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Late brain explosions sour Aussies' dominant day as Smith, Head, Warner lord it at Lord's

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28th June, 2023
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Australia have ended the first day’s play at Lord’s in a commanding position at 5/339, but a disastrous final half an hour has given England some precious respite as well as a foothold in a match that already seemed to be slipping away.

In command at 3/316 with stumps in sight on a rain-interrupted day at the famous ground, with Steve Smith looking serene on 74 and Travis Head having raced to 77 off just 72 balls, the Aussies looked destined for a day almost the equal to their famous 1/337 on Day 1 at the same venue in 2015 – made even more significant by having lost the toss and being sent in by Ben Stokes under cloudy London skies.

Scoring freely at more than four runs per over – the Australian scoring rate dubbed ‘Ozball’ by former Test captain Mark Taylor on Nine – it was by taking the bowlers on that the tourists had established a notable platform, a far cry from the more sedate showing at Edgbaston, but also how they ceded some portion of control to England in the dying stages.

In the space of three balls, a dominant day would be soured when Head and Cameron Green fell within four Joe Root balls to hideous shots: Head comprehensively stumped after a failed charged and slog, before Green departed for a second-ball duck as his appallingly timed pull off a short Root offering presented James Anderson a gift at mid-off.

The five minutes of madness leaves Australia still in control of the contest, especially with Smith unbeaten on 85 – passing 9000 Test runs in the process, the second-fastest ever to the mark by innings behind Sri Lankan great Kumar Sangakkara – and moving inexorably towards a 32nd century at the highest level.

But the twin blows have given England a sniff, and given their remarkable record across the 2022 season in running down sizeable targets, they can head into Day 2 still well and truly in the hunt.

Jonny Barstow stumps Travis Head.

Jonny Barstow stumps Travis Head. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Stokes’ decision to win the toss and bowl, having anticipated seamer-friendly conditions in bringing in one-Test quick Josh Tongue for sole spinner Moeen Ali, surprised few: indeed, given the cloud covering, Pat Cummins admitted he too would have sent England in.

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Sure enough, there was movement aplenty from the opening balls of the day – a far cry from the much-criticised flat track present in the first Test at Edgbaston – as both David Warner and Usman Khawaja had their outside edges repeatedly tested by James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

The only halt to the early flow of runs was a lengthy delay following a Just Stop Oil protest; two pitch invaders deposited orange paint on a patch of grass near the pitch before being escorted off, one by security and the other by Jonny Bairstow.

Continuing on from his composed innings second time around in Birmingham when play resumed, Warner looked the more fluid of the two: dispatching Anderson off the fourth ball of the day with a beautiful cover drive when the veteran overstepped, the left-hander played his most fruitful hand in England since 2015.

Helped by a simple dropped catch at fourth slip from Ollie Pope when on 20 – Pope would finish the day off the field with a shoulder concern after diving to stop a ball at backward point, having been demoted from the cordon following the missed chance – Warner relished the turn of good fortune, having been almost totally deserted by lady luck in his infamous 2019 campaign.

Strong throughout on the off side but not afraid to improvise – audacious lap-scoops for one and four respectively off Broad and Ollie Robinson drew curious glances from the bowlers – Warner’s scoring intent allowed Khawaja to start more sedately, though he too would survive a chance when Root failed to get under a tough low offering at first slip on 1.

A second straight half-century partnership soon arrived, with Warner contributing 42; soon after, a top-edged six off newcomer Tongue would bring Warner a well-deserved half century, one all but certain to guarantee his place in the XI for the remainder of the series.

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The final over before lunch would bring with it the breakthrough, however: Tongue, having started expensively with 24 taken from his first three overs, would vindicate his selection, Khawaja shouldering arms only to watch in horror as the ball nipped back sharply to take the top of off stump for 17.

Unperturbed after lunch, Warner continued on his merry way, his drives getting more and more assertive as he reached his highest score in England since the 2015 Ashes.

However, just when a century seemed on the cards, Tongue would strike again with the ball of the day: a viciously seaming delivery that cut through the set batter, moving from well outside off stump to hit middle and leg.

The danger man gone for a fine 88-ball 66, though, wouldn’t stem the run rate. Having been becalmed before falling cheaply twice at Edgbaston, Smith wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice: a vicious pull for four off just his seventh ball signalled his intent to get his name on the Lord’s honour board for a second time, having missed out in 2019.

After 15 balls, Smith had 24 to his name courtesy of consecutive cracking cover drives off Broad: to add insult to injury, the bowler though he had his man in the same over when the Australian was given out caught behind, only for an instantaneous review to reveal he’d got nowhere near it.

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That would be as close to danger as Smith would get for the remainder of the day, and his escape seemed to inspire Labuschagne. Three boundaries in four balls off Broad’s next over, two audacious flicks off his pads through mid-wicket when the bowler erred, had him away and his Edgbaston nemesis removed from the attack.

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On came Stokes, though having soldiered through the pain of a crippled knee on the fifth day of the first Test, this time there was no magic on offer for the England captain.

Struggling mightily with his front foot – he’d bowl three no-balls in three overs, summing up a day on which England’s quicks overstepped 12 times – an excellent maiden to Smith would be sandwiched by two overs of tripe, Stokes leaking 21 runs and handing Smith his 9000th in Tests via an overpitched ball flicked to the square leg boundary to elicit a frustrated air-kick from the skipper.

Once Labuschagne had his own brush with departure – needing the DRS to overturn an LBW dismissal after shouldering arms, which ball tracker found to be comfortably bouncing over the stumps – the pair moved untroubled to tea on 2/190 – a run rate of nearly four per over.

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With Smith on 38 and Labuschagne 45, the performance of England infuriated Kevin Pietersen enough to deliver a withering spray on Sky Sports during the tea interval.

“It’s been shambolic. Absolutely shambolic,” Pietersen said of the home side’s display, taking particular issue with the team’s apparent reluctance to resume quickly after an early rain delay.

“The English bowlers this morning should have been on those stairs saying we want to bowl at Australia. We’re desperate to bowl at Australia. These two Australian batters are out there waiting for England.

“They’re the ones that should be in the room saying, ‘No, no, we don’t want to bat,’ and it’s all too easy and it’s all too nice.

“The English bowlers this morning should have been on those stairs saying ‘we want to bowl at Australia. We’re desperate to bowl at Australia’. These two Australian batters [Warner and Labuschagne] are out there waiting for England.

“Are you joking? Are you absolutely joking?… I hope they’re in that dressing room now and the England coaches are giving them the biggest hammering in saying it’s not good enough.

“It’s absolutely not good enough. You cannot bowl that here today, you cannot have these conditions, you cannot declare for 390 [in the first Test]… you think Australia are declaring today?

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“You think Australia are getting 390 and saying England go have a bat? No chance.”

Pietersen’s mood would hardly have improved when substitute fielder Rehan Ahmed – on for Pope – made a meal of a stop at backward square to hand Smith another four.

Hope was briefly rekindled when Labuschagne, having been tied down by Robinson’s accuracy, feathered an edge behind for 47.

Head, though, took just five balls to disabuse them of that notion, dispatching a wider offering through cover with contempt.

Having tied the Australian counterattacker down at Edgbaston with targeted short-pitched bowling, it took Stokes a surprising amount of time to repeat the tactic: by the time Broad began to ruffle Head with a series of bouncers, he was on 40 at run-a-ball pace, having repeatedly flayed Robinson through cover point when he strayed wide and also put Broad himself away when he erred too straight.

The lack of a leg slip also surprised, with Head escaping a glove down the leg side from Broad’s very first bumper, earning him four where there may have been a catching chance.

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Tongue’s bouncer wouldn’t pose as many problems, though, with Head imperiously pulling away to reach his second half-century of the series from just 48 balls. With Smith too beginning to motor once more after a sluggish resumption, bringing up his own 50 from 101, it took the pair just 104 balls to bring up a century stand.

Head, by that point, was on 68, having dispatched 12 boundaries in his latest Gilchristian performance; however, the recall of Root would bring about his doom.

Having bowled just two of the day’s first 70 overs by Stokes as the captain chose instead to rotate his four quicks, Root’s arrival was quickly met with aggression, Smith and Head both using their feet to deposit the part-time off-spinner across the line for boundaries.

11 would be taken from the first 13 balls of his spell, but with the partnership swelling to 118 off 120, the 14th would bring the breakthrough.

Premeditating a charge down the wicket, a slightly wider offering from Root saw Head flail and miss, Bairstow completing a simple stumping that was inexplicably sent to the third umpire (along with an unnecessary check for an edge) that only served to delay the inevitable.

With barely 20 minutes before the close of play, goodness knows what Green was thinking to just his third ball: eyes lighting up at an apparent Root long hop, the all-rounder was surprised by pace, getting the timing on his attempted booming pull shot all wrong to lob the simplest of catches to Anderson at mid-off.

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Out for a duck to what may be the worst shot of his career, Green had opened the door for England to charge back into the match, though Smith and Alex Carey would calmly see through to stumps and past the second new ball with an unbroken 23-run stand at a more leisurely pace to the earlier blitzkrieg.

The day would finish with Australia two runs ahead of their almost unimprovable opening day at Lord’s in 2015, though with four fewer wickets in hand: with the pitch showing few demons and given England’s incredible run-chase record, it will be incumbent on Smith, Carey and the tail to push the score beyond 450 to ensure an ideal start to the second Test isn’t squandered.

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