Well before the Australian slip cordon took their mark shortly after lunch on day two, a good two paces further back than their Kent counterparts, it was clear this was to be a Canterbury tale of two very different teams. The imposing total of 507, set by Australia, had set the tone. Here was arguably the best Test team in the world against an eager yet inexperienced Kent side at the bottom of the County Championship Second Division.
The start of the third day began in similar fashion to the beginning of Kent’s innings the previous afternoon. Kent’s middle order batsmen Sam Billings and Adam Ball walked out into the middle contemplating the daunting prospect of what a selection battle between Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris had to offer.
Harris’ first ball struck unnervingly close to Billings’ lower anatomy. Billings never looked comfortable, and so it proved as Harris, three-nil down overnight in the wicket stakes to Johnson, struck with the first ball of his second over. With the slightest of nicks, the only indication that a wicket had fallen was the flash of Billings’ fluorescent orange shoes as he trudged back.
As the cricket unfolds on the pitch, it is the conspicuous absence of notable members of the Australia team that provides the storyline off it. Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, Player of the Tournament at the World Cup and Player of the Series of the recent West Indies tour respectively, have, if anyone can claim it, nailed on their spot in the Australian Test team.
With a hint of disbelief it is Johnson, bane of the England team in the 2013-14 Ashes, who finds himself auditioning for the main stage. For most, it was the Kent and England veteran Rob Key’s comments at the end of day two which decided the Johnson-Harris debate. “There’s no way I get paid enough to be facing him,” he said of Johnson.
Johnson may not be the furious fast bowler of old, but the fire still burns. If Johnson is not playing in the First Test at Cardiff, there will be a few relieved faces among the batsmen in the England dressing room. At the end of day two it was Johnson and his three wickets with the upper hand. On day three, and with five wickets of the Kent resistance to get, it was Harris who looked the more menacing of the two.
Following the dismissal of Billings, Ball decided the way forward was on the offensive. Unafraid to drive Johnson, who had just three men in front of the bat, Ball proved a dynamic anchor for Kent’s lower order, before falling for 45 to Harris. Three-two, Johnson. The Kent tail did well to add 46 for their last three wickets, but it was Johnson who added another wicket to his tally.
As Australia returned to bat, a rejigged line-up saw a Chris Rogers/Michael Clarke combination walk out. Clarke had decided he needed a hit and the Kent attack, weary from a day and a half in the field, provided nothing more than a glorified net session. Rogers and Clarke departed just short of fifty each, making way for the second selection sub-plot of the day – Shane Watson versus Mitchell Marsh for the all-rounder and fifth-bowler spot.
Watson, rested from the bowling attack due to “sore points” – a hangover from the West Indies tour – started the better of the two; on 14 when Marsh joined him at the crease, Watson reached his 50 with Marsh very much the support act on 23.
Fast-forward just an hour into the evening session and it was Marsh taking the reins, storming to a run-a-ball 101 including five sixes and 12 fours. Once Marsh had departed, retired out for 101, Watson tried to make the stage his own but holed out to deep square leg for 81.
* England fast-medium bowler Chris Jordan will be out for between four to six weeks with a side strain picked up during the one-day series against New Zealand.