As England’s two most recent Test captains Joe Root and Alastair Cook noted during the week, if their team were to stand up and get themselves back into the Magellan Ashes Series they needed one of their senior members to deliver when it mattered.
Or, as it turned out, they required relative Test novice Dawid Malan in just his eighth appearance for England to post his maiden Test century and the first for the tourists of this previously luckless campaign that had previously yielded little but scrutiny and scorn.
The first lucky breaks they’ve caught coming in a rush via Malan’s accomplished (if not quite flawless) 110 not out, his sweetly timed unbeaten union of 174 with Jonny Bairstow that resumes tomorrow morning with England 4-305.
And a rash of bloopers from the Australians whose collection of squandered catches, missed opportunities and unsuccessful reviews could have been worse if a fortuitous DRS had not handed them the scalp of England opener Mark Stoneman midway through the day.
As it was, the day belonged to 30-year-old Malan who became the 10th (and potentially the last) England player to score a hundred at the WACA which is hosting its final Ashes Test, and only the fourth in the past 30 years.
All of them, since Cornish keeper Jack Richards’ 133 in the summer of 1986-87, being left-handers – Graham Thorpe (1994-95), Cook (2006-07) and Ben Stokes when England last toured here in 2013-14.
Born in England but raised in South Africa where his family relocated when he was a child, Malan had not set foot in Australia until Root’s team landed in Perth in late October.
Yet the manner in which he came quickly to grips to the most idiosyncratic Australian conditions showed that the technique he had fashioned on the hard, fast tracks of the High Veld and the Western Cape was ideally suited to the WACA.
Even if he did ride his luck, dropped at third slip from the first delivery with the second new ball (when on 92), saved from being run out on 32 when an accurate throw would have found him well short of his ground and survived an ambitious DRS review for lbw when 64.
But those moments provided a thumbnail sketch of a day that Australia regularly threatened to seize by the neck, only to have England wriggle loose (often due to errors by the home team) until Malan and Bairstow combined.
To fashion an unbroken stand that sees their team enter day two with their noses in front for the first time in the series, and confident in the knowledge they could withstand their rivals’ vaunted pace attack in the most favourable conditions they’re likely to find for the entire summer.
Having called the coin correctly for the third time in as many Tests, Root then expected his decision to bat would yield less debate than his gamble to do the opposite when in the same position in Adelaide 12 days earlier.
Certainly the sight of Cook – celebrating his achievement as the first England cricketer to reach 150 Test caps – unleashing a cover-driven boundary in the day’s fourth over gave an early hint it might just be the tourists’ day.
Especially with Cook’s batting partner Stoneman not out 16 from 10 balls faced at the time the former England captain at last looked to be up and going.
But that changed the very next over when Starc sent down one of the full, straight deliveries that Stoneman had dined out upon an over previously to find Cook camped deep in his crease and pushing speculatively in search of the ball.
Which scorched past his bat and thudded into his back pad, which was the only object that prevented it from tearing leg stump from the ground.
The notable absence of new-ball swing for Australia’s seamers meant boundaries flowed when they dared pitch up, so instead they adopted a preference for short bowling in the belief that – even in its final Ashes outing – the WACA pitch’s once famed pace and bounce would prove a weapon.
While Stoneman looked habitually discomforted by the tactic, precedent suggested the manner most likely to remove struggling number three James Vince was to hit more of a nagging length and wait for him to nick a catch behind.
A result that duly arrived barely an over before lunch when Vince, whose Ashes return of 44 runs at 11 per innings since he began the campaign with a series high (for England, to date) 83 suggests another marginal return in this game might herald an unwanted Christmas message.
The fact that, despite the loss of two crucial wickets in the opening session, England’s top-order batting looked as fluent and productive as at any time of this series might have as much to do with the billiard table-nature of the WACA outfield as any mastery of the Australia attack.
A total of 14 boundaries in an opening session that England finished 2-91 seemed sufficient to indicate that the combination of wide open spaces (thanks to traditional first morning attacking fields) and a surface that barely slowed the progress of a timed stroke meant value for effort.
However, a couple of cruel blows in the first hour after the interval put the wobbles under Root’s aspirations for a daunting day one tally.
The first brought the removal of the skipper himself, in circumstances that batters even a fraction of Root’s quality can consider themselves hard done by upon enduring.
A delivery from Pat Cummins pushed down the leg side at pace, that the captain – who had cruised with ominous ease to 20 from the 22 balls he had previously negotiated – instinctively tried to flick behind square leg for his fifth boundary.
Only for the ball to flick a glove and settle safely into those of keeper Tim Paine who had made smart coverage to his left to complete a bonus dismissal.
England felt themselves even greater victims five overs further into the middle session when Stoneman was adjudged out after a chain of events that left many onlookers perplexed and the visitors’ dressing room seething.
The opener, whose early productivity had given to a gruelling battle for survival against relentlessly hostile short-pitched bowling, should have had his torment ended on 52 when Mitchell Marsh shelled the quintessence of a straightforward slips catch.
In his new position at the head of Australia’s catching cordon, having replaced Peter Handscomb in more roles than simply the number six batting berth.
Four runs, and many mishaps after that reprieve Stoneman copped a brutish delivery from Starc that reared at him and climbed past his left shoulder as Australia’s close catchers went up in unison.
Umpire Marais Erasmus’s refusal to entertain their appeal led Steve Smith to refer it to a higher authority, and even though that jurisdiction (third umpire Aleem Dar) was furnished with nothing that resembled compelling evidence, the on-field ruling was overturned and Stoneman sent on his way.
A way that momentarily looked to be blocked by Root and England assistant coach Paul Collingwood who both appeared at the team’s dressing room door as if to suggest Stoneman should stay out in the middle because squatter’s rights might trump DRS.
The pair were doubtless driven to their actions by the slew of television replays and technical aids that showed no discernible contact with the ball (in super slow-mo), some suggestion of a noise as it passed the batter’s raised gloves (snicko) and apparent contact with Stoneman’s left hand which was not in contact with the bat (hot spot).
All of which seemed to point to considerable doubt, until Dar told his centre-wicket colleague to reverse his call and England’s disbelief became palpable.
It was a rare recent victory for Australia using the referral system, although normal service was resumed later in the day when an appeal for lbw against Malan (on 64) was referred even though Lyon at point – a fielding position that forms part of the DRS consultation committee – indicated it was bouncing over the stumps.
Which the ball-tracking technology soon confirmed, at the cost of 50 per cent of Australia’s available reviews if they proved unsuccessful.
Compounding Australia’s angst was the knowledge they might have had Malan removed for half that total had David Warner’s shy at the stumps from short mid-wicket found its mark as the England man was half a metre short of completing a tight single called by Bairstow.
But that was just another frustration for the home team as they endured their toughest day of a series they had dominated for much of the 10 playing days already gone.
Australia XI: Bancroft, Warner, Khawaja, Smith (c), SMarsh, MMarsh, Paine (wk), Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood, Lyon #Ashes— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) December 14, 2017
England XI: Cook, Stoneman, Vince, Root (c), Malan, Bairstow (wk), Moeen, Woakes, Overton, Broad, Anderson #Ashes— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) December 14, 2017
2017-18 International Fixtures
Magellan Ashes Series
Australia Test squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun 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 WACA Ground, December 14-18. Tickets
Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Tickets
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