Much has been written and spoken about Australia’s fast bowling stocks after the drawn Ashes series.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Steve Smith’s absence was enough for England’s victory at Headingley to be a fait accompli.
However, we are here with the home side rolled for 67 and staring down another defeat. That defeat will ensure that the Ashes stay here in Australia. A lead of 283 runs, with four second-innings wickets in hand, looks far too many for an England side looking abject with the bat.
The day started with English press talking about Jofra Archer’s six-fer and how a good day of batting will go far to square up the series. What actually happened was England delivered a woeful performance with the bat. A heady cocktail of excellent bowling and a pitch with plenty to offer for the bowlers despite the Yorkshire sunshine was finished off with poor shot selection.
Nine of the English wickets fell to catches and all but Jos Buttler were caught behind the wickets. Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson all bowled exquisitely. Bowling tight and full, adding shorter balls to induce pressure, England’s batters could not cope.
It was more than reminiscent of Australia’s capitulation at Trent Bridge in 2015 but this was way worse. At Trent Bridge, Stuart Broad bowled superbly whereas this abject performance was self-inflicted in many ways. Cricket’s king of hyperbole, Michael Vaughan, took to Twitter to declare the understatement “This has been a pathetic effort…no hiding behind any excuses…simply not good enough”.
Despite losing David Warner to a second-ball duck and Marcus Harris being cleaned up by a ball spinning viciously out of the rough from Jack Leach, Australia found a way. Marnus Labuschagne led with his third Test fifty in less than a week.
Occupying the crease was his modus operandi and Labuschagne ate up 139 balls in his 53 not out. In the first innings, his 74 came from 129 balls. It’s not really a surprise that he has performed so well. In his 18 innings in the English County Championship, he scored 1,114 runs at 61.89.
It does beg the question of why that wasn’t higher in importance when selecting the team for the first Test. However, he’s a lock-in for Old Trafford and The Oval and it is well deserved.
It’s ironic that England’s new hope, Archer, has been culpable in ensuring that the Ashes stay in Australia. After all, he was the one who hit Steve Smith with the bouncer leading to Labuschagne’s inclusion as a concussion substitute.
Most Aussie fans would have quite rightly felt that, on the face of it, it was a poor trade-off that weakened the team. Much like going to the theatre to see a big star only to find out that the understudy was playing the main role, the disappointment was palpable. However, this understudy is making the part his own. All that is required now is for Labuschagne to convert his overnight position into a century.
There are a few questions to answer about the Australian batting. It was another failure from Warner but he can point to the first innings to show that he’s not a spent force quite yet.
Usman Khawaja’s 23 won’t placate the critics. Both Travis Head and Matthew Wade occupied the crease and scored important runs without going to big scores to help Australia’s cause and thwart England’s bowlers.
Tim Paine’s batting will come under close scrutiny but how can you drop a winning captain? Supposed to be a seat warmer in the job until a new heir became apparent or the king returns to the throne, Paine is going to be an Ashes-winning, or the very least an Ashes-retaining, captain.
Like Mike Brearley’s tenure in charge of England in the early 1980s, Paine isn’t the best player going around but he’s getting the job done. Perhaps he’s not quite a student of psychology like Brearley but Paine is smart when it comes to man-management and the media. His comment prior to the Edgbaston Test about 15 grounds being more intimidating drew the focus off the ‘Sandpaper Three’.
Like him or not, Paine is going to be around as captain for a while yet.
And what now for England? Die-hard English fans will quickly summon the match in 1981 at the same ground to give them hope. Unfortunately for them, it’s highly unlikely that there is another fairy-tale waiting to happen. Who in the England team can play the role of Ian Botham?
England have real problems with the bat, which is not unknown, but the first innings performance has highlighted the chasm between their level and where it needs to be to play Test cricket at the highest level. Perhaps Archer has the potential for a Bob Willis-like spell to finish off the tail, but it will do little because of the batting frailties.