he brutal realities of touring Australia hit an English side at a different moment on each tour. This time, it only took five sessions.
In the final hour of day two, with the Brisbane sun beating down, half the fielders on the boundary and Travis Head chancing his way to an 85-ball century to swell Australia’s handsome lead (196 by stumps), Joe Root seemed to be making bowling changes every over, as another undercooked man pulled up sore.
Many of England’s problems are self-inflicted. They have got a lot wrong. Selection. The call at the toss. Some insipid batting when being bowled out for 147. Ben Stokes bowled David Warner, who went on to make 94, with a no-ball when he had just 17. Rory Burns, at second slip, dropped a simple chance off Warner one 48. Haseeb Hameed, at short leg, missed a run out from close range when Warner had 60. There was more insipid fielding, including overthrows. Their spinner, Jack Leach, could not contain Australia, with his 10 overs costing 80.
They will reflect that much has gone against them, too. On the first evening, the weather was not good enough for them to have a dart at Australia’s openers. On the second morning – and indeed for the remainder of the day – the sun shone beautifully. Australia’s batters rode their luck, playing and missing regularly, and edging through gaps.
The poor weather in Queensland limited their preparation to seven sessions when it should have been seven days. As a result, they had to settle for walking around Brisbane in the rain simply to “get miles in their legs”. Stokes, playing a Test for the first time in nine months, looked to be bowling through both shoulder and knee issues. The outstanding Ollie Robinson, who took three wickets on Ashes debut but could easily have five, suffered from cramp. Late on even the batters were leaving the field, as Dawid Malan absented himself gingerly.
Caution is also required with the workload management of Mark Wood, who also bowled superbly, until he let a beamer slip at Head in the gloaming. Wood spent much of the day bowling above 90mph, and in his first over he hit a speed higher than anything England managed in Australia four years ago. It was a promising display, even if he only took one wicket. It was a biggie, mind: Steve Smith. It says plenty that England dismissed Smith, who has scored 1,461 runs in the last two Ashes series, for just 12, and still find themselves in such strife.
Credit must go to the Australians, too. They were brilliant with the ball on day one and cold-blooded with their batting on day two. Leach was targeted remorselessly, from his second over, from which Warner flayed two sixes. Marnus Labuschagne played perhaps the purest innings of the day, never letting England settle. When Stokes was struggling, Australia went harder.
And while Head relied heavily on the edge of the bat, he recognised the moment to help Australia recover from a collapse of four for 29 either side of tea. At first, Head looked utterly hapless, was hit hard on the arm by Wood, and Root had five slips, but he was unafraid. Having been recalled for this match, he became the unlikely owner the third fastest hundred in Ashes history, feasting on England’s weariness.
Head was building on the work of Warner and Labuschagne, who shared 156 after Robinson had Marcus Harris caught at third slip early in the day.
Both men had slow starts, and rode their lucks, with Warner receiving one moment of huge fortune when Stokes overstepped having bowled him with just his fourth ball. It emerged that Stokes’ first three balls had been no-balls, that he bowled 14 (12 uncalled) in his five morning session overs, and that the technology that allows the Third Umpire to spot them was on the blink. Cricket Australia, as is their modus operandi, decided to tell the teams, but not the teams. Everyone loses out with these sort of errors; the bowler because he does not know where his foot is landing, while the batting team is denied runs.
Labuschagne craftily saw balls fall just short of fielders, but grew into his innings, and Warner followed. Into the second session, they looked to be really piling on the pain, only for Labuschagne, from nowhere, to pick out point, Leach’s only moment of respite. Smith fizzed with intent, but was caught behind off Wood.
After tea, Warner – with a century looking cruelly inevitable – spooned Robinson to mid-off, and Cameron Green shouldered arm to a beautiful, swinging first ball, that clattered into his stumps. Alex Carey survived the hat-trick ball, but pulled Woakes to midwicket. England sensed a moment, but were too stiff to seize it.