The Oval pitch report
Last Updated: 19/08/09 10:34am
Dave Tickner finds some encouragement for those wanting a positive result in the Ashes decider.
Ends: Pavilion End, Vauxhall End
Home Team: Surrey
Test History: 91 Tests; 37 home wins; 18 away wins; 36 draws
England v Australia 34 Tests; 15 home wins; 6 away wins; 13 drawsLast 10 Tests: 5 home wins; 2 away wins; 3 draws
Last 10 tosses: 7 batted first (2 win, 3 draw, 2 defeats); 3 bowled first (3 defeats)
The Kennington Oval, host of the first-ever Test match in England, is now traditionally the venue for the final Test of the summer and has therefore seen some dramatic finishes in its time.
From the 1968 Ashes Test when supporters pitched in to mop a sodden ground in time for Derek Underwood to bowl the Australians out to square the series, to Kevin Pietersen's match-saving - and series-winning - 158 in 2005 against the same opposition, The Oval's history is littered with magical moments and memories.
A spectacular new stand to complement the huge pavilion has made for a more pleasant viewing experience, and the famous old ground continues to be developed with floodlights the latest new arrival in South London.
Last time out
England continued their proud record in dead rubbers with a six-wicket victory over South Africa to reduce their series defeat to 2-1. Which was probably a fair reflection on a good series that the Proteas undoubtedly shaded.
It was Kevin Pietersen's first match as skipper after Michael Vaughan's emotional farewell, and he duly scored a century as England secured a sizeable first-innings lead after the bowlers all chipped in to bowl South Africa out for just 194.
After England's 316 all out, South Africa went better in their second innings as Hashim Amla (76) and AB de Villiers (97) ensured the hosts would face a ticklish fourth-innings run chase.
But a century stand for the first wicket between Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook settled the nerves and, despite a trademark mid-innings wobble, England got over the line by six wickets thanks to Paul Collingwood and Andrew Flintoff.
Flintoff hit the winning runs. Anyone ready for a similar script this time round?
Australia's last visit
Another Ashes 2005 classic. With England leading 2-1, it was Australia on this occasion who needed to force victory.
Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick gave England a solid start with an 82-run partnership for the first wicket before a collapse left England wobbling.
At 13-4, things looked decidedly tricky. But Strauss went through to his second century of the summer, and Andrew Flintoff bludgeoned 72 as England recovered to 373 all out. It was a reasonable total, but the match was still far from safe.
And Matt Hayden and Justin Langer finally produced the partnership they'd been threatening all summer. They put on 185 for the first wicket, and England were again in trouble with the prospect of a hefty first-innings deficit.
Cue Freddie. In the sort of marathon spell that has become his trademark (England had only four frontline bowlers after replacing Simon Jones with Paul Collingwood), Flintoff - with able assistance from Matthew Hoggard, precipitated an Australia collapse from 281-2 to 367 all out. Miraculously, England had a slender first-innings lead.
But still the game was not safe. The prospect of an Australia run-chase remained if England batted poorly.
Strauss fell - inevitably to Shane Warne - on the fourth evening, but Trescothick and Michael Vaughan reached the close without further loss. England led by 40 runs with nine wickets in hand. A nation held its breath.
On the final morning, Trescothick and Vaughan advanced the score to 67, and some England fans were seen starting to smile. The Ashes were coming home.
Then Glenn McGrath removed Vaughan and Bell - who bagged a pair - in successive deliveries, and all bets were off.
The hat-trick ball flew off Kevin Pietersen's arm guard to slip. Huge appeals. Billy Bowden said not out.
When Pietersen had reached 12, he edged Brett Lee to Shane Warne at slip. He dropped it.
It was clearly Pietersen's day. Wickets continued to fall at the other end, but Pietersen's outrageous counter-attack was taking the game away from Australia. Their run-chase was getting trickier with every astonishing hooked six. But when Geraint Jones was seventh man out, England led by only 205 with time enough for a run-chase.
But Ashley Giles joined Pietersen for the partnership that secured the urn. They had added 109 runs before Pietersen was bowled by McGrath for 158. He hit 15 fours and seven sixes. It was, in short, one of the great innings.
Australia finally bowled England out for 335 but barely had time to begin their impossible run-chase before the bails were removed and England had their draw.
"Historically it's a drier surface that does bounce and carry a bit and those sort of conditions can help the ball get scuffed up, which everyone knows helps it reverse."
Aussie coach Tim Nielsen offers Brett Lee hope of a fifth-Test call-up.
"I have played in 135 Test matches but never played in a match as big as this one. There is nothing bigger than playing a deciding Test in an Ashes series, and you have to grab these moments when they present themselves because you may never experience such a match ever again."
Ricky Ponting sets the scene.
"I showed him my attempt at a doosra. He liked it, but he said I needed a lot of work on it."
Offie Nathan Hauritz, who has been working with Saqlain Mushtaq in the build-up to the final Test.
"On a wicket with a bit more pace, a bit more energy, you'll get something out of it. When the pitch is dead, even when you create uncertainty, it's hard to make the most of it."
Monty Panesar hopes for a second Ashes chance on a livelier pitch.
Happy Hunting Ground
Those hoping for an Andrew Flintoff fairytale have some backing from the stats. He has, surprisingly, played only four Tests at The Oval, but averages over 50 with the bat and has one of his three five-fors here. Alastair Cook also averages the happy side of 50 with the bat here.
Steve Harmison may continue to frustrate all England followers, but the selectors' desire to get him in the side here is backed by the stats. He has 22 wickets at 26 apiece here, and an eye-catching batting average of a handy 119. He's only been dismissed once, and he probably only did that so that he could have an average.
But there are other players who enjoy sometimes baffling selectorial favour who can't point to such impressive Oval records. Monty Panesar's seven Oval wickets have cost him over 51 runs each, while Ian Bell averages just 30 here with his highest score in five Tests still the battling 70 he made on debut in 2004.
Mixed. The opening day should be played under glorious blue skies, but there may be some showers on the Friday afternoon and Saturday looks bleak. However, if the game is still in the balance after three days then we're in good shape with an improving forecast for the Sunday and Monday. However, the weather in the build-up could be equally relevant. It's been hot and dry this week in south London, and that's forecast to continue until Friday. That means, in theory, perfect reverse-swing conditions.
The idea that England cannot force a victory here is simply not borne out by the stats. England's record here is superb, with four wins and two draws in the last six. But. There's always a but. England's record does mask a couple of uncomfortable truths: one of their 'victories' owed more to Darrell Hair than any cricketing excellence, while the last two teams who came here needing a draw to complete a series win - England in 2005 and India in 2007 - got the result they required. The pitch is a good one. There will always be runs here. But it's also a dry surface, and there's nearly always some good pace and bounce. That's a combination that keeps all bowlers interested - seamers, reverse-swingers and spinners - so don't write this off just yet. Oh, and don't bowl first if you win the toss.