If managing director Ashley Giles had suggested on the eve of this game that England’s Test fortunes may continue to wane before they wax, then Joe Root’s bowlers set about trying to halt the slide.
On a stop-start day at the SCG, where rain limited play on the first day of the fourth Ashes Test to 46.5 overs, they launched a mini-fightback in the final session with the wickets of Marcus Harris and Marnus Labuschagne.
A close-of-play scoreline of 126 for three was hardly an unanswerable case to Giles’s diagnosis – but it was an improvement on 111 for one, at which point the new year appeared only to have produced the same old story.
Mark Wood celebrates taking the key wicket of Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne in Sydney
It marked a late fightback from England, who have cause for optimism after the first day
Instead, Jimmy Anderson continued his high-class series by inducing an edge from Harris, who was caught by Root at first slip for 38, before Mark Wood ruffled Labuschagne’s feathers for the second game in a row. At Melbourne, he had him caught in the slips for one. Here, the second ball of a new spell had Labuschagne – on 28 – fending outside off, and providing a simple chance to Jos Buttler.
To cheers from his home crowd, that brought to the crease Usman Khawaja for his first Test innings in over two years. And with Steve Smith trying to ease his way into the game at the other end, England began to exert some kind of control – a novel experience in which the cricket studs have generally been on the other foot.
Khawaja was kept quiet for 12 balls, before he pulled Wood for four. As if emboldened, Smith did the same to Ben Stokes. But when more rain began to fall at 6.23pm, the players scurried off one last time, with neither side having made a decisive break.
The morning had begun amid pessimism, as grey clouds deposited their load over Sydney, which had spent the previous few days luxuriating in sunshine. Play was delayed by half an hour, at which point England fans were treated to the sight of Anderson and Stuart Broad bowling perhaps half a yard shorter than a green pitch and pregnant skies appeared to demand.
On and off they came, with an early lunch taken at 30 without loss halfway through the 13th over. But, as David Warner and Harris began to settle in, a sense of weary familiarity threatened to descend. When Warner crashed Stokes through the covers to take the stand to 48, he and Harris had in one innings put on more than all England’s opening partnerships in this series put together.
Shortly before Wood struck, Jimmy Anderson removed opener Marcus Harris for 38
Root took the catch of Harris at a key point in the game for his side, who needed a wicket
Then, with the score on 50, came a vignette to make England nostalgic for 2019, when Broad winkled out Warner seven times at a personal cost of 35 runs. Going round the wicket, he persuaded Warner to prod at one outside off stump that he might have left; the edge was held, just, by Zak Crawley at second slip.
Warner had gone for 30, and Broad – described during the build-up to the game by stand-in coach Graham Thorpe as a ‘caged tiger’ following his absence from the Tests at Brisbane and Melbourne – let out a roar.
For a while, England grew sloppy. Stokes’s bouncer flew over Buttler’s head and away for five wides – a fate that soon awaited Wood. In all, England donated 12 in wides to Australia’s cause, and 20 in extras. It is a generosity that ought not to be in their gift.
And when Harris and Labuschagne brought up the second 50 stand of the innings, it seemed Pat Cummins’s decision to make first use of a pitch mottled with green had been indisputably correct.
Earlier in Sydney, Stuart Broad had removed his old nemesis in David Warner once again
But Steve Smith reached the end of the day unbeaten and will lead his side’s rebuild on day two
But Harris, dangled his bat at Anderson, who now has eight wickets at 15 in this series, and was caught for 38 – though England may wonder how they have allowed the weakest member of Australia’s top order to score 152 runs at 30 in this series, a better record than any of their own line-up except for Root and Dawid Malan.
In the next over, Labuschagne – in his second Test as the world’s top-ranked batsman – was aghast to edge Wood. Like all the best, he regards his own dismissal as an affront to the natural order, and for a moment stood rooted to the spot. His Test average has dipped below 60 now, and England intend to keep it there.
One more wicket might have tipped the day’s balance in favour of the tourists, but Smith and Khawaja – two locals – were not for shifting. When, weather permitting, play begins half an hour on the second day, there will be all to play for.