England kept in check
Glenn McGrath made a key contribution to Australia’s retirement party at the Sydney Cricket Ground and halted England’s promising recovery in the final Ashes Test.
The 36-year-old seamer is due to retire from Test cricket at the end of this match alongside Shane Warne and Justin Langer, and could have been forgiven for coasting through his farewell appearance with the hosts on course for only the second Ashes whitewash ever.
Instead of coasting, however, McGrath claimed two wickets in five balls to halt a 109-run stand between Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen shortly after tea to regain the momentum for Australia.
Captain Andrew Flintoff and Paul Collingwood battled hard for 19 overs to forge an unbroken 67-run stand to guide England to 234 for four by the close of an opening day restricted to 80 overs by rain and bad light.
But it was McGrath’s contribution to remove two of England’s most productive batsmen during the series which prevented the tourists enjoying a relatively successful day.
Coming together at 58 for two, the pair vindicated England’s decision to move Pietersen to number four in the order and allow Collingwood to drop down to number five with a defiant stand just as Australia seemed set to establish their superiority.
Playing cautiously almost throughout his innings, Pietersen took 15 overs to score his first and only boundary and played in a patient style. He was happy to support Bell and help him reach his fourth half-century of the series.
Just as England’s new third-wicket pair appeared to be establishing their dominance, however, McGrath struck to claim the key wicket of Pietersen just seven overs after tea.
Having come down the wicket two balls previously to lash the ball through mid-wicket for two, Pietersen could not resist attempting the shot again when McGrath dug the ball in short. But this time he failed to control the shot and it looped high in the air for Mike Hussey to take the catch above his head at mid-wicket.
Pietersen’s 41 had taken nearly three hours at the crease and he was followed in McGrath’s next over when he cut the ball back and Bell got a fine inside edge onto his stumps for 71.
McGrath had claimed two wickets in five balls to regain the momentum for Australia, who are chasing only the second Ashes whitewash in history following the achievement of the 1920-21 side.
England had suffered an early blow to thier hopes of avoiding a 5-0 humiliation with the loss of seamer Matthew Hoggard, their leading wicket-taker in the series, with a side strain.
The Yorkshire seamer sustained the injury in the previous Test defeat at Melbourne and failed a morning fitness test, prompting the tourists to recall James Anderson after he claimed only two wickets in the first two Tests.
They seemed to shrug off that setback with Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook enjoying a 45-run stand, their most productive partnership of the series, which ended only three overs before lunch.
Strauss had been dropped on 21 by Langer at slip off McGrath, but added only eight runs more before he was tempted into cutting a fuller length ball from fast bowler Brett Lee and edged behind.
Cook followed for just 20 only two overs after the break when he got an inside edge behind off seamer Stuart Clark to wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist.
England’s third-wicket pair rescued the situation, but McGrath’s double strike regained the momentum for Australia as they chase their place in history and it took Flintoff and Collingwood to prevent any further setbacks before the close.