Months of build-up had whetted the appetite. After all the talk, all the noise and, crucially, all the hypotheticals, Friday morning brought with it a flash alert in the top right corner of our minds like an overdue Zoom call. It was time to make a decision.
There was much to consider. How would you meld free-wheeling fun and cascading disaster-dom? What is the right balance to strike with sparkling entertainment and rallying against what could be the end of what we have in front of us? The pressure was in itself the reward; to know you engaged in a generational cultural event. Yet the inherent risk was the incorrect decision would only reveal itself once it had all played out. By stumps on day three, England were more than satisfied with theirs.
It began with Nolan-scale bombs from Jonny Bairstow followed by a happy-go-lucky protagonist in Mark Wood digging deep for raw truths Australia’s top order could not handle. And as England rest on Friday evening still leading by 162 with six second innings wickets to take, they can be satisfied they made all the right calls. Even if the rain does scupper their hopes of keeping the Ashes alive for a decider at the Kia Oval, they have nailed every day of this fourth Test.
Bairstow’s destruction was a manifestation of his own gloom, at a time when things could not have been better for the team. He arrived at the crease following the dismissal of Ben Stokes at the start of the 84th over, by which point England were 437 for 5 with a first-innings lead of 120.
There was a moment when continuation of the innings felt impractical. Particularly when Bairstow, up against a new-ball-wielding Mitchell Starc, struggled. His first two boundaries were inside edges narrowly missing his stumps. England were going great – was this really the time to sour it with another Jonny failure?
His baggage coming into Manchester was sizeable. An average of 23.50 into Manchester weighed on him like an anchor, a figure helped by a 78 in the first innings at Edgbaston which made up more than half of his runs for the series. Each of the seven missed catches and botched stumping were arrows still lodged in his back. The Lord’s stumping by Alex Carey was unrequited misery on the stumped and superfluous fervour for an Ashes series.
For the most part, Bairstow has kept his counsel, but he eventually reached a point of wanting to put his side across. Perhaps articulate the left leg he said wouldn’t be a problem 10 months after a catastrophic break was so much more of one than people knew. Even though he himself dismissed the idea it would be a few months ago.
That was to be expected of course given Bairstow’s staunch resolve. If he did not want it to be a problem, it was not going to be a problem. And as much as many wanted to believe him, particularly making Bazball what it was with four hundreds amid 681 runs last summer, it was time to be real. That maybe that Jonny was gone. That maybe the end of who we knew and what we knew was upon us. Until he set about this hellacious retaliation.
The first shot out of the screws was a crunch through point of Josh Hazlewood, with the second right after, this time drilled straight down the ground. A two off the third delivery in that sequence took England up to 501. The first six – Starc pumped off his hip over deep backward square leg – spoke of a return to 2022 vintage. It also brought up his half-century.
The 24 deliveries from 55 to 98 were an IMAX-level attack on the senses. Each boundary was a deafening reverberation, a crescendo of dread from an Australian perspective, as if scored by Hans Zimmer himself.
The transformation of Bairstow in front of us was remarkable. A man who had previous looked so out of sync with the cricket being played around him was now controlling it. When partnered with James Anderson as the final stand, he found singles where there shouldn’t have been to get the No. 11 off strike. One was taken to silly point, three to Carey, who is now one-and-four for underarm direct-hits while standing back in this series. Even the batter-keeper or keeper-batter debate was changing in front of our eyes. Yeah, Ben Foakes is great. But can he do this?
The glare up at the media centre as Bairstow walked off on 99 not out said all you needed to know about how he has regarded the coverage over his series so far. And in many ways, it was a shame – or perhaps a relief – he did not get to three figures. There’s every chance he might have torched the joint in celebration.
After a break far too brief to consider the previous hours, England were back out there with a 275 lead. Quite apart from anything, even turning thoughts away from the storms on the horizon, you could argue the greatest trick Stokes has pulled as captain is convincing his team the grind is fun, whether that’s fielding for long periods or bowling yourself into the ground.
Perhaps the best example of both those traits is Wood. Too off-the-wall to be a competitor. Too nice to bowl earth-shatteringly quick. Too brittle to be as enthusiastic with his movements. And too good for Australia in his two Tests so far. All through a commitment to pushing himself to the brink.
The return at Headingley was greater in pace and wickets than any could have expected. And with constant fears over his ability to go back-to-back, even with the week between the third and fourth Test, the turnaround of just over a day between first and second innings was something to consider.
But as Wood prised out Usman Khawaja with extra bounce, jumped wider to create an angle on a short ball to Steven Smith which was gloved behind, and then almost took Travis Head’s face off to get him caught at fly gully, all those assumptions were skewered. All those unsure whether to consider Wood a robust Test bowler either converted or left to look foolish as the conversation moves on.
He now has 101 Test dismissals, with an overnight average of 29.30 that could get lower by the end of this match. It could also get higher, but we saw why the 33-year-old has been a key reason this series has been tilted on its head. That he has removed Smith twice in this match will be a memorable haul in itself for a person who has doubted his worth as an international cricketer, even with medals in his collection to remind him otherwise.
The game remains there to be won. The battle with the elements now the biggest on the horizon, at least as far as day four is concerned. But as far as Friday was concerned, things played out as well as could be expected.
Bairstow’s destruction and Wood’s effervescence gave all within English cricket the perfect experience of the hosts’ most perfect day of the series. And in the right order, too. It has to be Oppenheimer before Barbie.
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