England win the toss and win the session: 59-1 at lunch
At last, after all the off-field sledging, it was time to take the trash talk on to the ground – and, glory be, to play some actual cricket.
Joe Root won the toss and, eschewing the Nasser Way, elected to have a bat and send Mark Stoneman’s heartrate up to 150. Stoneman’s job, of course, was to get that number for a score.
There was no movement for the new ball and it looked a good toss to win, but Mitchell Starc found a length outside off stump and Alastair Cook nicked off to Peter Handscomb, one of three wicketkeepers in the Aussie XI, on duty at first slip. Cook’s familiar indeterminate footwork early in his innings and a misalignment of head and delivery exacted a full price – 764 runs still to get to match 2010-11.
The wicket brought James Vince to the crease joining Mark Stoneman, both batsmen on 0, both with much to prove, both with the ideal stage to do so. Progress was slow, but, with Vince the more flamboyant and Stoneman the more circumspect, the right / left combination accumulated steadily without ever dominating bowling that was competent but largely unthreatening.
Joe Root, feet up with pads on, will have been very happy as the miles were going in to the Aussie pacers’ legs, so much so that Nathan Lyon was into his work with barely an hour gone. The spinner extracted some turn on the first morning, which will have interested Moeen Ali looking on, but Steven Smith must have eyed his opposite number’s five man attack with a tinge of envy.
Lunch was taken after 29 overs with England the happier team, sitting on 59-1 with Vince on 32 and Stoneman on 25.
James Vince the star as England build a strong position: 128-2 at tea
After too long a delay caused by too inadequate a set of covers at the Gabba, play resumed with England 59-1 and… James Vince and Mark Stoneman simply picked up where they left off. Stoneman was happy to play second fiddle to the stylish Hampshire man and a partnership – the holy grail on the first day of The Ashes – re-established itself.
It was a surprise when Steven Smith chose to resume with Nathan Lyon and Patrick Cummins, as they had been the less threatening pair of the Aussie quartet. Lyon was finding a little turn, but it was predictable and easily managed by England’s unexpectedly confident tyros. Inevitably, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc were soon in tandem, but the pitch was true and the batsmen patient – it didn’t feel like the infamous Gabbatoir, it felt more like Lord’s.
The Australian plan was to attack Vince on and outside his off stump, knowing his history of airy drives and regular edges, but, with so little lateral movement available to the bowlers, his approach of hanging offside of the ball and hitting through the covers worked, the Aussies feeding a strength rather than attacking a weakness.
Vince raised his maiden half-century (off 106 balls), quietening the crowd and looking every inch the long sought after replacement for Jonathan Trott at Number Three. Too much too soon? Vince was answering his critics in the hardest of currencies – runs away from home and under pressure. Pulling away from his partner, the century stand arrived long before the delayed tea and the Barmy Army were in full cry.
The Durham man went to his fifty with a rare false stroke, edging his 150th delivery along the ground through the slips, continuing his good form on the tour. Stoneman’s tighter technique was revealed in a wagon wheel that showed scoring shots all round the wicket, but his pateince and concentration were the most impressive characteristics of the knock.
Lyon was beginning to get sharper turn and drew an edge from Vince only for the recalled Tim Paine to drop a relatively simple chance adding fuel to the flames already blowing around his selection. Smith grimaced and the importance of taking the half-chances was underlined yet again.
On the stroke of tea, Cummins, wide on the crease, got one through Stoneman’s tired defensive prod, the opener gone for 53, the scoreboard showing 127-2. Though he’ll be disappointed to be bowled through the gate, Stoneman had done his job and passed his captain on the way back to the pavilion handing the responsibility to Joe Root with England well placed.
Tea was taken with the scoreboard reading 128-2, Vince 72 and Root 1.
Close of play: 196-4
England resumed on 128-2 in a strong, but not dominant position and James Vince continued his superb form taking two fours in one Mitchell Strac over, as the painstaking work put in by himself and Mark Stoneman began to pay off, the four man attack showing a little fatigue. But, as is so often the case when there’s little between the teams, the match pivoted on a half chance.
Truth be told, it was more a tenth chance, as Vince pushed the ball into the covers well to the right of Nathan Lyon and set off for a tight, nevertheless seemingly safe single. But Lyon, his concentration as impressive as his athleticism, moved swiftly and gathered the ball in one hand as it bounced kindly and then, at full tilt and off balance, hit the one and a quarter stumps he could see to run out England’s Number Three in a sensational piece of fielding. Vince was gone for a splendid 83 and the match, at 145-3, went straight back into the balance.
The runs dried up as Dawid Malan took his time to play himself in and Joe Root, despite a top edge that fell not far short of Josh Hazlewood at deep backward square leg, retreated into his shell – at least as much as he ever does. The fielders were suddenly on their toes, the Australians doing their old trick of playing, nay believing, that they were well ahead in the game, even if most observers would say the match was level at best.
Root was getting bogged down and was undone late in the day by a beauty from Patrick Cummins who got the replacement ball to swing into the England captain, who was struck on the front pad, his bat failing to get round his leading leg. Inexplicably, Umpire Erasmus turned down Cummins’ full-throated appeal, but justice was done on referral, the howler reversed. It was magnificent work from the big Aussie pacer who had struggled for rhythm early on, but was still charging in with 16 overs already under his belt. For a man with his injury record, that was the kind of effort that speaks of excellent conditioning as well as a big heart. 163-4 and the match in the balance.
With Moeen Ali playing a few shots, England closed on 196-4, honours even. A slow but utterly compelling day of hard Test cricket had been played in excellent spirit by two teams with nothing to chooose between them. The match, nay the series, is set up perfectly – so, who wants it?