The last two days of the first Ashes test are fascinatingly poised after an even third day at Edgbaston.
England began in the driving seat, with Rory Burns and Ben Stokes resuming on 125 and 38 respectively, and the two took their time in the opening hour or so as England looked to open up a commanding day three lead.
But Burns couldn’t get going again- taking over 25 minutes to get off the mark for the morning- and had only added eight more to his total before nicking off to Nathan Lyon. The spinner had already ripped one past his edge earlier in the over and got him with a quicker one that turned on off stump, gleefully claimed by Tim Paine behind the stumps.
Before that, Stokes had reached his well made 50 before getting out with an attempted cut off Pat Cummins that simply tickled the edge and flew through to Paine- a poor dismissal to an unremarkable ball.
The wicket of Stokes kick-started an all-too-familiar collapse for England as after Burns went, Lyon made it two in the over- Moeen Ali leaving one that he expected to turn but instead clattered into his off stump. Jonny Bairstow followed in the next over, a wafty, nothing sort of slash at a back of a lengthy Peter Siddle ball that was all too easy for David Warner at first slip.
Chris Woakes was joined by Stuart Broad at this point with the task of building some sort of lead for Joe Root’s side, and build they did. Broad, for so long now looking like a disaster waiting to happen every time he comes to the crease, suddenly had the appearance of a man who remembered he was once rather handy with the bat.
The morning session trundled on for another half hour with the pair happy to keep things ticking over before, in the last over before lunch, Woakes took it upon himself to launch Lyon over mid-wicket for six to the delight of the now suitably boozed-up Edgbaston crowd. Australia’s session, but the tourists still had work to do.
It was a partnership that would continue to tick over throughout the afternoon session with Broad looking like a pre-Varun Aaron version of himself and Woakes impeccable in defence, and the pair eventually ticked past the 50 partnership mark midway through the session. In truth, the action on the field was rather slow and steady progress, with the crowd - fully invested in ribbing Warner and any other Australian that dared venture near the rowdy Hollies stand- largely entertaining themselves.
Australia, in their desperation to wrap the innings up, had even brought Steve Smith on to bowl but, curiously, hadn’t tested Broad with the short ball. This changed as the partnership moved into the 60s and they came to their senses, and after a succession of deliveries angled in at the body Broad rather tamely fended Cummins to fine leg to end a useful innings of 29, the partnership cut short at 65.
Jimmy Anderson was never going to last long at the crease, especially with the state of his calf in some doubt, and after a few overs where he looked quite solid at the crease he slogged Lyon up into the air for Cummins to run in from mid-wicket and take a comfortable catch. The real concern at the start of the day- and throughout his cameo at the crease- was not how many runs Anderson was going to put on, but whether he would be fit to bowl after pulling up on the first day with just four overs under his belt.
As it happened Anderson didn’t emerge after the tea break, with Woakes and Broad forming a different kind of partnership, this time with the new ball. It was Broad who would make an immediate impact, rapping Cameron Bancroft’s pads twice in the first over but both times too high. It was his second over, where he would come to battle with David Warner, that got the crowd off their feet. Off the second ball of the over Warner got off the mark with a crisp off drive, prompting Broad and Root to move a man from the slip cordon. Warner then edged the next ball through a now infuriatingly vacant gully for four more.
But Broad wasn’t discouraged and with the last ball of the over a back of a length ball took the toe end of the bat through to Bairstow- turned down umpire Joel Wilson, but Bairstow and the cordon were convinced even though Broad himself wasn’t. Root reviewed, the nick was obvious, and England had their breakthrough.
Bancroft didn’t last long after Moeen was introduced into the attack. Moeen’s first ball spun wickedly between bat and pad, missing Bancroft’s off stump by the merest of margins. Moeen would have his man at the start of his second over instead, following Bancroft as he shuffled towards leg, the opener only succeeding in fending it to Jos Buttler at short leg.
In came Steve Smith, a symbol of fidgety permanence in a sea of green helmeted turbulence throughout the first innings. He and Usman Khawaja quickly accumulated to rebuild, with Khawaja in particular scoring at a rapid rate, before Stokes struck, taking the number three’s inside edge with a well-directed delivery that just moved in a touch of a scrambled seam. The partnership was broken just before it reached the 50 mark.
The last hour of play, though, would belong to Australia. Smith twitched, drove, clipped and pulled at a steady rate, whilst at the other end Travis Head quietly got off to a start that suggested he would be able to stick around for a big partnership in the morning. After the Khawaja wicket, there was little to shout about for England besides a couple of lbw shouts against Smith. One from Moeen with another ripper that struck outside the line, and one from Stokes that was going just over, before a couple of overs later a sharp bouncer from Stokes pinged Smith on the side of his helmet. Smith was unperturbed, and unhurt, and would still be so when the umpires called stumps after a perhaps premature light reading.
Fans of an English persuasion will spend the night fretting about how to get Smith out, knowing it will be key to winning the test, whilst the whole of Australia will be waking up to yet another seemingly unstoppable surge from a man quickly reasserting his dominance on test cricket. England desperately needs an early wicket tomorrow if they want to regain control of the test.