Australia’s twin strike changes the tone of the opening Test.
On a rain-soaked day three, a 20-minute burst between heavy summer rains radically reshaped the first Test narrative as England’s top-order wobbled in the face of some aggressive Australian bowling.
Despite the best efforts of the Edgbaston ground crew, the play was called off at 6:00 pm, with over 50 overs wasted, after a heavy downpour two hours earlier, with England 2-28 and 35 runs ahead after Usman Khawaja’s epic 141 had all but erased the first-innings advantage.
England start play on day four, with undefeated duo Ollie Pope and Joe Root still without a goal.
After bouncing off Australia’s tailenders in the first session, England slid back into sports-drive mode as openers Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett rattled on 26 without loss from nearly seven overs before the first rain burst arrived.
When play started after an hour and 15 minutes, the mood had changed dramatically, and it wasn’t only because of the ominous storm clouds that hovered over Edgbaston from the south.
Australia pace combination Pat Cummins and Scott Boland sent back both openers in the space of 28 deliveries before those brooding dark skies delivered their cargo, and had first-innings century-maker Joe Root in such misery that he nearly sprinted for the sheds at the first scent of rain.
Cummins’ bowling statistics may credit him with the first wicket, but it was almost all thanks to Cameron Green’s extraordinary catching abilities, who took in another amazing low catch that transformed a half chance into a key breakthrough.
Green reprised his heroics from the World Test Championship Final a week ago to leap low to his left and remove a rival opener, in sharp contrast to England’s behind-the-wicket fielding, which saw three opportunities squandered.
While Shubman Gill was caught at The Oval, provoking an ill-advised social media outburst from the India batter that lost him his WTC Final match money, Duckett was similarly caught.
Unlike the previous week’s dispute, television clearly showed the ball lodged in Green’s left claw and his fingers cradled beneath it before his palm brushed the ground.
Boland struck three deliveries later when Crawley edged to Alex Carey, with the artificial light providing the only lighting as the weather closed in and ground personnel sat in sprint crouches awaiting the word to go.
Crawley sought to counteract the inconsistent bounce on the flint-dry Edgbaston field by taking a stride out of his crease as Boland delivered.
But it backfired, as he was thrown off balance when poking at a ball that nibbled away, and he stared in obvious bewilderment as the Australian players celebrated a second scalp without adding a run.
Root, who was undefeated on 118 when skipper Ben Stokes’ surprising declaration came late on the first day, epitomized the ‘Bazball’ attitude as he stormed into the field in conditions when most Test hitters would meander gently in the expectation that rain would dampen the opposition’s momentum.
He also used Crawley’s strategy of leaving his crease to attempt to break up Boland’s length and go outside off stump but was stuck twice on the pads by balls that jagged in off the surface, triggering a pair of counsels of war that Australia chose not to challenge.
The former England captain nicked a leg bye from the penultimate delivery of Boland’s precise over, putting him in Cummins’ sights as the rain poured down.
The late-day struggle between the duo at Old Trafford four years ago was reminiscent, with Cummins knocking back Root’s off-stump first ball in equally frightening conditions, but he escaped the 2023 equivalent with a hasty defensive stroke.
After umpire Ahsan Raza refused his appeal, he pushed ahead with a half-hearted drive, and Australia’s slips fielders exploded in unison, convinced Cummins it was worth a replay.
Australia ran the chance, knowing it may be their final shot of the day, but replays proved no touch between bat and ball, much to the pleasure of the Edgbaston fans, who were prepared to seek cover on higher ground.
Root then negotiated one more ball, to which he offered no shot before the clouds descended, and despite the giant video screen, which began replaying England’s 2019 Headingley triumph to try to brighten the mood, the scoreboard confirmed through the gloom that the mini-session had ended 2-2 from 22 balls.
Earlier, the visitors passed 350 for the first time in the 28 Tests that David Warner, Marnus Labuschagne, and Steve Smith have appeared in together since the 2019 Ashes without any one of them that contribute 50, ostensibly thanks to Khawaja’s sublime knock.
After more than 8 hours at the wicket and facing more balls (321) than any other Australia starter since Matthew Elliott’s 199 off 351 at Headingley in 1997, the left-hander was going to need something special to get him out.
On Saturday evening, Khawaja spoke about his pleasure in the way England plays in the ultra-attacking Stokes era, as well as the challenge of continually adapting to the strange fields and fluctuating bowling strategies.
But his joy may be dampened by the methods Stokes revealed in the morning session that preceded his ejection.
Stokes went on to install the catching ring on each side of the pitch for the following ball after deploying a field of four catchers in a cordon running from short mid-on to forward square leg, indicating Ollie Robinson would aim to have Khawaja clip a catch-off his pads.
It was the type of pitch most commonly seen in elementary school cricket, for kids unable to strike the ball any distance with a rudimentary bat swing, and only the game’s best-credentialed current opener will know whether it influenced Khawaja’s approach
Instead of aiming for the pads, Robinson tried for his double bluff and speared in a yorker, which Khawaja attempted to squeeze onto as he went out to the leg side, only to have his stumps spread.
It marked a seismic turn in the contest, with Australia appearing to be on their way to a first-innings lead, only to lose their final four wickets for 14 in three-and-a-half overs and cede a small lead to their opponents.
Previously, events on day three had begun similarly to how they had ended the night before, with England’s bowlers creating an opportunity only to see it wasted.
Today’s culprit was the same as the previous day’s, with ‘keeper Jonny Bairstow – who muffed a stumping and dropped a catch at vital occasions on Saturday – adding a third blemish to his sheet from the day’s second delivery.
This time, it was James Anderson, who had gone wicketless in the first 94 overs of Australia’s innings, who felt the agony after finding the edge of Carey’s flashing bat with a delivery that raced at the left-hander only to slam into Bairstow’s right glove and drop instantly out.