It’s perhaps a measure of the nervousness that England cricket followers have concerning the Test match batting order that Australia’s total of 284 felt imposing. Perhaps a reflection on the recovery that added 162 for the last two wickets was part of that too – Smith’s brilliance, and whatever controversy follows him it is brilliance, taking Australia from a parlous position to one of at least respectability.
But the batting fragility of both sides has been noted in the run up to the series, and with England collapsing in a heap on a regular basis in recent times, mildly facetious comments about first saving the follow on did the rounds, not without some basis in genuine concern.
Instead, today was a throwback to old fashioned Test cricket – attritional, gritty, rarely flashy, with the England top order grinding the Australian bowlers down, another art of Test cricket seemingly lost on these shores recently. Rory Burns was undoubtedly the man of the day, batting throughout – the first England player to do so since Cook in Melbourne, and given the conditions, this was the better effort on the day. He only really started looking in good form when he passed the century mark, his whole demeanour changing to one of a player entirely at home in his role. As with the five previous openers since the retirement of Strauss to score Test hundreds (though Root is obviously a special case) one swallow doesn’t remotely make a summer, but it was pleasing to see how Burns battled himself, placed a high value on his wicket, and fought his way through to a well deserved ton. Who knows, it may even catch on.
His principal support came from first Joe Root and then Ben Stokes, a player whose batting is beginning to hold the upper hand over his bowling. Stokes has arguably the best, most natural technique in the England team; it is a simple one, with the bat coming down straight and him remaining still at the crease, but it is also why he seems generally comfortable facing the second new ball. His career batting record remains no more than passable, which may be a reflection on his workload as much as anything else (all round cricketers split their focus generally slightly to the detriment of the individual discipline), but as he matures, it might start to improve significantly. Few things are certain, but his technique looks one with little to go wrong, while the interrupted nature of his career appears to have given him extra motivation.
As for Root, it was another fifty and out, and judging by his reaction to his dismissal, he’s acutely conscious of his failure to convert half centuries into centuries. Even so, the amount of handwringing that goes on over a player averaging a shade under 50 when he is surrounded by those struggling to get over 30 is remarkable. It might be something that he’s frustrated by, but it’s not the biggest problem in England’s batting line up and hasn’t been for all the time it’s been going on. The only person who can sort it out is him, it’s not an ability issue, but it is one that stands out in a side where runs are at a premium elsewhere.
Denly, Roy and Buttler were the wickets to fall cheaply, of whom Denly looked the most comfortable. Getting out early is a fact of cricketing life, and not especially relevant in the context of a good England total, as long as these others make contributions in other innings. And therein lies the challenge for what is undoubtedly a brittle batting order.
Apart from a period after Australia successfully got the ball changed – provoking outrage from those with incredibly selective memories who seemingly aren’t aware England do this all the time – the movement on offer to the bowlers was limited, as befitting how a day two pitch ought to play. The exception to that was Nathan Lyon, who found significant spin off the surface suggesting the latter part of this Test could become tricky to bat on, and highlighting the importance of England’s first innings. Australia’s seam attack is certainly a potent one, and at some point this series they are highly likely to rampage through England’s batting order. The pleasure in today was the resolute way they were held at bay, even though they certainly bowled with threat.
267-4 represents a fine day for England, and with two set batsmen, albeit against a still new ball, plenty of power to add given England’s middle order. Yet the nagging doubt remains that this is a side that could fall in a heap, in which case parity will hand a major advantage to Australia. Two flawed teams, particularly in the batting, but against all the odds we have a highly promising Test match unfolding. Perhaps it is that above all else that is causing this particular game to become something of a pleasure.