It was all going so well. Surprisingly well, albeit if two batsmen in the top order were going to get set, settled and score runs, Burns and Root were by far the most likely.
Overton was an early loss, but while having him hang around would have been a bonus, he’d done his job last night. The bulk of the day was all about the partnership of 141 which, if not comfortable, certainly looked in relative control. It wasn’t easy, Cummins in particular bowled with pace, aggression and plenty of skill, while having very little luck. But the two batsmen took England to the point where wild fantasies dreamed of a total decent enough to take England to some kind of position of safety. Should have known better.
If nothing else, it demonstrated for the second innings in a row a greater level of batting responsibility from the England batsmen since the shambles of Headingley first time around. To that extent, credit is due to them, for if 200-5 at the early close forced by bad light is some way of being a triumph -it did at least offer a relatively responsible example of batting at Test match pace, against challenging bowling. It is to praise without context, for the times when England might be expected to respond to a big total by posting one of their own are receding rapidly into the past.
The late flurry of wickets, with both set batsmen departing and Roy joining them back in the pavilion wrecked a lot of the hard work that had been done, and with just 6 overs to go until the new ball, the possibility of a full blown collapse in the morning is distinct, but England’s first target of avoiding the follow on, which will take some time out of the game at least, is less than 100 away, and failing to get at least that far would represent a failure and a let down of the batting work done today.
Having been utterly dire yesterday, the problem England have is that they can’t afford a bad half hour for the rest of the Test, and that’s exactly what they suffered late after tea. No one threw their wicket away, Burns and Root were both got out by excellent bowling, while Jason Roy had looked vastly more at home in the middle order than opening, before being undone by his technical looseness against a high quality Test match bowler. Perhaps if he’d been asked to bat in the middle order from the beginning, he’d have had a chance of getting into Test cricket, but his defence looks far too loose to allow him to stay in long enough to capitalise on his undoubted stroke making skill. Even so, that he might never have been good enough to hold down a place is one thing, it is another altogether to select him as an opener which undermined fatally any chance he might have ever had. There’s no disgrace in getting out to the ball that did for him, but how he got out, utterly beaten with stumps splayed everywhere wasn’t a good look.
Root will be picked up again for failing to convert a fifty into a hundred, but both he and Burns probably deserve credit for how they batted today more than criticism for not going on. Losing them together was a huge blow for England’s chances of an escape, but the pressure had been increasing for some time, with Hazlewood, Cummins and Lyon turning the screw ever tighter. For once, England’s predicament is less about the batsmen, though the flaws inherent in the order make handling facing a big total more daunting than it was and than it should be.
It makes tomorrow a designated Big Day for the destination of the Ashes – England are going to have to bat out of their skins to get remotely close to Australia’s total, and bat long enough to take sufficient time out of the game to put pressure on Australia to try to force the win. But it’s hard to see England having to bat less than a day second time around at minimum in order to get a draw, and by the time day five rolls around, on a surface that’s taking ever increasing amounts of spin. Rain and bad light might yet intervene, and provide England with a salvation that they will scarcely deserve, for although they are battling hard, and doing about as much as might be expected of them with the bat, they are looking a doomed team. The performance of Smith has been the difference between the sides, and England are wilting in the face of the repeated pummeling. Bairstow and Stokes are still at the crease, and given the latter’s preposterous predilection for pulling off the impossible, all hope is not lost, but it’s not just uphill from here, it’s getting steeper by the minute.
Late on today came the announcement of the sad death of Abdul Qadir, swiftly followed in the rugby world by that of Chester Williams. Two sportsmen who were iconic in different ways, the latter an icon of the rainbow nation that won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the former for carrying the banner of leg spin bowling at a time in the 1980s when it appeared virtually extinct, especially in England. Shane Warne a decade later would gain the plaudits for being truly extraordinary, but for a certain age group, Abdul Qadir was leg spin bowling – a man who would demonstrate something that was sufficiently rare and exotic as to send a thrill through the observer in an age where pace bowling dominated. His record is a fine one, but his impact around the cricketing world can scarcely be underestimated.