Northamptonshire is a duly modest East Midlands county with a population marginally more than Tasmania’s.
Once a hub of leathergoods manufacturing, the sole surviving standard bearer of which is now the recognisable brand of heavy, lace-up boots that are emblematic of the past’s skinhead and punk movements.
But over the past two days this rugby stronghold that does not boast a soccer team in the top three tiers of the English game and whose cricketers have not lifted a first-class trophy since the turn of this century, has sunk the slipper into one of the super powers of the Test game.
Recap & highlights: Lower order fights after collapse
Fielding a team of largely second-string players that include a cricket coach playing his maiden top-level match, a teenager who last year became the first 15-year-old to represent the county, and up to four others who will make way for more-credentialled teammates when Northampton hosts a domestic 50-over match tomorrow.
It was not only in experience, expertise and exposure that a gulf yawned between the teams thrown together in tour game that carried neither conviction nor context.
Yet from ball one until the final hour today, it was the team billed as the support act who occupied the main bill.
After the first day’s scheduled play was abandoned due to the sort of persistent rain that characterises summer in the Midlands, the home team took gleefully to a Test-standard bowling attack that was looking to shore up berths in this week’s final Ashes Test in London.
Mitch Marsh underlined his importance to Australia with a four-wicket haul on the first day of actual play on Saturday
And if the indignity of having an Australia-born batsman pull off the sort of innings his former home nation has been yearning for over past weeks was not sufficient, then the sight of a back-up bowling unit blissfully dismantling an international batting line-up was beyond the pale.
Watch all nine Australian wickets to fall
Certainly at times it stretched belief, even for a team coached by a local wicketkeeping legend with the surname of Ripley.
Within minutes of Australia resuming their innings this morning at 1-13 in pursuit of Northampton’s distant 396 – scored at almost 4.5 runs per over on a friendly pitch – Australia’s next captain and recently the top-ranked batsman in Test cricket, Steve Smith, was out for a duck.
To a cracking delivery from Maurice Chambers, the Jamaica-born former England under-19 bowler who found his way to Northampton after being discarded by Essex, loaned to Warwickshire and then spending much of this summer toiling away for his latest county’s second XI.
If Smith had not already been recommended and ratified as the Test and ODI leader to replace Michael Clarke his recent form line might serve to undermine his candidacy – scores of 7, 8, 6, 5 and today’s 0 represent a lean trot the likes of which he’s not previously experienced.
Steve Smith after being dismissed for a duck // Getty Images
And while dismissing the once immovable pillar of an until-recently daunting Test batting line-up was a highlight for Chambers, who found a niche at Northants because Australia’s Trent Copeland didn’t return there after 2013, then his new-ball partner will recall his breakthrough with even greater fondness.
In becoming the latest English seamer to coax Shaun Marsh into driving away from his body and offering up a slips catch, 27-year-old Richard Gleeson recorded the inaugural top-level wicket of a career made up of more than 400 matches for minor county Cumberland.
Marsh, Voges and Watson all made starts // Getty Images
And now one at first-class level for Northamptonshire.
The lad who was the only Northants player not to own a playing shirt bearing his surname and who works as a coach for the cricket board of a rival county (Lancashire) doubled his first-class wicket tally with another strike soon after, into the same family.
By finding a way past Mitchell Marsh’s broad bat as the all-rounder was just beginning to blossom into some strokes, having posted a comparably circumspect half-century.
By that point, Australia was staring at a crisis of their own making as the indifference to playing a tour match that neither salved nor proved anything – a mindset understandable, though not justifiable – was reflected by a large electronic scoreboard that flashed 7-174.
Still more than 200 adrift of Northamptonshire’s breezy total which, due to the match being re-classified as a two-day game following Friday’s dismal weather, was a distant 123 runs away from the total required to avoid the follow-on.
A symbolic rather than realistic benchmark given Northamptonshire was hardly going to subject their players another stint in the field with a crucial 50-over outing against Gloucestershire looming at the same ground tomorrow.
Which also explained why – if not how - the unfashionable county team, that has not produced a home-grown Test player since now-retired England off-spinner Graeme Swann, was tearing through the one-time Ashes favourites with their three most successful seamers of the season to date not playing.
Pakistan-born Muhammad Azhar Ullah (37 first-class county wickets at 26 this summer), South Africa international Rory Kleinveldt (41 at 28.80) and local quick Olly Stone (30 at 31.43) all sat out the tour game to keep themselves for the domestic 50-over and T20 riches the Steelbacks are eyeing.
The three frontline quicks who shared five of the first six Australia wickets to fall today – Chambers, Gleeson and ex-Yorkshire second XI seamer Ben Sanderson - boast a combined aggregate of 15 first-class scalps for this county summer.
Also rested from the meaningless tour match were Northamptonshire’s captain and regular number three batter Alex Wakely, fellow top-order player Richard Levi and exciting one-day international aspirant David Willey who blazed a century from 41 balls at Hove last week.
Not that they were needed, as Australia-born all-rounder Steve Crook followed his blazing day one knock of 142no with a wicket from his first ball of the day, a full, wide loosener that Adam Voges lazily slashed to slip.
Northants allrounder Steven Crook has a VERY big day against Australia, and spoke to cricket.com.au after making an entertaining 142no on day two
With Australia scarcely able to afford such profligacy with their score at 4-54, there were conspiratorial whispers around the ground that Crook’s dual passport status might see him called into the squad of his birth country in a desperate move by the tourists for the final Test.
But as has so often been the case in Tests prior to the three hefty losses that have handed England the Ashes over the past five weeks, Australia’s blushes were saved by some resolute batting from the bowlers.
Nathan Lyon made the most of his promotion up the order to number 10 with a defiant 41 from 62 balls than included a number of textbook sweep shots, as well as an attempted reverse model that saw a full-toss that should have disappeared over extra cover instead nestle into the ‘keeper’s gloves.
Lyon forged a face-saving, and ultimately match-saving ninth wicket stand of 98 from 23 overs with Pat Cummins, who had hoped to find some bowling form in this game to press his Test claim but found himself perhaps achieving just that with the bat.
Pat Cummins top-scored for Australia // Getty Images
In his third first-class outing in over two years, Cummins more than doubled his career run aggregate with a knock of 82no that was as well-crafted as it was timely, carrying his team past the follow-on mark so the game could be called off by mutual consent of the skippers an hour early.
As Cummins confirmed at match end, just before the Australia team’s luxury coach hit the M1 for the 90-minute southbound trip to London, the match displayed not so much a failure of acumen by the touring team but rather a weariness of mind and a hollowness of spirit.
The difficulty they found in rousing themselves for a game originally scheduled as a last chance for players to push for selection or remedy form woes if the Ashes remained alive, but which in a series already decided became simply a chore was palpable in their postures and approach.
“I think they already had one foot on the bus, so I didn’t argue,” Cummins said when asked if he was slightly miffed the game was called when he was within three trademark strikes of a first ever first-class century.
In truth, the Australians had played much of the previous two days with their thoughts if not their bodies already in London, where almost a third of their squad were indeed in domicile well before this morning’s latest batting crisis began to unfold.
Likewise, the five or six Northants players needed for tomorrow’s 50-over match at home and the following day’s at Headingley were conserving energy while those who will make way for the regulars in those games simply revelled in the chance to have a go at a higher level.
Which, ultimately, explains why the players who impressed most over two essentially academic days were invariably the ones from whom returns were expected the least.