Aussies hang in to leave Ashes opener intriguingly poised
England tail wags, before Smith, Head erase hosts' first-innings advantage and take slender 34-run lead at stumps on day three
Andrew Ramsey at Edgbaston
4 August 2019, 10:00 AM AEST
Not for the first time in the opening Ashes Test – nor likely the last occasion across the five-match series – Australia's hopes rest heavily in the hands of former captain Steve Smith.
When poor light brought a premature end to day three of the series opener at Edgbaston, Smith remained unbeaten on 46 and his team was precariously poised at 3-124, holding a lead of just 34 runs.
Whether that advantage can be turned into a total that will challenge England's batters in the final two days depends not insubstantially on Smith's batting.
The first innings century maker, and number four ranked Test batter in the world, had appeared untroubled during his 103-minute innings on Saturday evening, after Australia had suffered the loss of three wickets while still in arrears.
That was until the 30-year-old misjudged a pull shot from the bowling of Ben Stokes, and the ball smashed into his protective helmet which prompted him to undergo an on-field concussion test.
He was cleared to continue batting, and will resume in the morning with current vice-captain Travis Head (21 not out).
But on the evidence tendered on the opening day when Smith accounted for more than half his team's total, and again today at the start of Australia's second innings, his contribution looms as pivotal.
As it was, the first half-hour of the visitors' innings today was uncomfortably familiar.
For the second time in the match, both of Australia's openers were dismissed inside the first 10 overs with neither reaching double figures.
Any advantage that Australia had hoped to gain through the absence of England's pace bowling spearhead James Anderson, hobbled by a calf injury, was therefore handed back within half an hour of their second innings beginning.
David Warner had shown greater certainty than was apparent on the first morning, his punch-drive to the mid-off boundary early in Stuart Broad's second over suggesting his skittish day-one knock might have been explained away by nerves.
But Broad found the edge of the opener's bat a few balls later and, after Warner diligently rehearsed his technique for leaving alone deliveries angled into him from around the wicket, that was precisely how he came undone.
Broad's extra bounce and capacity to compel left-handers to play at deliveries that hold their line saw one brush Warner's glove, and even though umpire Joel Wilson was unable to detect the contact, the review called for by England clearly did.
As the chorus from the heaving Hollies Stand grew ever louder with each near-miss or stifled England appeal, Warner's opening partner Cameron Bancroft's 31-ball innings ended in cruelly ironic fashion.
The man that ex-Test captain Steve Waugh recently described as the foremost short-leg fielder he's seen was caught in his own trap when he squeezed a simple catch to Jos Buttler at bat-pad.
It came from the first ball of England off-spinner Moeen Ali's second over, and that success – given England were forced to bowl him earlier than otherwise planned because of Anderson's absence – summed up the respective fortunes of the protagonists in the series opener.
Or perhaps that dichotomy was better illustrated by the phase of the game that followed Bancroft's dismissal.
Usman Khawaja and Smith had immediately launched into a spirited counter-attack, taking a series of boundaries from Moeen and Broad, although Khawaja was handed a life on 11 when Buttler failed to hold a sharp, low catch at second slip off the spinner.
Khawaja looked to be in sublime form in the warm Midlands sunshine.
He timed the ball effortlessly into gaps to reach 40 from 48 balls faced when – from the second delivery bowled by England's habitual game-breaker Ben Stokes – he found the inside edge to what was effectively a fast leg-break, and was caught behind.
It was a moment that stood as the very antithesis of England's innings, built largely around their obdurate opener Rory Burns.
Whereas Khawaja was crisply elegant but ultimately unfulfilled, Burns' aesthetically awkward methods proved brutally effective in surviving for 473 minutes and making Australia's bowlers expend everything to try and chisel him out.
Indeed, the manner in which England's not-out pair (Burns and Stokes) had begun the third morning raised early the prospect of Australia facing a significant first-innings deficit, and a sorely overworked bowling attack.
Stokes, in particular, seemed in ominously imperious touch as he leaned into several forward pushes that scooted across the Edgbaston outfield to the boundary rope.
But upon acknowledging the rousing roar from the buoyant Saturday crowd when he reached 50, Stokes suffered a concentration lapse as he flashed languidly at a short delivery from Pat Cummins.
The resultant edge to keeper Tim Paine boosted the spirits of the Australia players who had barely looked like making a breakthrough in the preceding overs.
At the same time, it reduced Stokes to undisguised anger, slamming his bat in flagrant self-admonishment as he left the field.
That mood must have darkened further from within the dressing room, as the England vice-captain saw his dismissal trigger a batting collapse as unexpected as it was dramatic.
In the space of 53 deliveries, England lost 4-18 as the lower-middle order batting that had been foreshadowed as their strength surrendered in a worryingly meek manner.
Burns, who had played and missed so often against Nathan Lyon the previous day, finally produced an outside edge which was cleverly snared by Paine who claimed the catch in the webbing of his left glove as it deviated sharply from the opener's bat.
In scoring 133 across almost eight hours of batting, Burns had produced the sort of innings more often associated with England's most prolific Test batter – also a left-handed opener – Sir Alastair Cook.
But just five deliveries after Burns' vigil was ended, Moeen followed him back to the sheds for a duck in circumstances that were altogether unsurprising.
For the eighth time in 10 Test innings, the left-hander was knocked over by Lyon although none of those previous instances were quite as emphatic or embarrassing as today's.
Moeen offered no stroke to a delivery that went on with Lyon's arm and uprooted his unprotected off stump.
It was a curious outcome, given it came a day after James Pattinson (bowling around 145kph) had hit the wicket at the same end of the pitch and not managed to dislodge a bail in doing so.
With a lead of just 16 and last recognised batting pair Jonny Bairstow and Chris Woakes at the crease, Bairstow aimed a flat-footed off-side swat at Siddle that squirted waist-high to Warner at slip.
But if Australia were then eyeing a deficit of 20 or not many more on the first innings, they had obviously forgotten events of the first day when their final two wickets more than doubled the team's total.
History risked repeating as Broad joined Woakes and the pair quickly looked as untroubled as the couple of more credentialled batters immediately above them had appeared clueless.
As lunch came and went and Australia's foot-weary bowlers were rotated in a series of ever-shorter spells – with former skipper Smith even getting a couple of overs with his leg-spin – the pair slowly built England's lead.
On notching their 50 partnership, they equalled England's ninth-wicket record against Australia at Edgbaston (set by Bob Taylor and John Emburey in 1981) and by the day's midway point their union had yielded an invaluable 65.
Broad had been in occupation for more than an hour and half, making it his longest Test innings since the 65 he made at Trent Bridge during the 2013 Ashes series which is best remembered for the slips catch he offered but umpires somehow missed.
With that wicket, Stuart Broad becomes the seventh player in history to take 450 Test scalps #Ashes pic.twitter.com/FmgmmyKj2K— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) August 3, 2019
Yet for most of his 108-minute stay, Australia's pace bowlers were reluctant to test him with short-pitched bowling despite the obvious distaste Broad has shown for it when batting in recent years.
The slowness of the Edgbaston pitch would have been largely responsible for that tactical decision but, with Broad on 29 and the partnership closing in on two hours, the strategy changed.
Cummins aimed a series of short balls at Broad's upper body and above during a searching over, and the last of those was flicked from the left-hander's rib cage to fine leg where Pattinson held the catch.
Doubts as to whether last man Anderson, still feeling the effects of the calf soreness he suffered on the opening morning, would bat were answered when he joined Woakes at the crease.
And while the nine runs the final pair added were more symbolic than meaningful, the half-hour during which they kept the flagging Australians in the field delivered the home team a further psychological advantage.
The only benefit to fall Australia's way having toiled for almost 136 overs on an unhelpful pitch and in front of an unforgiving crowd, was that the end of England's innings encouraged umpires to bring forward the tea break.
Which meant the visitors were granted a 20-minute rest rather than the standard 10-minute change of innings to catch their breath and gather their thoughts before beginning their pursuit of England's 90-run lead.
A deficit that soon loomed much larger than raw scores suggested.
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