Smith, Wade tons leave Aussies 10 wickets from a win
England needing 398 to win on final day after Steve Smith and Matthew Wade ripped game away from hosts
Andrew Ramsey at Edgbaston
5 August 2019, 10:00 AM AEST
The fearless and free-wheeling batting ethos that carried England to their first World Cup win last month looms as their only hope of stealing a win from Australia in a see-sawing first Ashes Test.
The home team resumes a daunting pursuit of 398 for victory at 0-13 on the final day, needing to once more push into uncharted territory after Australia took a stranglehold on the game through another flawless Steve Smith innings.
Smith became the first Australian batter since Matthew Hayden in 2002 – and the first in England since current team mentor Steve Waugh 22 years ago – to post a century in each innings of an Ashes Test.
The 30-year-old's 142 (from 207 deliveries) was more fluent but no less valuable than the 144 he scored against the odds on day one, given Australia began their second innings on Saturday afternoon 90 runs in arrears.
But with England hobbled by the absence of their all-time leading Test wicket-taker James Anderson, and with Smith receiving the top-order support that was absent on day one from Matthew Wade (an unerringly-timely 110), Travis Head (51) and captain Tim Paine (34), Australia took charge on a dominant day.
Paine's decision to close his team's innings half an hour before stumps came after tailenders James Pattinson (47 not out from 48 balls) and Pat Cummins (26 not out from 33) had thrashed 78 runs from a dozen overs against an undermanned, overworked England attack.
Even allowing for the benign nature of a pitch that gave up that rate of scoring late on day four, history shows no team has bettered the 5-283 South Africa scored in 2008 to win a Test batting fourth at Edgbaston.
And given England's approach at times throughout day four, it remains to be seen if they tackle the chase or play safety-first for a draw with early showers forecast in Birmingham on Monday.
Indeed, the mutterings that grew throughout the day in relation to England's bowling tactics began early.
The decision to entrust off-spinner Moeen Ali with the day's first over was interpreted as a vote of confidence from his skipper by some, but curiously conservative by others.
Given the continued absence of strike bowler Anderson due to tightness in his right calf, and the accompanying likelihood that Moeen would have to shoulder a hefty workload in his absence led many to assume Root would start with the seamers.
But not only did he persist with Moeen – who let go a head-high full-toss at Smith in his opening over – and then leg-spinner Joe Denly, the pair operated from the Birmingham end throughout the first session.
Furthermore, Root's decision to employ only Stuart Broad (0-17 from six overs) and Ben Stokes (1-31 from eight) from the opposite end and not to try the previous day's opening bowler Chris Woakes throughout that two-hour period left many scratching their heads.
Not that Smith and Head seemed the slightest perturbed, which in itself only served to heighten the conjecture.
Smith was untroubled from the time he reached his half-century during the morning's fourth over.
And despite experiencing some discomfort against the spinners pitching into footmarks outside his off stump, Head slowly found his stride.
The pair's 100-partnership, the first managed by Australia's top-order batters in this Test, arrived from 172 balls as Head closed in on his maiden Ashes batting milestone.
He might have been dismissed for 46 when he pushed urgently forward at Denly and was stranded briefly out of his crease as the ball scuttled through low to keeper Jonny Bairstow, who then failed to glove the chance.
The vice-captain, who had also survived several vehement lbw shouts from Broad, then reached his half-century with a trademark cut to the backward point boundary.
But when he tried to repeat the shot off Stokes two overs later he managed only an edge to Bairstow who clung on to a smart catch tumbling low to his left.
As Head trudged off and the scoreboard showed Australia's lead 115 with six wickets remaining, the video screen flashed up footage of Stokes' right foot landing perilously close to the return crease.
Had he landed on any part of the line in delivering the ball it would have been declared illegal, but the slow-motion evidence indicated his boot had initially come to rest marginally inside before sliding across in the act of release.
As ever, Smith remained unfazed by all the extra-curricular chatter and could not even be tempted to try and reach his hundred in a hurry before lunch, happily heading to the adjournment unbeaten on 98.
The reappearance of Woakes immediately after the break ended speculation he had not bowled previously due to injury, which meant the day's principal question then became how any England bowler might dismiss Smith.
Almost an hour after the former skipper reached the century that seemed inevitable from the moment he resumed his bat-a-thon this morning, Moeen thought he'd finally happened upon the answer.
On 125, Smith played outside a delivery that spun past his inside edge and, although umpire Joel Wilson deemed it to be missing the stumps, England opted for a review.
As the technology confirmed, Wilson's decision was vindicated although the DRS call might have been made as a morale booster for the flagging bowlers, simply so they could see in slow-motion that it was possible to get past Smith's bat.
Root then declined to take the new ball immediately upon it becoming due half an hour before tea, and preferred instead to continue with his own modest off-spin and that of Moeen for an additional four overs before the swap was made.
By that stage, the lead had grown to 239 and Wade, having also appeared vulnerable against the ball spinning from the rough outside the left-hander's off stump when he began his innings, had cruised to a half-century.
As if to underscore the questions over England's tactics, it was the combination of Woakes armed with the second new ball that brought the breakthrough some had started to doubt might ever materialise.
Having begun his first over with the new ball by unleashing a delivery that swung wildly towards the slips cordon, he corrected with his next effort that saw Smith aim an expansive drive that yielded only an edge.
For the first time in the match, indeed the first occasion since Australia's World Cup squad arrived in the UK last May, the reception for Smith as he left the field was noticeably more pro than against.
But if England's players, and even those fans who had seemingly embraced a boos-ban, thought Smith's removal would hasten the end of Australia's innings they were proved gravely mistaken.
Wade powered on, justifying his recall as a specialist batter by reaching a sparkling century in suitably bold fashion – a reverse-sweep off Root, who had returned to the bowling crease after tea with the second ball just five overs old.
Upon reaching his third Test ton – and his first in six and half years – Wade was lifted off his feet by his delighted skipper and Tasmania teammate Paine, who then stood applauding as his friend acknowledged the crowd.
When the pair were removed in quick succession late in the day, Australia's lead had passed 300 and the ascendancy in a Test that had fluctuated dramatically across the preceding days was unquestionably theirs.
Australia XI: David Warner, Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Matt Wade, Tim Paine (c), James Pattinson, Pat Cummins, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon
England XI: Rory Burns, Jason Roy, Joe Root (c), Joe Denly, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad, James Anderson
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Moeen Ali, Jimmy Anderson, Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Olly Stone, Chris Woakes.
Tour match: Australians v Worcestershire, August 7-9
Second Test: August 14-18,Lord's
Third Test: August 22-26, Headingley
Tour match: Australians v Derbyshire, August 29-31
Fourth Test: September 4-8, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval