In what was built up as the most-anticipated Test of the decade thanks to Ben Stokes' heroics and Steve Smith's return, Old Trafford didn't disappoint as the No.1 batter picked up from where he left off at Lord's. With Australia 170/3, England will have their work cut out when play resumes on Day 2.
The Aussie openers’ unwanted time loop
David Warner getting out to Stuart Broad after being indecisive about leaving the ball, Marcus Harris looking solid before perishing out of nowhere - no, this is not Edgbaston or Lord’s or Headingley, it’s Old Trafford, and for Australia, it’s happened again. Such has been the impact of the Australian openers so far this Ashes, that it hardly would have made any difference had the No.3 and No.4 batsmen come out to face the first ball with the score automatically set to 0/2.
13 - That’s the highest opening partnership for Australia in this Ashes across seven innings, and trust us, we’re not making this up. Four matches, seven innings, three different batsmen, two different opening combinations and Australia have managed to engineer an average of 8.85 for their opening stands. To give a better perspective of things, Australia have averaged 22.25 for the 10th wicket in this series. So, what has gone wrong for the Kangaroos up top? At this point, I’m assuming that both the coach and the players are more clueless, baffled and puzzled than we are, and they might as well try giving a gig to a random fan out there in the stands - it actually might yield better results.
Each of the openers they’ve tried - be it Cameron Bancroft or Warner or Harris - have had their own problems. For Bancroft, it was him fighting against and succumbing to the flaws of his own technique. For Warner, it’s the psychological battle with Stuart Broad which he just can’t seem to win. For Harris, it’s the Joe Denly phenomenon - getting off to good starts, looking comfortable at the crease and just getting out - no explanation to it whatsoever. Like the “Demolition Man” mission in GTA Vice City, the only way out of this seems to be by using a cheat code, and let’s hope that the Aussies don’t actually resort to that tactic.
Marnus’ “Labusch” in concentration
It looks like Steve Smith has transferred every single power of his over to Marnus Labuschagne - except the one of converting 50s into 100s. For the fourth innings running, the Queenslander walked to the crease under colossal pressure and just as he did in the previous three innings that preceded, he batted his team out of trouble with utmost ease, almost giving away the impression that he was batting on a completely different surface. But there was yet another unwanted striking similarity to his first three innings’ of this series - the failure to convert the fifty into a hundred, perhaps due to a lapse in concentration.
After scores of 59, 74 and 80 at Lord’s and Headingley, three innings where he could have easily gone on to score hundreds, Labuschagne faltered once again post the fifty-run mark, this time at 67. In fact, just two innings prior to his fifty at Lord’s, Labuschagne missed a golden opportunity in Brisbane to score his maiden century, throwing his wicket away at 81. While today, he, by no means threw his wicket away and was undone by an absolute jaffa, it is still uncharacteristic of a well-set batsman to be comprehensively beaten.
This was evident in the first innings at Headingley too, where he bizarrely was caught in front of the stumps, missing a high full-toss off Ben Stokes batting on 74. Perhaps these are little signs of a potential lapse in concentration and while he’s done exceptionally well thus far to assert his authority in the team, it’s high time for him to now step it up a notch and follow the footsteps of his master in making starts count as at the end of the day, hundreds, and not fifties, end up being the telling difference more often than not.
Overton giveth hope, Overton taketh hope away
On a day where the whole story was built around Jofra Archer and the potential damage he could inflict, much to everyone’s surprise, it was a certain tall and lanky pacer from Somerset who made things happen for England, especially when the chips were down.
A bowler who wears his heart on his sleeve all the time, Overton, by no means is someone who intimidates batsmen with his pace, nor is he someone who can generate extravagant movement. But what he brings to the table is sheer consistency and the ability to hit the nagging length which batsmen are never fond of. Despite being gentle on pace as expected, the Somerset man kept asking questions of the batsmen, at times tailing the ball away - even beating the bat on a few occasions. But the highlight of his spell came in his eighth over, when he castled the timber of a well-set Labuschagne by getting the ball to nip into the right-hander.
At that moment, it felt like he’d already justified his selection over Chris Woakes. With a nervy-looking Travis Head walking into the crease, Overton had the perfect chance to tighten the noose and perhaps even account for a scalp or two. But uncharacteristically enough, the right-armer sprayed one too many on Head’s pads, allowing the southpaw to break the shackles and race off to double digits in no time. This meant that the Aussies went into tea and subsequently into stumps with no further damage to their armour, thus ultimately walking the happier of the two sides post Day 1.
While Overton did exceptionally well by moving the ball around and removing a set batsman, it is, in fact, ironic that he ended up not doing what he was actually picked for in the first place. Nevertheless, his skipper would definitely take heart from the way he bowled today and come Day 2, the onus will once again be on the 25-year-old to justify his selection.
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