Mark Stoneman took the guard in his own, unique manner to face what would be the seventh ball of the 2017-18 Ashes and the first ball of his Ashes career. Mitchell Starc had delivered a seamingly harmless over to Alastair Cook. The ball wasn’t seaming or swinging a lot; no demons in the track.
The young opener, however, would have had butterflies in his stomach as he tapped the bat onto the crease and equipped himself to face the immaculate Josh Hazlewood.
If England had done their homework, they would have known that Hazlewood is as dangerous, if not more, than Starc in this format of the game. Facing him was akin to fronting up to a mini version of Glenn McGrath. Stoneman had been so authoritative on this tour thus far.
An 85 against Western Australia was followed by scores of 61, 51 and 111 against Cricket Australia XI. He had gone above the half-century mark every time he came on to bat in Australia. Yet, he was deemed as the weak link at the top of England’s batting line-up.
Cook has possibly had more opening partners since the retirement of Andrew Strauss than Geoffrey Boycott had in his entire First-class career. Several county players had come and gone.
Stoneman was the last among them. His returns were meagre against the Windies in a home series. He did have a solid technique and an appetite to score runs but on the scorecard, it hadn’t reflected yet after five Test matches. Anybody who was picked for that West Indies series would possibly have made it to Australia.
Stoneman was plain lucky to be there. He was, what selectors call “better among the bad options”.
The first ball from Hazlewood to Stoneman was a back of the length delivery that pitched in line with middle stump and angled across the southpaw. Stoneman raised his bat, watched the ball go extremely close to off-stump and rest in Paine’s hands.
It was a marginal leave. One filled with jitters. The age-old textbooks on cricket batting recommend leaving a few at the start of the innings before feeling for leather with the willow. Stoneman had probably read a few pages before walking out to bat. It was such a marginal leave or so it seemed on the outside.
In hindsight, it could very well have been an exceptional leave too. Stoneman had been seeing that ball much better than any English batsman since landing in Australia. He could have been so assured of his off-stump that he knew exactly where that Hazlewood delivery would go. He could be the most nervous Ashes debutant or the most confident of them all. We will never know. But at the end of his 159 ball vigil at the Gabba, we are inclined to believe that it was the latter.
Such was the control, patience and temperament he exhibited on day 1 that Stoneman was probably England’s most assured batsman inspite of James Vince’s surprisingly audacious knock. He left anything and everything he needn’t have played at. He played everything he needed to play at. He defended with a straight bat, got behind the line of the ball, stood away from his weaknesses and conquered his inner demons.
— The Cricket Prof. (@CricProf) November 23, 2017
The Australian seamers were misusing the new ball, spraying them wide outside off-stump and Stoneman gladly left, ball after ball, till the opposition got tired and came closer to the stumps.
He watched as a senior opening partner, Alastair Cook, hung onto the back foot and nicked Mitchell Starc to the cordon. He watched as the Gabba roared in delight seeing the back foot the ex-captain. He watched as James Vince, known his flashy shots outside the off-stump, walked in and took guard.
When Hazlewood charged in next over and came closer to the stumps, Stoneman pulled out a dead bat, defended the ball onto the pitch, looked away and took guard again, left the next ball..and the next.
Even as Stoneman and Vince strung together a vital 125 run stand, the first time England’s Ashes debutants were putting on a century partnership in Australia for over a century, Kevin Pietersen in the commentary box kept ranting about how England were going too slow. What he probably didn’t realise was the manner in which Stoneman and Vince softened the Aussie bowlers as well as the ball and prepped up the stage for Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Johnny Bairstow and the likes.
While Stoneman was staid, unrelenting and unflustered, Vince dug into the Aussie bowlers, quickening up his pace and creating panic in the hosts’ dressing room. The talk of the day was James Vince. He had his inhibitions and nurtured a fabulous 83, studded with spectacular shots on the off-side. Few considered the role of Stoneman, rallying along the mercurial Vince, steadying the England ship, sealing one end tight with his strong defensive skills.
While Vince faced 170 balls, Stoneman faced 159. He hit just three fours while Vince smashed twelve. He was the non-glamourous partner, a silent mouse in a room where Vince was the elephant. Yet, his role was as important as Vince’s. If Stoneman had, for a second, let loose his defences, Australia would have had the England skipper out in the middle sooner, with fresher legs and a brighter, red cherry.
That didn’t happen for 326 balls. With Cook departing early, Stoneman took over his senior partner’s responsibility and churned out the tough runs. It took a corker from Pat Cummins to send Stoneman on his way; a brute of a delivery that seamed back in from around the wicket and beat his sturdy defences to send the bails flying. Stoneman had by then manufactured 53 runs and a reputation in the Australian dressing room.