Australia are making it harder work than it might have been to clinch the Ashes. On the opening day at Old Trafford they had the chance of leaving England an enormous task, particularly if the poor weather forecast for the weekend proves correct. Instead, they kept leaving the door ajar.
Although Pat Cummins said he would have followed Ben Stokes’ route and inserted – perhaps as much because Australia had left out their spinner – as the day unfolded it didn’t feel like a stand-out bowl-first day. Five of the visitors’ top six fell between 32 and 51 and everyone dismissed, bar Usman Khawaja, had reached double figures.
Before the match, Khawaja had called it a series in which batters rarely felt completely settled at the crease. “That is England with Dukes balls and weather and conditions,” he said. “In Australia, sometimes you can kind of lock in and feel like I am in now. Whereas here it doesn’t feel like that. Because the ball is always doing enough, nibbling about.”
The series runs tally does support that with only three batters – Khawaja, Travis Head and Stokes – having more than 300 now into the fourth Test. However, shortly before tea Australia were 183 for 3 with Marnus Labuschagne and Head building a productive fourth-wicket stand. Labuschagne had just gone to his first half-century of the series – ending his longest run (eight innings) without a fifty in Test cricket – when he managed to miss what was largely a straight delivery from Moeen Ali.
A few moments after the break, Head took on Stuart Broad’s short ball and hooked down to long leg where Joe Root held on to an excellent catch. It was Broad’s 600th Test wicket and Australia were now 187 for 5. From there, the stumps total of 299 for 8 could be viewed as not being too bad, but equally it was a day of missed opportunity.
“It felt like we were so close to turning it there, Heady and I, to getting a really big partnership together and [I was] probably a little bit lazy, trying to turn it to the leg side and Moeen got me,” Labuschagne said. “Think any [total] with a three in front of it is alright. [But] think where we were and how many guys got themselves in, we’d be slightly disappointed with no one getting a big score.
“The wicket is a bit two-paced, it’s quite slow…some wickets I’ve played on here are quite quick on day one. Think [with] the thatchiness of the grass, the ball is sitting in the wicket a little bit so you are getting a bit of inconsistent bounce from that. They showed the ball was nipping for a fair bit of the day and Moeen got a few to spin.”
The trend of starts not being converted began in the first session when David Warner edged behind against Chris Woakes after a punchy, if not entirely convincing, 32, slightly above his average of the last two-and-a-half years. The ball following Warner’s departure, Steven Smith might have fallen as well when he top-edged a hook, but Mark Wood was in off the rope at long leg and the ball went over his head.
After that Smith quickly settled and looked on course to make amends for his light returns at Headingley, which he had partly attributed to the focus on his 100th Test. However, not for the first time in the last couple of weeks, Wood’s pace made the difference when Smith was pinned lbw in the crease, working across a delivery that, against England’s bowlers of lesser speed, he may have played more comfortably into the leg side. A graphic from Sky Sports illustrated the difference the extra eight or nine miles per hour (12-14kph) of Wood made when it came to Smith connecting and missing.
When Labuschagne and Head then departed in quick succession, it left Australia’s pair of allrounders – Mitchell Marsh and Cameron Green – needing to perform a repair job in which they were partly successful. The decision to omit offspinner Todd Murphy gave them a very long batting order, and one they may be grateful for.
Green, who had struggled to find his best rhythm with the bat before missing Headingley with a niggle, was uncertain, especially against Broad who found movement both ways, but Marsh was as commanding as he had been in his comeback game. He punctured the off side with fierce power and was not afraid to go in the air down the ground against pace and spin. He dominated the sixth-wicket partnership of 65 before Woakes’ double-wicket over, and Jonny Bairstow’s brilliant catch, swung things back England’s way.
However, Alex Carey and Mitchell Starc dug in for 18 overs against the old ball, a sign of the opportunity that had been squandered by the top order before Woakes struck again late in the day. As so often in this series, when the players walked off it was hard to know who was really on top. England are still the team that have to make all the moves, but Australia might have left them with an opening to do so.
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