An absorbing Ashes contest will go into the third day with neither side having made a convincing grab for the upper hand, but with Australia’s captain, Steven Smith, firmly ensconced as the most vital performer of the contest to date. His hard-bitten half-century, with determined support from the recalled Shaun Marsh, hauled Australia towards a position of parity, having clawed back the initiative in the latter half of England’s own innings only for their own top-order to crumble in a gripping passage of mid-afternoon action.
Having inched along to 196 for 4 on a cat-and-mouse opening day, England made it through the first hour of an elongated morning session without further loss, as Moeen Ali and Dawid Malan carried their fifth-wicket stand to 83. But thereafter, wickets tumbled like the Barmy Army’s sobriety levels – 6 for 56 as England’s innings shuddered to an underwhelming 302 all out, before Australia put that total in some sort of context by slumping themselves to 76 for 4 in reply.
But, having lost the fourth of those wickets – Peter Handscomb – in the first over after tea, Smith and Marsh found the depths of resolve that their team required, first to guard against disaster and then, in compiling an unbroken 89-run stand spanning 37 overs, to leave to England sweating for further breakthroughs as the shadows began to length.
Marsh, back in Australia’s Test team for the eighth separate occasion, grew in confidence as his stay was extended, but was restricted to two scoring shots from his first 36 deliveries as England hounded his defences, with Moeen Ali called back into the attack to challenge his weakness against the turning ball, and James Anderson serving up a typically inventive spell of swing and seam in which no two deliveries seemed entirely alike, except that they were invariably targeting the top of off stump.
But it was Smith, inevitably, who applied the stamp of class to Australia’s innings, and in so doing, he carried his career average in home Tests up into the 70s. He too was obliged to dig deep for long periods – having chiselled his first boundary from his third delivery, he didn’t add his second until 24 overs later, as Stuart Broad erred too straight and was laced through mid-on. A top-edged hook off Chris Woakes was the closest he came to giving his stay away (the ball plugged safely in no-man’s land at deep midwicket), but he added a second boundary off his hips one ball later, and having brought up his fifty from 112 deliveries, reached the close looking as solid and ominous as any batsman can be.
Of the 41 times that Smith has previously reached a half-century, he has converted to three figures on a remarkable 20 occasions – and that, in the final analysis of what is already a keenly fought contest, could be the making of a decisive difference between the teams.
For while England’s own performance had been chock-full of promise on three distinct occasions, the abiding tale of their day’s batting was the hasty manner in which it came to an end, with the last six wickets tumbling – their fourth bona fide batting collapse in as many innings on tour.
Not that Australia found the going any easier when their turn came to bat. The pitch seemed markedly quicker than it had been on the opening day, and England’s first breakthrough was delivered, as so often in recent Ashes contests, by Broad, who found some extra zip outside the off stump of the debutant Cameron Bancroft, for Jonny Bairstow to swallow the thin nick and send him on his way for 5.
Anderson also threatened the edge with a disciplined new-ball spell, but the arrival of Usman Khawaja at No. 3 prompted Joe Root to take an early look at the offspin of Moeen – emboldened, no doubt, by the earlier success of Nathan Lyon, who had been the pick of Australia’s bowlers in spite of his underwhelming figures of 2 for 78.