Australia and England aren’t great at cricket, but they are very good at creating good cricket matches. The flaws in these sides are so obvious they are visible from space. There could well be extra-terrestrials zooming past the Earth that think humans have nothing but giant Chinese walls and cricket teams that have weak batting line-ups.
But for all the issues that these teams have, this has been a riveting Test to watch as the advantage has gone from one team to another with neither side getting too far in front. Right now Australia have the best of it, thanks to two late wickets, but this is still anyone’s game.
It isn’t fashionable, but there are times when attritional cricket can be absolutely fascinating. This Brisbane pitch is painfully slow, which has meant that both wickets and runs are hard to come by. The key to success for bowlers has been patience, once the new ball has lost its shine they have had to sit in and wait for a mistake rather than look to take wickets with an unplayable delivery — something that England worked out faster than the Australians.
The opening session of day three saw England take huge strides forward. By the time the players left the field for lunch, the visitors were firmly in front having claimed three wickets to leave Australia at 213 for 7 and in serious danger of conceding what could have been a match-winning lead. On a surface where getting runs is hard work, a lead of 50 would be massive.
In that opening session, England were excellent. What is very clear from the first three days of this series is that the English have done a ridiculous amount of planning for each of the Australian batsmen. Every new player that walked to the crease was treated differently, and for the most part those tactics have worked; apart from to Steve Smith of course.
Joe Root and England have put a lot of thought into how to get Smith out, but just as every other team over the last two years, they are no nearer to cracking the code. If you bowl straight to him, he moves across his stumps and whips you into the leg side. If you bowl wide outside the off stump to make those leg-side shots hard to pull off, he just waits for half volleys on the off-side, or for you to bowl slightly too straight to whip you off his pads. If you bowl short he will just happily watch the ball sail over his head before despatching anything that is below head height with the pull shot.
England tried just about everything to dismiss him. They had a “Yorkshire wall” of catchers in front of the batsman, they had a slip cordon at mid-wicket, they had slips and leg slips, they had a silly point for the seamers. Innovation certainly wasn’t lacking, but none of that worked.
Smith has become immune to funk. He just fidgets his way to more and more Test runs. He currently has the third best Test average of all time. You suspect that soon it will only be Sir Don Bradman who has better numbers.
In the first session, the regularity with which wickets fell meant that England were going some way to negating Smith’s brilliance. He needs a partner to bat with and if you can get 10 wickets at the other end, it doesn’t matter than you can’t get him out.
Smith needed someone to stick with him, and a career-best score from Pat Cummins provided just that. A stand worth 66 for the eighth wicket could be the difference between Australia potentially losing a game at the Gabba for the first time in 29 years and claiming a lead in this series.
In the period between lunch and tea England were poor with the ball for the first time in this Test. Root was reluctant to bowl to James Anderson and Stuart Broad and those carefully made plans seemed to disappear as Cummins gave Smith the perfect foil. It was the 50 minutes where England’s two best bowlers were absent that Australia laid a platform to take a first innings lead that looked so unlikely for much of their batting effort.
This was Smith’s slowest century, he reached the landmark off 261 balls, but that didn’t matter. With his colleagues struggling, he needed to just stay there. There is very little about the way he bats that makes much sense, but it works. Watching Smith bat is like getting on an airplane. You have no idea how a machine that weighs several tons will get off the ground, but you have every confidence that it will.
Smith remained undefeated on 141 when Root claimed the final wicket when Nathan Lyon was caught at leg slip. If it wasn’t for him Australia would be on the brink of a hugely embarrassing defeat. As it is the match was brilliantly poised after the first two innings with just 26 runs between them.
England were left with 16 overs to face and they got off to a terrible start. Alastair Cook played an ill-judged hook shot that was top-edged off Josh Hazlewood to Mitchell Starc on the fine leg boundary. Then they lost James Vince to the kind of dismissal that have been so common in his Test career to date — just enough away movement from Hazlewood and he edged the ball to second slip.
Root and Mark Stoneman battled hard to see England to the close, the two of them have a lot of batting to do on Sunday if England are going to swing this topsy-turvy game back into their favour.