If England thought the first day at the Ashes was a qualified success, day two would have left them feeling confident of being able to compete across the rest of this series. They eked out a reasonably competitive score while putting overs into the legs of the opposition bowlers. Then they exposed the Australian top-order with consistent bowling and patient plans.
Australia were pretty much everyone’s favourites going into this series, England have made these two teams look very evenly matched.
This is not a very Australian Test match, and that is thanks to a Brisbane pitch that is uncharacteristically slow and allowed turn throughout for the spinners. So much of batting in Australia is about being able to trust the bounce and play your shots accordingly. Here the slow and low nature of the surface meant that it was hard work for batsmen. We saw just four wickets on the first day as England dug in, but things sped up on the second with 10 batsmen departing.
Things can change very quickly in Test cricket, and they can change even faster if a team has a slow scoring rate. England batted with real diligence for the first 100 overs of their innings, but with a run rate of just 2.4 runs-per-over. A few quick wickets could make the scoreboard look very different.
During the whole of the 2013-14 Ashes, England managed just two first-innings partnerships of 50 or more. They had that many in this innings as Dawid Malan and Moeen Ali backed up what Mark Stoneman and James Vince had managed on day one.
Malan and Moeen looked pretty untroubled, with Australia resorting to bowling short-balls into the body of the batsmen. This looked to be a failing tactic as the two batsmen dealt with it all pretty easily until Malan had a hook at a short one from Mitchell Starc that was top edged to Shaun Marsh running in from the leg side boundary.
It was the moment that Australia had been waiting for, and they pounced. Finally, after being Australia’s best bowler by a distance throughout the first four sessions of the match, Nathan Lyon picked up some wickets. First, he got one to go straight on and pinned Moeen LBW, then Chris Woakes had a big drive at a ball that was turning in to him. He was bowled and England had lost three wickets for four runs.
The theory behind England batting Jonny Bairstow, their third best batsman, at number seven was that he could marshal the tail. The issue here is that England’s numbers 9, 10 and 11 are as weak now than at any point in the last 10 years. He was left with little option than to go for his shots and on this pitch that is a high-risk strategy. He didn’t last long.
At one time Stuart Broad was the best of England’s lower-order, but he has never rediscovered the form that saw him score 169 against Pakistan in 2010. Broad has admitted to having nightmares after he took a fearful blow when he top-edged a ball through the grill of his helmet in 2014. He has certainly had a drop-off in performance with the bat since then.
Broad was given plenty of short stuff on his way to 20 from 32 balls, and a fair few deliveries made him look uncomfortable. But he was also able to attack some of those short-pitched balls without fear of being bowled or LBW.
Broad, and Jake Ball’s 14 runs, allowed England to creep past 300, a total that their supporters and the team itself would probably have taken as the worst acceptable scenario having won the toss and batted. There was a point when England looked like getting at least 350, but six wickets falling for just 56 runs stopped that from happening.
Australia would have been very pleased to have got through the second half of England’s batting order with such ease, but that feeling of confidence didn’t last long. Broad got the first wicket when he had debutant Cameron Bancroft caught at the wicket.
Australia were two down when Moeen got Usman Khawaja who continued with his issues against spin. Whereas Lyon got serious turn but didn’t challenge the stumps, Moeen got a ball to hold its line and trap Khawaja leg before wicket.
Australia had their two best batsmen at the crease in Steve Smith and David Warner, but their stand didn’t last long. Warner has a weakness when the ball is darted in at his thigh pad, something that the South Africans exploited in their tour of Australia last year. Jake Ball hit that exact spot and Warner spooned a simple catch to mid-wicket.
When Handscomb was pinned by a brilliant full ball from James Anderson, the 302 that England managed looked massive with Australia 76 for 4. From there, a very good stand between the pugnacious Steve Smith and the perennially under-pressure Shaun Marsh took them to 165 for 4 at the close. This match is now brilliantly poised with the current Australian partnership potentially series-defining.
This series was always going to be about how well flawed batting lineups dealt with the respective bowling attacks. On paper, the Australian bowling looked a lot stronger in home conditions. The opening two days suggest England’s bowling is better than we suspected and the Australian batting is worse than we thought. This could be one of the great Ashes contests in terms of entertainment if not in terms of quality of cricket.