Vince and Stoneman’s resolve
Timing the ball beautifully can sometimes be counterproductive.
James Vince, 212 runs in his 7 Tests, a highest of 42, an average of 19.27 going into the Test, walks into the Gabba at No 3 for England.
As he walks in Alastair Cook is on his way out, caught on the crease as he snicked Mitchell Starc, only the 10th ball of his innings. 3-Test old Mark Stoneman waits at the other end. Another rout in the offing?
The challenge in front of England cannot be summed up more succinctly. They bat long, but length cannot compensate for the wafer-thin level of experience. Apart from Cook, no one has anything resembling a track record in this arduous land. Even captain Joe Root’s brilliant career has seen only 4 Tests in Australia and he averages 27. And Cook, that bulwark of England batting, is already walking back to the pavilion.
It is essential that the unheralded men of the batting order come good. That is the key to The Ashes. Vince, Stoneman and the 5-Test-old Dawid Malan.
As we know so well, there is no Ben Stokes coming in at No 6.
And as Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins lick their lips, the new men of the England settle down. Stoneman demonstrates loads and loads of patience. Vince is impressive, enterprising, positive. The Australian bowlers run in hard, the progress is slow, but the two batsmen hold fort.
Just 59 till lunch, and rain comes down for a while. And then they continue. The 100 comes up, in the 42nd over. Slow but solid.
The Australian attack is giving nothing away. As Vince and Stoneman push their partnership past 100, off nearly 40 overs, there is not a single extra notched up on the scoreboard. It has been 31 innings for England since a century partnership has been registered for the second wicket. Positive signs.
Both the batsmen get past their fifties, before Cummins sprints in and rattles Stoneman’s woodwork.
The opener departs for 53, a run garnered off every three balls faced, excruciatingly slow in the context of the modern game, but none of the team management will be complaining.
The captain comes in, a picture of confidence, secure on the platform of a magnificent career. A cushion of 127 for 2 is perhaps more than he had bargained for. He starts milking the bowling. At the other end, Vince is playing beautifully.
145 for 2. Vince on 83 faces Hazlewood.
And then it happens.
Vince’s defensive push is laced with positive aggression, something the experts are going gaga about. He runs with the stroke as the ball races towards the off-side.
The problem is that he has timed it to perfection. It travels too fast.
As mentioned, perfect timing can be counterproductive.
Nathan Lyon races in from cover point, pick it up one-handed, fires in his return and hits the stumps at the non-striker’s end. Aleem Dar does not raise his finger, he signals for the third umpire as is the norm of the day, but before that he smiles and nods several times. He knows, and Dar seldom gets it wrong.
Vince is crestfallen as he walks back for 83. All the hard work was undone by that impetuous call for a single. Eminently avoidable.
But the damage has been done. England in driver’s seat no more. 145 for 3, and the canny Australians immediately exert all possible pressure on the shaky Malan.
So much can change in so little time. The run out was the turning point. When the pressure shifted back on England.
And does Malan struggle?
He is intent on survival, perhaps not really the desired outlook expected from a middle-order batsman. Lyon sends them down outside the off-stump, and Malan keeps leaving the ones that could have been cut square or late. The ideal way to put the bowler on top. At the other end, Root seems to be getting less of the strike and more frustrated.
Root gets out, Gabba roars
It is slow going once again, but the contest is gripping. Very gripping.
And it is time for the biggest moment in the day.
Root has already played one delightful flick to the mid-wicket boundary, late off a ball homing for the stumps. He tries the stroke again off Cummins. The thud as the ball hits the pad seems to reverberate across the hearts of every English cricket fan. Marais Erasmus thinks a lot and is unmoved. In older days that would have meant a reprieve. Not so anymore. Cummins is certain. And Root is too huge a wicket. Steve Smith signals for the review. And the ball seems to be crashing into the leg stump. The captain went for 15. His average in Australia slides down even further.
163 for 4. The pressure is intense as Moeen Ali walks in. Lyon against two left-handers.
A three from a flick off Cummins means he will face Lyon. Malan drives Cummins for four. The contest is enthralling now.
Just about 20 minutes to go and Moeen goes down on his knees to slog Lyon for six. Counterattack, as expected from this enigmatic all-rounder.
It rubs off on Malan. Finally, he looks positive, and as a tiring Cummins pitches up from round the wicket, he punches one through cover and another past mid-wicket. Another off-drive is brilliantly fielded by David Warner.
Hazlewood is back and swings one into Malan. It crashes into the pad, but it seems going down the leg side. And then a bouncer is pulled with nonchalance to the square-leg fence.
Twice Lyon’s tossed up deliveries pass tantalisingly close to Moeen’s edge.
Plenty of excitement in the dying stages of the day.
The last few overs are negotiated with the rather less than the reassuring sight of Jimmy Anderson padded up as night-watchman.
196 for 4 at the end of the day. 80.3 overs bowled, 9.3 lost due to rain. Three of the balls have been bowled with the second new ball, including one review.
There are Johnny Bairstow and Chris Woakes yet to come in.
England would perhaps have been happier with some more. But there have been positives.
Stoneman has grafted a half century, Vince has been more than impressive in his 83. And finally, Malan, in spite of the shaky start, has lived to fight another day.
That electric brilliance of Lyon as he ran out Vince turned the events the Australian way, but England has managed a decent score even with the Cook-Root duo managing just 17 between them. That is indeed an enormously positive result they will be happy with.