The phrase is so often used that it can be legitimately branded a cricket-cliché. And as a qualified statistician, this writer has little patience for the hackneyed ‘his contribution was much more valuable than the runs he scored.’
Yet, he is going to make an exception today. Dawid Malan’s excellent maiden hundred and the 174-run unbeaten stand with Johnny Bairstow were indeed more valuable than just the individual scores of 110 and 75. They have to be viewed in conjunction with the double failure that stick out like a pair of sore thumbs from the England scoreboard.
Alastair Cook’s landmark 150th Test match saw him miss a straight one from Mitchell Starc for 7. And Joe Root’s hit and miss affair with Australian surfaces continued as he gloved a Pat Cummins delivery down the leg side after a quick 20. The fightback despite insignificant contributions from the two pillars of the batting line up has the potential to inject England with the kind of boost they desperately need to come back in the series.
When Mark Stoneman, who had played well for a half century and had been granted a reprieve at 52 courtesy Mitchell Marsh, departed soon after for 56, England were struggling at 131 for 4, and the oft-repeated tale of batting debacle looked likely to be repeated.
But Malan demonstrated the equanimity to stand up against the odds and was gifted with plenty of full deliveries to bring off a series of sparkling drives on either side of the wicket. He did have a let off, but by the time Cameron Bancroft grassed him off Starc he was 92. The other flight of fortune he enjoyed was when the hook off Starc went off the top edge and cleared the fine boundary for six. Other than that, this Middlesex batsman was a picture of composure. And strangely on a wicket that has historically been infamous for an extraordinary bounce, the Australian quick bowlers kept feeding him with overpitched deliveries. The innings of Malan has been a rather high class for someone who went into the Test with a batting average of 24.
Bairstow benefitted from the Aussie largesse as well, not through spilt opportunity, but through the middle and leg line that the pacemen kept adhering to. It gave the young stumper plenty of room to work them away to the on side and with time he flourished alongside Malan even as the Aussie shoulders started drooping.
On a pitch which offered little assistance to spin, the persistent threat of Nathan Lyon was also subdued. Halfway through the second session, the Aussies were looking well bereft of ideas.
305 for 4 is an immensely strong position to be in. More than that, the entire side will take heart from the fact that Malan and Bairstow, and to an extent Stoneman, have been the ones to stand and deliver. What works in their favour as well is that both Malan and Bairstow are still there. The second new ball is still rather fresh, and there is no doubt that the Australian bowlers will come out with a sense of purpose on the morrow. But, having done the hard work, the batsmen will be backing themselves to continue towards a huge score. Particularly Bairstow will be looking to score his first Ashes hundred, and given the recent past, it will help him across multiple dimensions.
England not only won the day after a dicey start but having done so in spite of the failures of the top guns they have succeeded in passing a strong message to the Australian side. However, it is of supreme importance that the current duo and the lower order take this start into a 450-plus total to exert the desired pressure on the hosts.