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Slow and steady Australia just about justify their caution

Not for the first time in this series, Marnus Labuschagne could barely drag himself away from the crease. Having been virtually scoreless since the start of play, he nibbled at a length ball from Mark Wood and the edge was spectacularly held by Joe Root at first slip.

It was gloomy at the time and Labuschagne appeared less than impressed. He departed for 9 off 82 balls. His innings was part of a morning session in which Australia made 54 runs off 26 overs, and that was boosted by a brief flurry when Steven Smith arrived at the crease. After 47 overs, they were 96 for 2 – and with 21 of those being byes and leg byes, just 75 runs had come off the bat.

Smith later said he was not aware of any specific gameplan for Australia to bat at such a tempo, but it has been the visitors’ method to try and grind down the England attack, particularly in the first two Tests where they secured the victories which have ultimately enabled them to retain the Ashes. They were also batting in conditions that have undone many previous Australia sides in England.

“The clouds were in, there was a bit of swing around,” Smith said. “They might have bowled a little bit short, not given us too many scoring options, they didn’t give us many drives, so the guys were able to leave a lot of balls. Obviously, you want the scoreboard to be ticking over quicker than that. But guys are allowed to bowl well, it’s Test cricket, and you are allowed to block and leave a few, absorb some pressure.”

Even if not an overall team tactic, there was logic in trying to do so here against an England attack without their spinner, as Moeen Ali remained off the field with a groin injury, and consisting of four quicks aged 33 or above. It may yet prove its worth in the second innings when Australia are chasing a target.

However, during the afternoon it appeared that Australia could have dug themselves a hole. The danger with only absorbing pressure for long periods and barely scoring – something that stands out even more when contrasted with England’s approach – is that if wickets fall, the scoreboard hasn’t moved very far and the bowling side can get back in the game.

That’s what started to transpire when Stuart Broad removed Usman Khawaja (who took his tally of balls faced in the series over 1000, comfortably the most of any batter) and Travis Head in quick succession. James Anderson then claimed his first wicket for more than 35 overs when Mitchell Marsh – after a monstrous six down the ground off Broad that went against the trend at the time – inside-edged onto leg stump.

With Smith watching from the non-striker’s end, he was let down by the shot selection of Alex Carey, whose form with the bat in this series has steadily diminished, and Mitchell Starc. When the seventh wicket fell, Australia were still 98 behind and there were plenty of similarities to how the corresponding Oval Test in 2019 panned out for a weary visiting team when, on that occasion, they could not match England’s 294.

That, though, was where the storylines diverged a little, although it remains difficult to call the conclusion with any certainty, as Australia secured a small lead. In a series of fine margins, it could be that the borderline run-out call which went in Smith’s favour, when third umpire Nitin Menon ruled the bail was not fully out of the groove before the bat crossed the line, has a huge bearing.

Smith forged a stand of 54 with Pat Cummins, who was then able to add another 49 with Todd Murphy as he belied his position at No.10 by three times hooking Mark Wood into the stands. It was as these partnerships developed that there was a glimpse into what Australia could have achieved with their long-game approach as England’s quicks were forced into further spells with the second new ball. However, they did not have the batting left to truly make the most of it.

“They stuck to the style of play that has been very successful for many years,” Broad said. “Ultimately Australia are World Test Champions, won every game in their summer, [they are] not going to change their style of play just because we are playing a different style.

“That is the way the Aussies play, they try to see off the new ball, grind you down, and see off a huge number of overs. At 40 overs, it looked like that could happen, but we had to keep our patience and we felt there was enough in the pitch that you could get a quick bang-bang like happened yesterday. That is how the day did turn out.”

So it’s 283 all out off 54.4 overs versus 295 off 103.1 overs. Two contrasting methods to get to a very similar position, as it was in the opening game of the series at Edgbaston. Australia are desperate to leave with their first series win in England since 2001. It’s now down to a one-innings shootout to see if they can achieve it.

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