It is doubtful England slept easily on their first day efforts. The usual drop off in their bowling discipline and tactics had seen Australia escape a perilous position and post a competitive 326. Alistair Cook’s initial assessment of the pitch was confirmed during Australia’s brief pre-stumps bowling stint. Australia had settled immediately on the length to exploit conditions. With Carberry already dispatched, a tough batting proposition lay ahead.
Cook’s declining state of mind was exposed by the day’s second delivery. Shouldering arms on a too-tight off stump line, Harris brought the ball back off the seam to make lbw a forgone conclusion. England’s captain beat the forlorn retreat of a beaten man.
That Harris was bang on target so early made for a telling contrast. Too many English spells on day one began with a dozy warm up ball. In so many ways, Australia has been more ready for the battle this summer.
Since the premature departure of Trott, it had seemed a serious tactical error that Bell was left languishing at five in the batting order. England might have chosen more propitious circumstances to finally promote him to first drop. Harris found Bell’s outside edge with a first up leg-cutter but Watto lacked the required bucket at first slip. Bell chipped precariously wide of the field to complete a dramatic opening over.
The quality of Harris and Johnson made challenging conditions appear impossible. Nightwatchman Anderson wore blows to both hands in Johnson’s opening over. Every other shot miscued perilously wide of a fieldsman. England was besieged. A single scored felt like an achievement. The bowling was relentless.
It was a mercy when Anderson edged Johnson to Clarke. It was a further mercy when Watto clung onto Pietersen’s offered edge from Harris. Another miss and Rhino’s thoughts would have made his Twitter indiscretions pale.
When Siddle ended Bell’s unconvincing tenure England were 5-23. To describe proceedings as a shambles seemed aspirational from their perspective. A nightmare tour was poised to plumb new lows.
Fortunately for any sense of contest (and decency) the resting of Harris and Johnson brought respite from the barrage. Ben Stokes is the only English positive amidst this summer’s debacle. He combined with debutant Ballance to restore a semblance of sanity. Even then, Ballance had to survive an inside edge that failed to carry to Haddin by the barest of margins. He was then badged on the helmet by Johnson.
The Johnson throat ball has been a remorseless, pitiless factor in England’s demise. It has invaded their collective consciousness. It has been used with startling control and intent by a man driven to redeem past ridicule. It is the perfect expression of revenge in cricketing form. Beware the fast bowler scorned, and transformed.
5-61 at lunch, England’s much analysed benchmarking would have been reduced to passing the paltry follow-on mark of 127.
This modest hope was imperilled when Lyon struck a splendid balance of flight, turn and bounce to dismiss Ballance with the eleventh ball after lunch. With 18 of the hardest earned runs of his life, Ballance now knows something of test cricket.
Bairstow again failed to cover his stumps against Johnson, but at least was prepared to throw the bat when offered half a chance. Alone amongst the visitors, Stokes appeared unruffled. Together they made it to drinks, advancing the score to 101.
Just as talk of the follow-on receded, Bairstow drove at a Siddle length ball that stopped on the wicket, producing a politely spooned catch to short mid-on. Stokes had struck a credible balance between attack and defence to make 47. Unaccountably, he now chose to leave a Siddle ball that crashed into off stump, leaving England 8-112, adrift the follow-on by 15.
By reputation Scott Borthwick is more batsman than leg spinner, but found himself debuting at number nine. He was joined by Broad, who decided if he was to prosper at all it must be against Lyon. A couple of hefty blows had England within a boundary of bowling again. Borthwick couldn’t last the distance, edging Harris to slip.
It was left to the giant Rankin to drive Lyon straight for four, sparing Clarke a decision, and possibly easing McGrath Foundation concerns of a day three non-event.
Freed of responsibility, the last pair enjoyed themselves to the tune of a 30 run partnership before Johnson returned and inevitably scattered Rankin’s stumps. England, all out 155, trailed by 171. After a slight Melbourne variation to the script, we were back in very familiar territory. The Mousetrap could only dream of such consistency.
As is their habit, England formed the circle prior to resuming, Cook exhorting in earnest fashion. Lord knows what was left to say. England is well beyond the stage where words will count for anything.
Rogers and Warner proceeded to 27 with little concern. Warner then played back to an Anderson delivery when he should have played forward. Gone for 16, Warner’s was only the second lbw in England’s favour for the series. In this fact surely lies a lesson on the length they have maintained. So much for bowling plans when execution is lacking.
Watto came and went for 9, pushing with hard hands outside off, nicking Anderson behind. Watto is nothing if not reliable in his choice of dismissal modes.
Broad produced bounce from the wicket to strike Clarke on the hand. Perturbed, the Australian skipper wafted at the next delivery and also nicked behind. With the series won, there has been a notable decline in the skipper’s intensity at the batting crease.
Now we experienced yet another of the endless delays which currently afflict test cricket. Broad protested an errant piece of turf. A minor comic opera of ineptitude followed before said turf was replaced. The ten minute limbo was observed by umpires who now appear to lack the authority or inclination to control on field events. To complete the farce Broad ran wide of the offending area with his final delivery.
Smith appeared to lose focus after the delay and fell to Stokes. He can point to two centuries scored at crucial times, but no other series score greater than 31.
Bailey would kill for such a record. He was clinging to his test career at stumps with an undefeated 20 to his name.
Rogers had observed the comings and goings at the other end whilst pursuing the sprightly approach he employed so effectively in Melbourne. He will never be a stylist, but can rely on the habits formed over a near twenty year professional career when pressured. His 73 not out ensured the Australian lead was beyond 300, their position in the game beyond any threat.
Once again Broad and Anderson had to carry more than their share of the bowling burden. Their support cast failed to maintain any control as Australia’s run rate rattled along at better than 4.6 per over.
As they have all series, the Australian bowling pack suffocated England’s batting. Johnson has been intimidator-in-chief, but his success is due in no small part to the pressure applied by Harris, Siddle and Lyon. There has been nowhere to hide for England’s exposed batsmen.
Having been on the receiving end of much Ashes pain, Michael Clarke has been unforgiving in his attitude to the opposition this summer. He will want his batsmen to grind the opposition into the Sydney soil. He will then unleash his bowlers for one last beat-down. On Pink Day there will be little charity on the pitch.
Stumps Day 2:
England all out 155 (Stokes 47, Broad 30*, Siddle 3-23, Johnson 3-33, Harris 3-36)
Australia 4-140 (Rogers 73*, Bailey 20*)
Australia lead by 311 runs with 6 wickets remaining.