Over the first three days, the Gabba Test was brilliantly poised with neither side taking a definitive lead. Then during the fourth day, Australia took a stranglehold. After being distinctly underwhelming in the first innings of the Test, the Australian fast bowlers have arrived in this Ashes series as they bowled England out for 195 in the second innings in Brisbane.That set 170 to win, a total that was all but chased down by the close of play by the Australian openers.
Aided by the pitch quickening up after three days of sunshine baking the surface, Australia delivered in a way that they didn’t in England’s first innings. All that pre-series bluster about how the pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins would rip through England appeared to have some accuracy to it for the first time.
Starc came back after a poor morning session to claim three wickets to clean up the England tail, but just as in the first innings, the most impressive Australia bowler wasn’t one of the quicks, it was Nathan Lyon with his off spin that caused England the most problems.
It seems a long time ago that Lyon was left out of the Australian team for the 2013 Ashes for a 19-year-old Ashton Agar. Most felt that this was the wrong call, despite Agar making 98 batting at 11, and sure enough by the third Test, Lyon was back in the side. But three years later, it seems even more remarkable. The idea of Lyon not being in an Australian team right now is laughable. It is the 30-year-old off-spinner that allows the Australians to play just three quicks but adding both control and wickets.
In the first innings, Lyon bowled a touch wide and the English top order could leave him more than play. In the second innings, he got things spot on. The left-handers found him especially difficult to deal with, Lyon got three of the four lefties in the England top order. He might well have also claimed the wicket of Alastair Cook if the opener hadn’t already hooked a ball down fine leg’s neck on the third evening.
One of those wickets, that of Moeen Ali, attracted some controversy. He was given out stumped by the third umpire. It was one of those calls that could have gone either way, and it was easy to argue that it was so close that the benefit of any doubt should have been given to the batsman. But that wasn’t what caused the controversy. The painted crease marking appeared to be slightly thicker at certain places across its length.
Now, righteous indignation on Twitter is very rarely worth our time, but this one was quite amusing. There is something about the Ashes that amplifies this kind of thing to the point of farce, and here we saw people opening up Microsoft Paint to highlight that the line wasn’t 100% straight. Thing is, even if the line isn’t totally straight, or even if it is slightly thicker on the pitch rather than off it, it doesn’t change the fact that it is the inside edge that counts. Still, it allowed sleep-deprived England cricket fans something to complain about in the middle of the night.
The wicket of Moeen was the moment when England went from looking like setting a target in excess of 200 to one that was a far way below that. It was from that point that Starc’s short stuff did for the England lower-order. It is very difficult to imagine this England tail scoring any significant runs against the Australian seamers, and that is why it is so important for the batsmen to convert their starts into big scores.
There have been seven scores of 38 or more for England in this Test, the highest that any player managed was the 83 that James Vince scored in the first innings. There have been a number of times that England have had the chance to take complete control of this Test, not least when they have had well set batsmen who have then departed. In the first innings, England looked set for a score in excess of 350, which could have been match-winning, before they collapsed. In the second innings, losing the wickets of Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen prevented them from setting 250 to win.
The difference between these two bowling attacks was clear to see throughout Day Four. Once the ball lost its shine, there were very few chances created by the England seamers, whereas the Australians were able to use their extra pace to give the English the hurry up.
It isn’t just the Australian quicker men that are more threatening in these conditions. Moeen is a very fine cricketer, but he is no where near as good a bowler as Lyon who won’t earn the man of the match after Steve Smith’s masterclass in the Australian first innings, but he has done as much as any Australian player other than his captain to put his team in this position. When he wasn’t taking wickets, he was keeping things tight, something that Moeen struggled to do.
Lyon is approaching 300 Test wickets, the point where you start talking about a Test bowler being an all-time great. He could potentially play another five years or more. Who knows where he will end up.
As good as Lyon has been, and as well as the Australians did with the ball in the second innings, what Day Four showed was just how good Steve Smith was when he made 141 not out. He has been the difference between these two teams and if England are going to win a match in this series the first thing they need to do is get him out. Something that is easy to say that do it seems.