First Test, day three: the tension rises

Lunch: Australia 213-7

Saturday in Brisbane and the match was as balanced as a fine Coonawarra claret, as England looked to snap the steely partnership of Steven Smith and Shaun Marsh and Australia aimed to bat and bat and bat.

To nobody’s surprise, Joe Root deployed his 900 or so Test wickets opening bowlers against Smith’s captain’s average of 70+ with hostilities re-engaged at 165-4. Ten runs had been added without incident when, extraordinarily and inexplicably, Marsh, on 51, lifted an attempted drive off the splice in a gentle arc to a delighted Jimmy Anderson at mid-off. England had one of the two wickets they craved before the new ball became due around the midpoint of the session.

Tim Paine walked to the crease at Number 7, the brickbats of the Aussie punditocracy and fans, if not literally ringing in his ears, certainly weighing on his shoulders. Not for the first time and not for the last, this intriguing Test skewed a tiny bit towards the northern hemisphere.

After some negative “Ashley Giles outside the leg stump” stuff from Joe Root, the new ball arrived after 80 overs and, just four balls later, Anderson landed a ball perfectly on a length and a third and a half stump line to take Paine’s edge. Jonny Bairstow still had plenty to do but the keeper, often criticised for his glovework, threw a right hand out and intercepted the ball as it screamed past him – Paine gone for 13.

Mitchell Starc played one of the more curious cameos in Ashes history, his innings comprising ..6.W, the six a stunning blocked drive over long off, the dismissal a leading edge back to Stuart Broad. Patrick Cummins walked to the crease with his team still 93 behind but his magnificent skipper with 80 to his name, once again the rock on which his country’s effort was built.

The hosts got through lunch on 213-7, the deficit 89 runs. England had restricted the Australians to just 48 runs in the session, the pitch slow, the scoring slower. But there would be no complaints – none at all – from anyone at the ground or watching on television, the morning an example of Test cricket at its toughest, quarter neither requested nor given, the match, the series at stake. Game very much ON!

Tea: Australia 287-8

[by Josh Robinson]

Very much Australia’s session, even with the mitigation of the fall of the eighth Australian wicket in the minutes leading up to the tea interval. England started with a comparably tight performance in the field, as circumspect batting from Smith and Cummins saw off first Ball and then Ali and Woakes, who had begun visibly to flag after three overs of his six-over spell shortly after the lunch interval. Broad and Anderson returned in tandem to trouble the batsmen, both beating Cummins’s outside edge on occasion, but bringing no joy to Joe Root, or indeed to the English supporters.

Stars of the session were undoubtedly Paceman Pat Cummins, who was out well-caught by the diving Alastair Cook at wide slip in the antepenultimate over of the session for a career-best 42, and Porcine Steve Smith, who played particularly well off his preferred back trotter, working the ball through the leg side in his characteristically unattractive but technically almost flawless way to bring up his unbeaten century – his 21st career ton in 57 Tests (of Australians only Bradman has more off fewer).

England generally bowled well for little reward on what seems to be a docile pitch – docile at least until England’s inevitable third-innings collapse to set Australia a predictably unchallenging target. Ball bowled two hard-working but luckless spells, and Woakes’s persistence was rewarded with his first wicket of the match, as the Australians went into tea trailing by just 15 runs with two wickets in hand. On the face of it evenly poised, but a situation in which it’s much easier for the side batting third to contrive to lose the Test than to find a way of winning it – especially if that side is England.

Close of play: England 33-2

England got through Hazelwood and Lyon, but not before Steven Smith had taken his innings to 141 not out and his team into a 26 runs lead. It’s hard to overstate how good the Australian captain’s knock proved to be, not only his contribution in terms of runs, but, perhaps even more importantly, in gaining an early psychological grip on the England bowlers. If Australia win back the Ashes, this innings will be seen as a pivotal moment.

All six England bowlers picked up wickets (Root snaring Lyon), but Jimmy Anderson was not in peak physical condition by the end of the day and Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Jake Ball looked friendly rather than fierce, even if they were never collared.

England had (an eventual) 16 overs to survive … and couldn’t. Alastair Cook belied 147 Tests characterised by forbearance and concentration in making ugly runs at an old school strike rate. Inexplicably, Cook was suckered into the most obvious of leg traps and top edged a pull to Mitchell Starc who didn’t need to move to effect the catch. Cook – harsh though this sounds – let his side down.

And none more so than James Vince, sent in to face a pumped up Josh Hazlewood at Number 3. Unfortunately, Vince’s good work in the first innings receded into a distant memory, as his front leg twitched out to the leg side with the ball went down a fourth and fifth stump line. After five deliveries looking like he would edge it, his sixth (a beauty from Hazlewood) was nicked to second slip and caught by that man Smith. It was a terrible innings, but Vince was set up by Cook’s foolish shot selection and Joe Root’s unwillingness to bat at Three.

Mitchell Starc smashed a bouncer into Root’s grille with the England captain in a dreadful position to play the short ball, but, after a disturbiungly old-fashioned perfunctory concussion assessment, he and Stoneman got through to the close without further loss, the score 33-2, the lead a fragile 7.

It was undoubtedly Australia’s day, Smith’s day, and England faced a long haul back into the contest. This, three days into the series, was the Australia England fans feared – the Gabbatoir had earned its name at last.