Steve Smith leads Australia charge but late Joe Root wickets give England hope

Everything pointed to bowling first. The skies were brooding, the air was moist, the pitch was green and the floodlights were on. When Ben Stokes won the toss and reconfirmed an England XI now featuring a four-pronged seam attack, not even a captain known for flipping convention could resist the obvious.

But in the end it took a surprise two-wicket intervention from Joe Root to prevent day one of this crunch second Test being fully dominated by Australia. The tourists were still the happier camp come stumps, it must be said, reaching 339 for five from 83 overs – the rate once again poor – with Steve Smith 85 not out from 149 balls.

After being kept to just 22 runs during Australia’s two-wicket triumph at Edgbaston, there was always a nagging sense that Smith would not be kept down for long. After all, the 34-year-old is not just one of the sport’s great players – passing 9,000 Test runs along the way here – but one of its great problem solvers to boot.

And so it proved. Emerging at 96 for two after lunch to a chorus of tedious boos from the Lord’s crowd, Smith anchored two century partnerships with Marnus Labuschagne (47) and Travis Head (77) that negated England’s apparent advantage at the flip of the coin and forced their seamers to toil more than anyone expected.

The bat was still beaten with a degree of regularity and Stuart Broad could not believe his wickets column ended empty (to be fair, he also struggled to accept Smith overturning an “edge” on 24, despite daylight on the replay).

Josh Tongue, returning to the scene of that five-wicket haul on his debut earlier this month, injected pace to proceedings and some fine deliveries amid figures of two for 88 from 18 overs.

But the leakiness that came with Tongue’s inexperience, plus subdued showings from Jimmy Anderson and Ollie Robinson, allowed Australia to cruise at four an over. When Root struck twice in four balls late on – Head stumped by Jonny Bairstow and Cameron Green top-edging a slog to mid-off – it was very much against the grain.

England were just weirdly off the pace, as if conditions on the day would make wickets a formality. They had seemingly left Birmingham in a chipper mood, too, fancying fortunes may have been different but for a couple of sliding doors moments and a touch of rust – the latter manifesting itself in dropped catches and 23 no-balls.

Yet a seven-day break – one in which English cricket’s attention turned to greater issues – remedied little of this. They overstepped 12 times and two chances went to ground. And after the early distraction of a Just Stop Oil protest – Bairstow sticking one of the three invaders under his arm and walking 60 yards to dump him over the boundary rope amid cheers – it was clear this surface was sluggish.

Jonny Bairstow carries protester off field during Ashes Test Match – video

It meant the slips inching forward immediately, albeit not enough for Root to pouch an early edge from Usman Khawaja that might have changed Anderson’s day. If that was a case of the ball dying – catchable, just, but not simple – the life offered to David Warner on 20 was the old switcheroo: a sublime away swinger from Broad flew to fourth slip at a surprisingly good height, only to drop to earth like a stone.

Ollie Pope was the sheepish fielder here, the vice-captain’s day worsening after lunch when he injured his right shoulder pulling off a diving stop. He was not seen thereafter. With Broad a fraction short and thus beating the edge rather than finding it, and Anderson and Robinson vanilla, England were grateful for Tongue’s extra lick of pace.

In an eight-over spell either side of lunch, one that started loosely, the 25-year-old pushed 90mph on the speed gun, cramped both openers with his angle and castled them both with beauties. Khawaja shouldered arms to a ball that decked in lavishly on 17 and brought the first interval – Australia 73 for one – while Warner’s demise for 66 was a genuine working over.

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After that grim tour here in 2019, and with Australia’s selectors offering few guarantees before departure this time, Warner has introduced a trigger, stayed a touch more legside and looked to be busier. The upshot here was his highest score in England for eight years. He was streaky at times – a couple of lap sweeps off the seamers were eyebrow raising – but there were dashes of the old dominance, such as when he pulled Tongue into the Tavern Stand to bring up a 66-ball half century.

But Tongue eventually breached his defence, jackknifing the left-hander with a delivery that raced for four byes before a slightly fuller follow-up snapped the leg stump in two. It was clear Tongue’s extra grunt was getting the most out of the pitch and the slope, even if, with Australia’s attack quicker and augmented by Mitchell Starc’s return this week, this also added to the sense of English foreboding.

The same could be said about Smith’s early comfort and a third-wicket stand of 102 with Labuschagne. Pressure was fleeting and always quickly released. Even when Robinson broke through after tea, Labuschagne feathering a fourth stump wobble seam ball behind, the electric start from Head that followed was instantly deflating.

It was almost as if the orthodoxy the day demanded left Stokes without a canvas for the creativity he so enjoys. Perhaps his attack is simply creaking. And it should not detract from a gimlet-eyed performance by Smith – this his fourth successive 50-plus score at Lord’s, pockmarked by some glorious cover drives – or the moustachioed elan of Head that propelled a near run-a-ball stand of 118.

Head eventually got giddy, his replacement, Green, likewise. But this impressive Australia team are in the ascendancy and Stokes may find the draw he claims to dislike more appealing should the trends of day one continue.

source: theguardian.com