket. It was the second fastest 50 by an Australian debutant.
He moved past Glenn McGrath’s 61, the previous Australian high for a bloke batting Jack. There’s an element of sadness in that milestone. When Hughes crunched a cover drive to the fence, the partnership hit three figures and Australia snared a first-innings lead. Crucial in games like this.
Eventually, with the 19 year old rattling along, they set a new world record for the 10th wicket partnership. When he reached 96 he moved past the West Indies’ Tino Best for the highest ever score by a number 11. All this from a teenager, on debut, abroad, with his team eyeballing a deficit in the biggest pressure cooker of the sport for an Australian cricketer. Truly staggering stuff.
It’s amazing what the lure of a maiden test century can do to a player though. It took the great Steve Waugh 34 innings to even get into the 90′s. It was third time lucky and 42 innings into his career before he finally broke through for the first of 32 test centuries.
98 was as far as Agar got. And it was shattering when it ended. Even the English fans were despondent. Like Mitchell Starc’s so near yet so far 99 in Mohali, there was a touch of the wobbles to the innings as the milestone approached. That’s natural. Especially when you’re 19.
Starc closed the day with two wickets. Again, the video review system is in the gun. But his ability to hone in with the swinging ball will keep Michael Clarke enthused. England’s lead is only 15 runs. Day three, session one, is the new most important part of this match. The markets keep being adjusted. The way it’s panned out so far, no doubt we’ll be saying that again tomorrow.
Against the odds, the Australian fight is back. Sadly, it’s been missing of late. This was a team in need of a fairytale early in its campaign. Sometimes the best bit of the story is a few pages before the end. Closing chapters are hard to write. Especially with a cricket bat in hand. On a day of brilliant performances, some, like the stoic resistance of Hughes, will be lost amid the scattering of Agar magic dust. As Mike Hussey would attest, it’s the unexpected, jaw-dropping acts that leaving the lasting impression.