After a shaky start England recovered thanks to runs from Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow who stitched together an unbeaten 174 for the fifth wicket to put their team in front at the close. Both men were happy to attack the spinner, take on the short ball and drove down the ground with real authority. This has been England’s best batting performance of the series so far. But they had to do a rescue job as the familiar failings of their top-order were on display once again.
Before the Ashes started it was obvious that the key to English success would be runs from Joe Root and Alastair Cook. As the current and former captain, the two most senior players and the men with far and away the best records in Tests, they were the ones that needed to do the bulk of the scoring for this team. Neither of them have done it so far.
Root has made two fifties to average 32.4 across his first five innings of this tour. While this isn’t abysmal, it certainly isn’t series-defining. This was always going to be a difficult tour for Root, his first overseas trip as captain coming in an Ashes series was far from ideal. This became even more of a challenge when the media coverage of this series was dominated by discussions of headbutts, drinking and the absence of Ben Stokes. He must be distracted by it all, but his first job will always be scoring runs.
The Cook conundrum continues. He hasn’t been in fine form over the last 12 months, and on this tour he has scored just 69 runs at an average of 13.8. He has the worst average of any England specialist batsman. In fact, only England’s three players, James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Jake Ball, are below him.
There has been a lot of talk of Cook being finished. Both Kevin Pietersen and Mitchell Johnson have been saying that the former England captain looks to be done. This doesn’t make much sense. While Cook’s place isn’t any more secure than any other player by right, he does have a number of things going for him.
The first of those is the runs he has made in recent times. He is England’s third highest run-scorer in Tests in 2017. He made a double hundred five Tests ago in a game where all England batsmen other than Root struggled. He averaged 67 in the first division of the County Championship, the second highest by an English qualified batsman.
The second is that there isn’t another option. England still haven’t replaced Andrew Strauss who retired in 2012, to think that England can just magic up someone to step into Cook’s place is laughable.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is his career to date, Cook has had dips in form like this before, albeit rarely. This is a long dry spell, nine innings without a fifty, but Cook does have history of bouncing back with a big score. Then there is the fact that he is the most successful opening batsman of all time and England’s leading run-scorer by a distance. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of Cook’s career, but it isn’t the end of the end.
While England’s big names have been struggling the others in the top six hadn’t been tearing up trees either. Australia have three batsmen averaging over 50, with Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith closer to 100. Going into this match no English top-order player had an average over 40.
James Vince is fast becoming like a ridiculous sports car that England have bought as a result of a mid-life crisis. He looks good, and when it all works he is a real joy to behold, but he is spending as much time in the garage with a faulty clutch than he is eating up miles on the highway. He was out caught behind again in the first innings in Perth, and while his innings of 83 in the first Test was a great effort, the rest of his career as a whole has an alarming pattern of similar failures. If he were to be left out for the Melbourne Test you could understand the decision, although who replaces him is a big question.
While those were the failures, there was success for England on day one. Mark Stoneman made a very good 56, a career best, before he gloved a lifting ball from Mitchell Starc through to the keeper. There was some controversy when the original not out decision was overturned on review on scant evidence, but it was the right call.
The most impressive batsman, by a distance, was Malan who also made a maiden Test hundred. He looked very solid against the quick bowlers and showed much more intent against Nathan Lyon’s off spin. Malan looked as secure against the spinner as any English left-hander has in this series so far.
Malan and Bairstow put together the best partnership of the day, with Bairstow clearly enjoying batting at six and having a batsman at the other end rather than having to fight with England’s long tail. There was a frenzy to Bairstow’s batting in the opening two Test matches as he struggled to balance scoring as many runs as he could while the tail survived, and selecting the right balls to attack. As soon as he had a proper batsman to partner he looked like a player who has been so successful over the last 18 months.
Malan had played a chanceless knock until he was dropped by Cameron Bancroft at third slip on 92 off the first delivery with the second new ball. There was clearly nerves for Malan who had been becalmed until he reached the nineties.
This match isn’t safe yet, and England have had a very bad habit of throwing away excellent positions in this series. There is still Moeen Ali to come, and Craig Overton can bat, but Malan and Bairstow need to bat on to get England as close to 400 as possible if they are to keep this series alive. This is England’s highest first innings score at the WACA Ground in 32 years, they have a great chance here, but there is a long way to go.