Not even England’s band of bludgeoners can win a Test in a session – but with a series of feckless strokes sparking a torrid collapse to begin play on the third day at Lord’s, they may get prove that it’s possible to lose one in one.
Having resumed just 138 runs in arrears of Australia’s first-innings total, with a docile pitch and a visiting attack shorn of Nathan Lyon – the off-spinner now unlikely to return for the rest of the series – England endured the morning that critics of its infamous ‘Bazball’ approach to batting have long feared would come.
After Ben Stokes was dismissed in more conventional fashion off the day’s second ball, edging Mitchell Starc to Cameron Green in the slips cordon, the rest of the hosts’ line-up proceeded to throw their wickets away in with a procession of dismissals to horrify the cricket traditionalists that occupy many corners of the most hallowed ground of all.
Once again confronted with a short-ball barrage from Australia’s seamers, England proved as unable to handle it, and unwilling to outlast it, as they had in losing three quick wickets in Day 2’s evening session.
Bowled out for 325, with the morning session bringing with it six wickets for just 47 runs in 15 madcap overs, the sight of Harry Brook celebrating a half-century by backing away and swatting Starc to Pat Cummins at deep cover, or Jonny Bairstow heaving Josh Hazlewood to Cummins again at mid-on off a surprise fuller-length ball, were enough to have cricket purists like England icon Geoff Boycott cringing in horror in the stands and former captain Michael Vaughan apoplectic on radio.
“England need to be realistic. They cannot mix entertainment with stupidity,” Vaughan said on BBC Radio’s Test Match Special.
“For the first 188 runs, England played good cricket with proper shots.
“Australian bowlers got no help as the ball was not doing anything, so they resorted to short balls. What came next was pure stupidity.”
With Australia then putting their opponents to shame in the day’s most difficult conditions to reach 2/130 before a combination of light rain and poor light brought a premature end to play, with Usman Khawaja unbeaten on 58, the tourists, remarkable, are in the box seat for what would undoubtedly be the gutsiest victory of the Cummins era.
As for England, having been able to hit their way out of trouble to record 10 wins from 12 starts under Brendon McCullum heading into their series, responding to the dismal collapse looms as the first great challenge of the new coach’s tenure.
Their mantra of self-belief and willingness to back their own ability is unlikely to waver moving forward, but with a host of former greats and a legion of supporters now beginning to turn against Bazball, it will take some doing for a batting group still by and large unaccustomed to the heat of Ashes cricket to not at least have had their resolve shaken.
Things looked far less rosy for Australia heading into the day, with Lyon hobbling into Lord’s on crutches before play and soon confirmed to have suffered a ‘significant’ calf strain to jeopardise the remainder of his series.
Enter Starc, boldly handed the day’s first over by Cummins after an expensive return to Test cricket on Day 2; with his second ball, the left-armer vindicated his captain’s trust.
Straightening up the famous slope, Stokes attempt to work to mid-wicket only found a leading edge snaffled by Green at a wide third slip, the all-rounder’s bucket hands just able to keep the offering in his clutches.
While gone for 17 to continue his lean run to start the series, the captain at least is unlikely to be criticised for his orthodox dismissal: it would be Brook, despite moving to a maiden Ashes half-century, whose fall would come under the heaviest scrutiny.
Tied down by Cummins and Starc’s short-ball assault, the 23-year old cracked; backing away and attempting to slog Starc down the ground, he’d only manage to slice a straightforward catch to the Australian captain, bizarrely but perfectly placed at cover two-thirds of the way to the boundary.
Speaking on the BBC’s Test Match Special, Vaughan’s critique was the most pointed.
“Shocking shot. England clearly like losing,” he lamented after Brook’s dismissal.
“Playing expansively and aggressively in the right way, that’s fantastic. Seeing Harry Brook play a shot like that, that’s not good enough.
“Starc probably only has one or two overs more – just ride it, just see it out. Pat Cummins can’t believe his luck.”
Another former England captain in Alastair Cook was equally aghast.
“We’ve all watched enough cricket – when you get in [good] positions, it is so precious,” Cook said.
“And you have to realise how precious that is and treasure it.”
With the famously stoic Boycott barely able to watch, the procession continued.
Bairstow seemed capable of restoring hope a clever glide off Josh Hazlewood through the vacant gully region for four, but he’d muster only 18 before chipping the same bowler straight to Cummins at mid-on, timing horribly off on an attempted heave down the ground.
With Australia into a lengthy tail, the end was nigh: the only question whether it would be wickets or concussion tests that would do for the rest, with a brutal Green bouncer to the jaw enough to even rattle the usually unflappable Broad.
The part-time – though perhaps not for the rest of this Test – spin of Head would help wrap up the tail to allow the quicks some much-needed respite from their short-ball exertions.
Tempting Ollie Robinson down the pitch and bamboozling him with flight, the England seamer would have been stumped by a mile had his thin outside edge not been gladly pouched by Carey first.
Head, not for the first time in his Test career, soon had two for the over when Broad missed a sweep to be trapped plumb leg before, the England veteran reviewing perhaps only to allow him an extra minute of rest before needing to bowl again.
Cummins brought himself back on with one to get, perhaps to fix the rare 0 in his wickets column; bouncing Josh Tongue out as the newcomer popped up a simple catch to sub fielder Matt Renshaw at short leg, the captain soon dealt with that.
With England having been first 1/188 and then 4/278, Australia could be thrilled with their lionhearted, Lyon-less efforts to earn a 91-run first innings lead; but the early close of the hosts’ innings would bring a problem.
After bright skies had greeted the teams to start the day, clouds had gathered by the time Khawaja and David Warner began Australia’s second innings; and as it had been on Day 1, the conditions made the early batting treacherous.
Frequently beaten on the outside edge as Broad and James Anderson found seam and swing to spare, it was all the pair could do to survive five overs until lunch, with Warner’s intact wicket made all the sweeter by a gorgeous cover drive off Broad to finish a session that handsomely belonged to Australia.
When England burned an appeal the first over after resumption, a shout for an LBW against Warner struck down when Snicko found an inside edge, the ball was officially in the Aussie pair’s court.
With Ollie Pope suffering a second shoulder injury for the match while diving in the field, finishing the day in clear pain in the changerooms, a day already bleak was growing yet more disastrous for the hosts.
With the openers recording a third consecutive half-century stand for the series – remarkable considering the eight-year gap between 50 partnerships for the first wicket in England for Australia – Khawaja’s fluent start enabled Warner to deal with a challenging spell from his nemesis Broad, just as his partner had done for him on Day 1.
Dispatching anything full through through the covers and getting enough power on his trademark pull shot to be through Anderson’s hands at forward square and halfway to the boundary before the Englishman could so much as react, he’d bring up 31 of the runs as the pair reached 50 together.
Warner seemed ready to break the shackles at last with a sweetly timed drive through backward point for four off Robinson, but an over later, as it had been in the first innings, it was Tongue who found the breakthrough for England.
While not as spectacular as his first-innings castling of Warner, another nip-backer moved far enough off the seam to bypass the left-hander’s attempted flick to leg; while given not out by umpire Ahsan Raza, this review would bring more success for England, the ball found to be crashing into leg stump.
Raza would again err when giving Marnus Labuschagne out for 3 LBW in Tongue’s next over, a quick review confirming the Australian first drop had been struck outside the line.
With Khawaja now in full flow, putting Broad away twice in front of point for consecutive driven fours and cashing in on a rare full toss to bring about an elegant half-century, it fell to Labuschagne to drive the veteran seamer as close to the edge as he could.
Twice convinced he had his man and ‘celebrappealing’, first for a caught behind where Labuschagne had merely grazed the ground and then for an LBW sliding comfortably down leg, it was a wearied Stokes that struck down his request for a review a third time when Labuschagne was again struck on the pad shortly after.
However, they’d have cause to regret it with ball-tracker revealing Labuschagne’s leg stump would have been hit flush; McCullum’s raised finger from the viewing balcony leaving Broad on the verge of a meltdown.
Having survived shouts aplenty, the Aussie’s charmed life would be short-lived, however; in steering a wide Anderson offering to backward point with a feeble cut, he’d fall for 30 to what former Australian captain Mark Taylor described as ‘probably the worst ball of the innings’.
Steve Smith would take just four balls to check all his usual boxes: first a leave on length to a ball seaming in and crashing into his thigh guard, then a leg glance for four perfectly bisecting Bairstow and the specially inserted leg slip.
With skies darkening, though, the first drops of rain were enough for the umpires to call a halt to proceedings at 5:10pm local time, and in merciful relief after a lengthy limbo period on Day 3 of the first Test, it would take just 35 minutes more for play to officially be abandoned.
With Lyon absent and with England undoubtedly clinging on to hope thanks to their famous chasing record in the last 12 months, Australia’s 221-run lead is by no means a match-winning advantage.
Nevertheless, for all that has been thrown at them across three days at Lord’s, from the worst of the conditions, to losing the toss, to the absence of a frontline spinner, to a pitch yet again seemingly tailor-made to England’s pre-series request, Cummins and company have taken it all in stride.
A 2-0 series lead would be a fitting reward, and one now well within their reach. England only have themselves to blame for handing it to them.
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