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Stuart Broad conjures old magic to keep England in contention

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Just 30 runs had come in the first 106 deliveries of day two. England had patted themselves on the back for scoring their 283 runs at 5.17 an over, indulging a now familiar parlour trick of putting time back into a Test match, like toothpaste back into the tube. But now Australia – specifically Usman Khawaja and Marnus Labuschagne – were slowly rolling it up from the bottom, almost mockingly squeezing it out again.

There were no chances to speak of, mostly because no shots to see. And though Australia were going nowhere fast, neither were England. A feature of this series has been the way these two sides are tethered together, taking turns to lead the way, occasionally dragging the other along with them. For the first time in six weeks, one of them decided to play dead, and the other had to wait with them.

After all the fun on Thursday, those at the Kia Oval on Friday were probably starting to feel a little short-changed, particularly those out in the field in the morning session with England badges on their whites. Was this it? Is this how the Ashes ends, with death by a thousand nothings? Then, as Ben Stokes contemplated a tweak in the field, Mark Wood returned to the top of his mark for the final delivery and Labuschagne stepped away to contemplate closing out the 43rd over, Stuart Broad walked up to the batter’s stumps and switched the bails around.

“I’ve heard – and I might have made this up – that it’s like an Aussie change of luck thing,” Broad said later, feigning a bit of naivety. “I feel like I’ve seen Nathan Lyon do it.” Again, he knows he has. Lyon did similar to Joe Root during the 2019 series, only for the then-England captain to switch them back. Labuschagne did not.

It’s not just an Australian thing, of course. The flipping of the bails is a quirk familiar among club cricketers up and down the UK. An indulgence of an idle thought as you walk by the stumps of a batter who is having it his own way, concluding the problem with your approach to taking a wicket is not your approach at all, but because the bails are the wrong way around.

As far as dalliances with the occult go, it’s low-level stuff. A bit of faux-feng shui. Watered down sense. B****cks, if you will. With the very next delivery, Labuschagne was dismissed and England were up and about.

It was no less than Wood deserved, having twice unsettled Labuschagne with some jagging movement earlier in the over. Root’s catch was highlight-reel worthy; one-handed, diving to his left from first slip, almost taking it behind him. And yet, somehow, it was all about Broad. Again.

He temporarily lost his mind upon the fall of the wicket, celebrating first with Khawaja at the non-striker’s end. Khawaja treated it with good grace, perhaps because he acknowledged the absurdity of it all. The opener did, however, offer a warning. “He said, ‘if you touch my bails I’m flipping them straight back’,” Broad revealed with a smirk. Of all Broad’s accomplishments in Ashes series, add “making grown men believe he possesses universe-altering powers” to the top of the list. Actually, hold on – it seems that one is already on there, and quite high up too.

As England emerged after lunch with Australia 115 for 2, Broad had the ball from the Vauxhall End. Pockets from the JM Finn stand responded, before Broad brought them together in unison by trapping Khawaja lbw five balls after the break.

No dark arts this time, though you couldn’t rule out that Broad’s might have swapped Khawaja’s pads around without him knowing. Simply enough shape from around the wicket to finally draw a proper misjudgement from a bloke who had been out there for 157 deliveries.

Travis Head was snared in his next over; a good length on a fourth-stump line to a player who has had to subsist on the back foot throughout this series. Head did noting wrong in pressing forward into a defensive block, but the ball nipped after pitching to take an edge through to Jonny Bairstow.

At that point, you wondered – was this it? One of those Broad’s spells he casts out of nothing? Well, no, it wasn’t. We haven’t had one of those in a while – it is over seven years, in fact, since he last went on a roll, against South Africa at Johannesburg. But such is the pull of Broad, it does not take much to wonder if you are about to witness an ethereal moment, even if we know he’s not really about that right now. It’s a bit like expecting to hear “My Way” every time Frank Sinatra clears his throat, but also being grateful you now know what it sounds like when Sinatra clears his throat.

Nevertheless, the value of those two quick breakthroughs – taking Broad to 20 dismissals in the series and to 151 against Australia – tilted things England’s way through others. Australia now needed to get moving, but more engagement with England’s attack saw Mitchell Marsh (dragging on James Anderson), Alex Carey (scuffing Root to cover) and Mitchell Starc (bounced out by Wood) fall for the addition of just 34.

Smith would take a little bit longer to prise out. But when he was taken by Bairstow off Chris Woakes to leave Australia 239 for 8, England’s lead of 44 offered vindication for day one’s approach with the bat, and a solid head start heading into the second part of a must-win Test for them and them alone.

Unfortunately, Broad’s magic, and England’s by association, ran out. Not by all that much. Australia’s lead of 12 going into the second innings has this as a straight shootout to the finish. Both sides will arrive back here on Saturday not bothered by what came before. The prize – a series win for Australia, a series squared for England – lies right before them.

For all the bail-switching, crowd work and typical Broadisms, this was a day, fundamentally, about collective graft. Moeen Ali’s injury meant there was no one to really help spread the workload, beyond some cursory throwback-to-the-first-Test overs from Harry Brook. It’s worth noting an ageing English attack has, over the course of the series, spent just shy of three days (236.3 overs) extra in the field compared to Australia.

We know England’s approach to their second innings will be the familiar helter-skelter affair, particularly given the identity of the No. 3 remains a mystery given the time Moeen has spent off the field. There’s every chance they pull it out of a hat, and everyone’s fingers will be crossed that it is Broad.

However that plays out, we also know the bowlers will be back on there sooner than they expect, for one last push to the finish line. Their bodies are creaking, spirits willing. And Broad’s magic, forever undimmed.

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