Lunchtime at the Oval, and Australia are six wickets down with a lead of 373. Alex Carey’s at one end, 41 not out off 61 balls, Mitchell Starc’s at the other, 11 off 19. It’s already over a hundred runs more than anyone’s ever scored in the fourth innings to win a Test here, and that particular match was way back in the 1902 Ashes, when Gilbert Jessop blazed his 76-ball hundred. The pressing question then, the one everyone was chewing over in the food and drink queues, was: “What’s next?” A burst of attacking cricket, a tumble of tail-end wickets?
What we got, instead, was one of those soporific hours when play slows down to an amble. Starc threw the odd shot, a clip through midwicket for four, a punch down the ground for another, Carey tinkered around in singles. The crowd quietened down, the sun drifted overhead, aeroplanes came and went. Tick. A single off one over. Tock. A single off the next. Tick. Another single from the one after. Tock. In 10 overs, Australia scored all of 31 runs. The second hand wavered, even seemed to be moving backwards.
The lead grew, past the 378 England made to beat India at Edgbaston last year, past the 404 Don Bradman’s Australia scored to beat England at Headingley in 1948, and then on beyond the world record of 418 set by Brian Lara’s West Indies against Australia in 2003. Carey reached his fifty, and pressed on into the 60s. Everyone kept one eye on the balcony, wondering whether, and when, Pat Cummins was going to call them in and set to bowling, but he was still padded up, ready and waiting for his turn to bat.
Which duly arrived when Starc was caught at slip. India had taken the new ball by now, and the run rate had perked up. But it still wasn’t particularly clear what Cummins achieved in the 15 minutes he spent at the crease, other than showing off a matinee idol drive, and stacking another 10 runs on top of the teetering 434 his team had already piled up.
Not that you blame Cummins for wanting all that padding, even on a pitch like this, where the bounce has been capricious, the short balls vicious, and the ball has spun from the rough. This is an era when teams have been setting record scores right around the world. England, of course, did it last year, but so did Pakistan, who made 344 to beat Sri Lanka at Galle, and West Indies, who made 395 to beat Bangladesh in Chittagong the year before. Everyone expects that 418 will, like Jessop’s record, be broken sooner rather than later.
And there were points, when India were 91 for one, when Cummins might even have been glad to have a few more. But still it was hard, watching the innings drift like this, not to let your mind wander to wondering exactly how England would have gone about it. Ben Stokes’s approach would, you guess, have been a little more Shakespearean. “If it were done when ‘tis done, ‘twere well it were done quickly.” So stop bloody prodding at it or let’s get on with the bowling. Pootling along at three an over when you have a 400-run lead is the kind of thing that might get you dropped from his team.
Test match cricket has always had larghissimo passages, languors are a part of its charm, but their appeal seems to be lost on Stokes. For anyone who has been watching England this past year, Australia’s idling tempo felt very unfamiliar, as if, oh yes, I remember, this is the way the game’s usually played. You doubt, somehow, that Stokes has spent too much time following what’s going on here at the Oval while he’s been away in Scotland this week, but it was easy to imagine what he would have made if he had been watching. Not much. He would have damned the lack of intent.
England are so impatient that he’s declared in the first innings four times in 14 Tests now, never mind the second. Australia batted 84.3 overs here. England haven’t spent that long at the crease in the third innings of a Test since Stokes took over. Which isn’t to say he has got it right, or that Cummins has either, just that if you play for one of them you’re a lot more likely to enjoy the fifth day off than if you do the other. If the Ashes were being settled on the golf course you’d think England would win just because of all the extra practice they’ve been getting.
But on the cricket pitch, who knows? Stokes’s England are certainly going to leave Australia plenty of time to work in, and you can bet Australia’s batsmen will look to use every last bit of it. They are a team that spent two days making 480 when they played India in Ahmedabad in March, and in the deciding game of a series they ended up losing. It will make for a sharp contrast in styles. I’d call it the tortoise and the hare, only I’m English, and we all know how that one played out.