he talk from both teams heading into this Fifth Test had been that, in spite of the Urn’s destination already being assured, there would be no drop in focus or desire as the Ashes reached its climax.
This, however, was a day that gave the game away, one very much in the last-week-of-term mould, every bit as action-packed as the classics that have preceded it, but, unsurprisingly, lacking some of the high-stakes edge with players wearied as a gruelling schedule nears its end.
Led by another fine innings, of 85, from Harry Brook, England rattled their way to a total of 283 after being inserted, at times batting with glorious adventure and at others far too casually, half of their dismissals bowled amid a sequence of mini-collapses. In similar fashion, Australia were in spells excellent with the ball but equally wretched in the field, dropping five catches, several of them dollies.
For the first time all summer, though, no single mistake felt pivotal, each of them, with the series still alive but no longer kicking, frustrating but quickly forgettable. Perhaps come Monday, some will be cast in more critical light, but for now, with Australia 61 for one at stumps in reply, neither side has yet grasped the other’s generous hand.
It was on this ground in 2019, in the identical position of leading the Ashes 2-1 and chasing a first outright win in England since 2001, that an Australian captain had blundered by ceding first use of a good pitch. With a green tinge on this one and grey clouds in, though, Pat Cummins showed no hesitancy in following Tim Paine’s lead, having won the toss for the first time in the series.
For a while, that looked another misstep, Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett on the charge in racing to a half-century opening stand inside ten overs, though each benefitted from a drop in the slips, the usually sound pair of Steve Smith and David Warner coughing up first evidence that, against best intentions, half-an-eye might have been taken off the ball.
A dual bowling change, however, did the trick, Duckett strangled down the leg-side by Mitchell Marsh for a run-a-ball 41 and the dangerous Crawley nicking off to Cummins, who looked jaded at Old Trafford, but was back to his best here. Joe Root’s departure chopping on for five saw England slip from 62 without loss to 73 for three either side of drinks.
So, enter Brook, who conceded this week that his batting had tilted into recklessness earlier in the series but looks to have figured things out as his debut Ashes have worn on. Dropped by a diving Alex Carey on five, the Yorkshireman was in the mood to punish, Mitchell Starc hit for three successive boundaries on the cusp of lunch, the last of them a ludicrous hook for six.
In a century-partnership from just 102 balls, Moeen Ali played the quieter hand until tweaking his groin and deciding everything had to go. From 11 off 37 deliveries, the all-rounder hammered his next ten for 23, Cummins pumped for two maximums as well as glorious uppercut four with men guarding all other sections of the fence. Troublingly for England, though, the problem was serious enough to prevent Moeen playing any part with the ball.
Todd Murphy, in for Cameron Green in the only change to Australia’s XI, finally cracked the case with the first of his two wickets as England’s middle-order imploded, a collapse of four-for-26 leaving the tail exposed and the tourists well on top.
Cummins’ side, though, have made hard work of polishing off their bowling innings all summer and even without a specialist batter, England found a way to accelerate, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood reprising their Headingley striking in a partnership of 49 that took the home side somewhere close to par. Even so, when Woakes became Starc’s fourth victim and the final man to fall, England’s last seven wickets had cost only 99 runs.
A serene start to Australia’s reply offered another reminder of the stylistic contrast between these two sides. David Warner’s edge down the leg-side, just too wide for Jonny Bairstow to hold, was the only chance surrendered against a new-ball spell he and Usman Khawaja negated well, the tourists, in the moment, seeming in control and the game drifting towards an evening slumber. Yet when it was awoken by Woakes, who had Warner smartly caught at slip by Crawley for 24, the partnership was worth only 49, fewer than England’s openers had managed at the top of the day in what felt like half-the-time.
The summer-long battle of ideologies will resume tomorrow with the game still in the balance, but the occasion a little subdued for the knowledge that the war is already won.