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A glorious opening day at the Riverside - unless you're an England fan
THE sun shone, the stands were packed to capacity and the action was every bit as enthralling as you could have hoped. It was the biggest day in the history of North-East cricket, and it did not disappoint – unless you were an England supporter.
With Emirates Durham ICG looking resplendent in its high-summer finery, the Ashes came to Chester-le-Street for a fascinating opening day that ended with Australia firmly in the ascendancy.
Alastair Cook was the only batsman to make a half-century as England stumbled to 238-9, displaying a nervous uncertainty that was also apparent in the last Test at Old Trafford. Given the way they are batting at the moment, it is just as well the Ashes have already been retained.
On a pitch that is famed for helping seamers, it was Australian spinner Nathan Lyon who did most of the damage, finishing with figures of 4-42 despite extracting limited turn.
Batting was hard work throughout, and while it will only be when Australia bat that we know whether runs really are as hard to come by as England made it appear on what looks a fairly dead and unresponsive surface, it is hard to escape the conclusion that too many players were masters of their own downfall.
The manner of England's dismissals became increasingly embarrassing as the day wore on, and while the addition of 24 runs by final pair Tim Bresnan and Jimmy Anderson provided some late solace, their efforts also underlined the ineffectiveness of much that had gone before.
Ian Bell and Stuart Broad succumbed to especially awful shots, while Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott both lacked fluency as they ground their way to 51 and 49 respectively. At least they dug in, though, rather than serving up their wickets on a plate.
Having opted not to recall Graham Onions, it looked a good toss for Cook to lose, but the skipper did not hesitate in opting to bat. It may prove a wise decision if the pitch deteriorates by the fourth innings, and to be fair, yesterday's struggles had little to do with any early-morning difficulties caused by the humid, overcast conditions.
Batting was difficult from the off, and it was the final ball of the 12th over before Joe Root scored the day's first boundary, pushing onto the front foot to drive through the covers.
None of England's batsmen were able to dominate as they would have liked, although it wasn't that the ball was doing a great deal, it was more that Lyon, Ryan Harris and surprise selection Jackson Bird were maintaining the kind of disciplined line and length that demanded circumspection rather than anything too cavalier. Too many of England's batsmen were unable to dig in as required.
Cook watched 11 balls go by before he even put bat to ball, but while the scoring rate barely creeped above two-an-over before lunch, there would have been a degree of satisfaction in the home ranks at ending the opening session on 57-1 given the number of poor starts that have peppered the series so far.
Root was the only batsman to depart, with the much-derided Hot Spot system sealing his fate after umpire Tony Hill failed to spot the faintest of nicks behind off Shane Watson.
Trott replaced him in need of a decent score, and after a patient start, he gradually found some rhythm after lunch as Australia's bowlers briefly strayed onto his legs.
A paddle sweep for four off Lyon underlined his growing confidence, but just as he looked poised to claim his half-century, he fell meekly, nudging the spinner to Usman Khawaja at short leg.
In came Kevin Pietersen, and for a brief spell when England's batting talisman was in partnership with Cook, the hosts looked like taking a stranglehold on the game.
Much of that was down to Pietersen, with his natural inclination to attack overriding any fears about the state of the pitch or the effectiveness of Australia's bowling.
His intent was apparent from the off as he lofted his first ball from Lyon into the off-side, and his desire to dominate the spinner was obvious as he drilled successive boundaries straight down the ground with an air of disdain.
Whatever else he may be, Pietersen is undeniably England's entertainer-in-chief, and his spell at the crease coincided with the hosts' most productive period in terms of increasing the run rate and establishing a degree of dominance.
It was a surprise, therefore, when he succumbed in fairly nondescript fashion, pushing at a delivery from Lyon that did little outside off stump and edging through to Brad Haddin.
Would Hot Spot fail to show the edge, lending credence to the silicon tape controversy? We will never know as, to his credit, Pietersen tucked his bat under his arm and walked before the umpire's finger was raised.
Pietersen's aggression was in marked response to the defensive diligence of Cook, whose third fifty of the series took almost four hours to compile.
He was almost run out on 41, but while he played and missed sporadically, there was much to admire in his dogged determination to dig out an innings.
Patently not at the top of his form, he was attrition personified until he departed 17 balls after Pietersen, inexplicably offering no shot to a ball from Bird that marginally drifted in.
Ian Bell's departure for six to the fourth ball after tea left England perilously placed at 155-5 – the number five miscued an attempted drive off Lyon to Harris at mid-off – and the majority of the evening session was a battle of wills between a pair of batsmen that did not want to give their wickets away and an attack determined not to concede cheap runs.
Jonny Bairstow and Matt Prior added just 34 runs in the space of 117 balls before the latter missed one that straightened from Siddle and was dismissed on review after Aleem Dar had initially failed to raise his finger.
Bairstow went more than an hour without scoring a run, but two balls after snapping his drought, the Yorkshireman needlessly attempted a sweep and was given out leg before. He appealed, but Hawkeye showed the ball clipping the bail and that was enough.
Stuart Broad followed soon after, spooning a desperately poor shot to David Warner at point, and Graeme Swann hooked to Lyon at square leg after a couple of quick boundaries got his juices flowing.
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