England captain Joe Root has but one remaining opportunity to find the Test century that has so frustratingly eluded him throughout this Magellan Ashes campaign after he was dismissed for 83 as dusk approached in Sydney tonight.
Root’s wicket amid the lengthening shadows of an extended final session allowed Australia to finish a tough day on a high note, with Jonny Bairstow succumbing an over later to leave the tourists 5-233 and having surrendered the advantage that had fought hard through the late afternoon to establish.
Root looked destined to reach his breakthrough ton when, having reached 75 after almost four hours at the crease in which he dragged his team into a solid position, he scored consecutive boundaries from Mitchell Starc’s first two deliveries with the second new ball.
But whether it was the resultant surge of adrenaline or just a continuation of the 26-year-old’s repeated inability to navigate a way to three figures, Root fell to the third ball of that over when he clipped a low catch to square leg that was snared by a diving Mitchell Marsh.
The new ball then accounted for Bairstow who edged a catch behind as shadows consumed the SCG pitch, the important scalp of the England 'keeper falling at 7.01pm on a day that was scheduled to conclude at 5.30pm.
That was before the first session was lost to rain.
Root’s top score as skipper prior to the fifth Magellan Ashes Test in Sydney had been 68, and his return on Australia soil showed no centuries and an average of 30 per innings from eight appearances stretching back to the whitewash tour of 2013-14.
Hardly the record of a player ranked in the top five of Test players worldwide and deservedly rated as one of the brightest batters below age 30 alongside his rival Ashes skipper Steve Smith, India’s Virat Kohli and New Zealand captain Kane Williamson.
But on a mellow SCG pitch that was not enlivened by morning rain, Root’s classy (if ultimately unsatisfying) 83 coupled with Dawid Malan’s unbeaten 55 yielded a fourth-wicket stand of 133 that looked to have carried England to safety until the new ball arrived.
Australia had their chances prior to the decisive final minutes to end that union, but fluffed a couple of hard-earned opportunities.
Malan should have been caught short of his ground as the result of an ugly mix-up with Root when the left-hander was 28.
Having deftly dabbed Nathan Lyon behind point and taken the first few steps down the pitch, Malan then halted when he sensed Mitchell Marsh was about to dive and gather the ball to render thoughts of a single problematic.
But by the time the batter looked up to share that concern with his batting partner Root, the England captain was almost in his face and bellowing at him to make haste to the bowler’s end.
Despite the athleticism of Marsh’s gather, as he sprang to his feet he was oblivious to the cry of his captain, Steve Smith, to hurl it to the end where Malan was furiously scurrying.
Instead, the ball ended in the gloves of Tim Paine who flung it towards Nathan Lyon and the stumps he was tending, but the diving batter made it safely home.
In Lyon’s next over Malan was down the pitch again, this time looking to drive through the off-side field only to be beaten by the spinner’s flight and turn and the resultant outside edge flying sharply past Paine’s left knee.
Which meant Smith, at slip and partially obscured by his keeper’s instinctive movement to his left, was unsighted until the ball fizzed past his right ankle and his belated snatch yielded nothing but a few blades of grass.
Malan then remained anchored within his crease for the next hour, but was finally coaxed again late in the day when, having reached 39, he advanced against Lyon and flicked the ball as far as Cameron Bancroft at short leg whose reflex throw narrowly missed the stumps.
With Malan again well short of his ground, and surely thinking that any further forays down the pitch should wait until another day.
The fact that run outs and stumpings loomed as the most likely mode of dismissal revealed much about the SCG pitch, the first for a Test match prepared by the newly appointed groundsmen and the venue’s inaugural first-class track for the current season.
Any hopes that the green grass Smith had observed on match-eve and cited as rationale for eschewing auxiliary spinner Ashton Agar would benefit his quicks was undermined by England’s largely assured batting.
Even if their scoring rate of barely 2.5 runs per over was a glaring contrast to a year ago when Australia – fueled by David Warner’s famous century in the opening session – finished day one at 3-365.
Hardly helping the home team’s cause was the decided lack of zip in their bowling spearhead, Mitchell Starc.
Australia’s leading wicket-taker for the series had declared himself fit to return having missed the Melbourne Test with a bruised right heel, but he rarely managed to clock bowling speeds in excess in mid-130kph and never looked in danger of pushing his top speed of more than 145kph.
He finished the day appearing to favour his left foot and stretching out the effects of cramp in his calf, but in conceding almost four runs an over from his 16 overs he was clearly not the potent weapon he had proved when the series hung in the balance.
Until he claimed the prized wicket of Root.
After the day’s first session was lost to drizzle that rarely increased in volume beyond annoyance, the SCG pitch that had begun the morning as something of a mystery was tipped by some to emerge as a minefield when the covers were finally folded and hauled away.
England had signalled their belief that this was a dry pitch when they named uncapped Mason Crane as one of two spinners in their starting XI, and it would have been a public admission his selectors had erred had Root chosen not to bat.
The wisdom of that call was revealed in the initial half hour when the ball hardly swung despite the leaden skies and the pitch yielded little movement off the seam and even less pace.
So comfortable did England’s opening pair appear against Australia’s early onslaught that the batter who had dominated the Melbourne Test a week earlier (Alistair Cook) was reduced to a virtual onlooker as Mark Stoneman forced the pace.
The younger left-hander found the boundary four times and scored at a rate of a run per delivery as the Australia bowlers attacked the stumps and paid the price on the occasions they pitched too full or a few centimetres wide.
But as has happened so consistently through England’s fruitless summer, Stoneman perished at the very time he began to appear comfortable as he found a fine edge from Pat Cummins’ effort ball that bounced more than expected and fooled Stoneman into playing a ball he could well have left.
Stoneman now has a maximum of one more Ashes innings in this campaign to produce the score of substance that he threatened in his inaugural dig at the Gabba (where he posted 53) and again in the first innings at Perth (56).
However, not once has he pushed on to 60 and his series return that stands at 232 runs at an average of 29 with an innings remaining seems a tad wasteful.
Though not as profligate as the man immediately below him in England’s Test batting order, James Vince, who once again teased with glimpses of his unquestioned talent before self-combusting in the most inglorious manner.
There have been occasions during this campaign – most conspicuously his 83 at the Gabba before he needlessly ran himself out and his fluent 55 in Perth – where Vince has looked the equal of anyone, save perhaps for the freakish talents of Smith.
Then, as soon as the latest round of accolades begins to percolate around the ground and folks dare to believe that this might just be the innings in which ability trumps abrogation, the 26-year-old will surrender his wicket in abject circumstances.
Today’s brain fade arrived in the first over following the drinks break when the right-hander aimed an expansive cut shot at a short, wide ball from Cummins that many a lesser batter would have allowed to pass harmlessly.
With a batting average of just 22.94 from a career now in its 12th Test, Vince remains under heavy scrutiny to retain his place in an England batting line-up that has looked unfailingly frail but for Cook’s epic and undefeated 244 at the MCG last week.
Consequently, when the former skipper was adjudged lbw upon review seven runs after Vince departed England’s solid start had turned suddenly wobbly at 3-95.
The fortune that seemed to have swung so violently in Cook’s favour after a tough trot in the first three Tests of the series shifted against him when he had scored 39 in almost two and half hours and was then pinned on the crease by Josh Hazlewood.
West Indies umpire Joel Wilson had declined Australia’s thunderous appeal seemingly on the premise the ball had pitched outside leg stump, but when tracking technology was invoked it indicated a majority of the ball had landed inside the stump-to-stump ‘hot zone’.
Which meant a row or two worth of stitching on the Kookaburra proved the difference between Cook batting on into a 13th hour and being defeated by Australia’s foot-weary bowling attack.
Australia XI: David Warner, Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith (c), Mitch Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine (wk), Pat Cummins, Mitch Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon #Ashes— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) January 4, 2018
England XI: Alastair Cook, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Joe Root (c), Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Moeen Ali, Tom Curran, Stuart Broad, Mason Crane, James Anderson #Ashes— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) January 4, 2018
2017-18 International Fixtures
Magellan Ashes Series
Australia Test squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Ashton Agar, Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh, Tim Paine (wk), Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird.
England Test squad: Joe Root (c), James Anderson (vc), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Gary Ballance, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Mason Crane, Tom Curran, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ben Stokes, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Chris Woakes.
First Test Australia won by 10 wickets. Scorecard
Second Test Australia won by 120 runs (Day-Night). Scorecard
Third Test Australia won by an innings and 41 runs. Scorecard
Fourth Test Match drawn. Scorecard
Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Tickets
Gillette ODI Series v England
First ODI MCG, January 14. Tickets
Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Tickets
Third ODI SCG, January 21. Tickets
Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Tickets
Fifth ODI Perth Stadium, January 28. Tickets
Prime Minister's XI
PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Tickets
Gillette T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series
First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Tickets
Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Tickets
Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Tickets
Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14
Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16
Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18
Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21