A mad-cap eight overs that saw England collapse, and then yet another Steve Smith innings that had the relentless forward motion of a runaway juggernaut, has seen the Perth Test go from one England looked to be dominating to one that remains in the balance.
England had a chance to put themselves in a very unusual situation, one that has only happened a few times in the last few decades. They could have been big favourites to win a Test in Australia. With the score 368 for four, England were looking good for a total in excess of 450, and could have even stretched it beyond 500. You don’t lose matches from there. (Well, England did in Adelaide, 2006, but it certainly doesn’t happen very often.)
Instead, England were all out for 403, having lost their last six wickets for a meagre 35 runs. Now, if you had offered 403 all out to England’s players, management and fans ahead of this match they would have bitten your hand off. But having been in such a strong position, it was a disappointing score.
English lower-order collapses are certainly nothing new, but they are now the most prominent feature of their batting on this tour. At the Gabba they lost their last five wickets for just 56 runs in the first innings and 40 in the second. In the second dig in Adelaide, they lost seven wickets for 64 runs. There have now been four dramatic capitulations by the England lower order in five innings this series.
Before they lost those wickets in an undignified clump, we had seen Jonny Bairstow and Dawid Malan put on the third-highest fifth-wicket stand in England’s history. The two men carried on brilliantly from their efforts on the first day, solid in defense but positive enough to keep scoring runs at a healthy pace.
Bairstow went on to score his fourth Test ton, clearly relishing not being stuck having to babysit the misfiring English tail. The frantic nature of his batting that was so evident in the first two Tests disappeared as he and Malan made the highest partnership for England at the WACA, and the fourth highest by any visiting team.
When the collapse came it was dramatic. Malan was the first to go. Having made it to 140 he looked brilliantly set, and his decision to use his feet in an attempt to attack Nathan Lyon was fair enough. The issue was that after he made that call he executed the shot very poorly, getting a big leading edge that was agilely caught by substitute fielder, Peter Handscomb.
There is a temptation to blame Malan for what followed, but that is wrong-headed. Looking to score runs when well set on 140 is a legitimate tactic, but any attacking shot comes with risk. That is what makes cricket a compelling spectacle. Those that are to blame for England failing to capitalise on the position that Malan had provided them were the remaining members of the batting lineup.
The biggest culprit was Moeen Ali, who needed to hang around to support the well-set Bairstow; instead he played an airy poke at a short ball he could have left, giving Smith catching practice at a wide second slip.
From there on, it was all pretty straightforward to Australia. Their bowling attack against this England batting line up isn’t a fair contest and once again Bairstow was forced to play an ambitious shot out of fear of running out of partners. The extra pace that Australia have on offer, especially on this kind of surface, just means that the lower-order have no hope in the face of a barrage that has them hopping around on the back foot and wary of coming forward.
Chris Woakes has been a huge disappointment with the bat so far on this tour, and with Ben Stokes currently in exile in New Zealand, they needed runs from him more than ever before. As a man with a first-class batting average of 35 with nine hundreds, he has the pedigree to score runs at this level. Here he pulled the ball into the hands of Pat Cummins on the fine leg boundary to depart for just eight.
Despite the disappointment of the way their innings ended, England are still very much alive in this match. This was their highest score at Perth in 32 years and no team has lost on this ground having made this many runs batting first.
Australia needed to bat well to get up to, and past England’s total, and while this remains a flat pitch, making 400-plus is never a certain thing. Luckily for them they have Smith, a man who makes run-making look incredibly ugly and ridiculously easily all at the same time. He remained unbeaten on 92 to overtake Malan as the leading run-scorer of this series, which incidentally feels like the way things should be. There is not a shred of doubt over who the best batsman in this series is. In fact, there is little to debate over when it comes to picking the best Test batsman in the world from the current generation.
Wickets fell at the other end, with Craig Overton once again impressing as he dismissed both Australian openers to leave the home side 55 for two. But then Smith arrived at the crease, and the inevitable happened. His average for this series is currently 139.5; you fear for England that it only might go up from there.
This game is brilliantly poised, but that has been true in the first two Tests in of this series. In both of those games England were blown apart and Australia ran out easy winners. They need to find a way to get Smith out and get through the rest of the Australia batting line up before they are able to get a significant lead. Do that and they may still keep this series alive going to Melbourne for the fourth Test.