How Melbourne became Durham, the one that got away

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Marauding Mitchell Johnson during the 2013 Boxing Day Test (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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As hard as it is for an Australian to admit in a public forum, I’d begun to feel some sympathy for England by the end of the southern Ashes.

Such sympathy isn’t much use. It would be more insulting to English fans than a compendium of David Warner’s 500 pithiest insults, and would generally inspire suspicion or disdain from fellow Australians.

I also find that if I cast my mind back to a sunny afternoon at Lord’s, with the tuneful strains of “We’re gonna win 10-nil” rippling down from the stands, the feeling swiftly passes.

During the last northern summer, on the first part of this ten-Test odyssey, the part of Australia’s 3-0 series loss that really got to me was Durham.

Chester-le-Bloody-Street, land of too many faux-French names and giant cathedrals, a snaking motorway drive from the nominal environs of Newcastle. There in the land of the Geordie Shore, my Roar colleague Cam the Cameraman and I were unable even to investigate the trashiness of the area’s famed nightlife, stuck instead in the press box editing videos and writing until ungodly hours. In return for our hard work, we got Australia’s second innings.

Missing out on a win hurt at Durham.

Not like Nottingham, where it took two tenth-wicket miracles for Australia even to get close. Not like Old Trafford or The Oval, where the rain buggered their chances, but we couldn’t be sure what would have happened anyway.

Durham was the one that actually got away.

So much went right until the very end. There were Nathan Lyon’s wickets, Chris Rogers’ century, Ryan Harris’ seven-for, David Warner’s 71. Chasing 299 in the fourth innings, Australia were 2/168. Just 130-odd to get, eight wickets in hand – hell, a 50 partnership would almost be close enough, then the rest could muddle home.

Instead, Cam and I stood on the roof of the broadcast centre and watched our shiny nemesis Stuart Broad induce a collapse of epic proportions. The Australians looked scared, panicked, future roadkill in the proverbials. They shuffled across their stumps and poked across the line to be out and out and out.

As each wicket fell, my mood and my expression got darker.

With a couple of bowlers at the crease, Cam looked at me up and down. “Come on,” he said. “We need to be at the exits when the English all come out celebrating. We’ll throw you in amongst them and see what happens.”

“No way,” I said, gritting my teeth. “I’ll probably punch someone. That’s the last place I want to be.”

“I know. That’s why it’ll be a good video. One more wicket, then let’s go.”

“No.”

“You’re going.”

It was our best video all tour, full of spontaneous life from fans elated at what their side had pulled off. There was hilarity on all sides. The mood was contagious enough that I ended up having a great time. We could only give in to that enjoyment.

Still, once we headed home that night, our hearts remained heavy with the result: that they had been so close, and cocked it up so badly.

On England’s reciprocal tour, Brisbane was a shock onslaught that first knocked them off their stride. Adelaide was the consummation of Brisbane’s promise.

Perth was the most brutal, both the conditions and the carnage that began the fourth day. But the worst defeat, the one that England will look back and lament, came in Melbourne.

It was the worst because it was so close to being different. After three heavy beatings, after being despised and written off, after being sent in to bat in menacing conditions by an opposing captain who had apparently spent the series flipping his own coin, England made a decent first-up total, then knocked over Australia 51 runs short.

England went on to 65 for 0, a lead of 116 in a low-scoring match with days left to bat and ten wickets in hand.

Then it began crumbling, four wickets for the next 18 runs, their new nemesis Johnson the cause of the trouble both as bowler and fieldsman. Ben Stokes helped get the lead to 182 by the time he was out, leaving Kevin Pietersen as the only proper batsman.

Even then, though, even then it should have been England’s game. A chase of 250 would be tricky here, you thought; 300 would be exceptional. Pietersen was hanging in tenaciously, closing on another half-century. Jonny Bairstow made a streaky 21, the lead out to 224.

Just a couple of halfway reasonable partnerships, you thought, another 70 or 80 runs between KP and the tail, and they’ll be well on top.

It was only their moment to surrender, but they did. Six overs, five wickets, six runs. Bairstow nicking off pace, Bresnan and Broad swiping at the spinner, Pietersen losing all faith in a tail that had thus far been crepe paper, and holing out.

Their match was given up with both hands, and the bitterness of that disappointment was one that I could feel.

It’s easy to say, given how smoothly Australia mowed down 232, that 300 would have been done in a few more overs. But against a bigger score, Australia’s approach would have been altered, confidence diluted, the dial of the randomiser spun with odds much more England’s way.

Even 232 might have proved difficult had Bairstow snared his catches, but the game simply slipped away.

Alastair Cook said afterwards that losing was just as dispiriting no matter how it came about. I venture to disagree. Melbourne was to England what Durham had been to Australia, and without Australia’s home comeback, my spirits would still flag whenever I thought of that afternoon in England’s north, the lusty shouts from the stands as each wicket fell.

When I felt those unexpected stirrings of sympathy, during England’s chaotic evening and Australia’s perfect morning, that was why: not an impulse to condescend, but a genuine response derived from a shared experience. It’s the even-handed recognition of lost opportunity.

Even in the one-sided series of 2001 and 2003-04, worse English teams than this were able to take their chance and snare a victory.

In a tour that offered precious little consolation, the thing for this side to be realistically disappointed about is that they couldn’t do the same.

Geoff Lemon is a writer and radio broadcaster. He joined The Roar as an expert columnist in 2010, writes the satirical blog Heathen Scripture, and tweets from @GeoffLemonSport. This article was first published by Wisden India, in a new-founded Ashes partnership.

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