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Ashes 2021/22

The great escape is on – Root and Malan lay template for English success Down Under

Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 3 minute read

It’s the hope that kills you.

After two torturous days to start the series – from an English perspective, at least – the 2021/22 winter slowly blossomed into life on the third afternoon at the Gabba, as England provided the first concrete signs yet that more than one side is capable of winning Tests this series.

That’s not to say England will get something from this Test. Australia are still overwhelming favourites and they will, mostly likely, be deserving winners. England were blown away with the bat in the first innings and were utterly abject in the field at the back end of the second; it’s rare that two prolonged sessions of play that meagre go unpunished.

Regardless of the eventual result, though, Joe Root and Dawid Malan showed that not only do England have the ingredients to push Australia in Australia, but also that maybe England weren’t quite as bad on day two as it initially appeared.


First, some context. The pitch was slow, and barring the rare ball that bounced slightly more than expected, batting looked straightforward for most of the day. Even against a new ball in the opening session, Travis Head and Mitchell Starc were comfortable.

For Australia in the field, once the shine wore off and the ball softened, the feel of the day changed very quickly. They were menacing with the new ball but looked short on ideas soon after; like England during the second half of the Labuschagne-Warner stand on day two, batting looked easy.

But you get that in Australia. More often than not, it’s flat. You need to make the most of those conditions, though – something that England haven’t done recently done. In the 2017/18 Ashes, four Australians made 150-plus scores whereas only one Englishman – Alastair Cook in the bore draw at the MCG – managed to reach the landmark. When it’s flat, you have to make the most of it.

Malan and Root showed what happens when you do. It really is tough slugging it out for a day in the searing heat and while the wheels didn’t fall off as spectacularly for Australia as they did for England on day two, Australia – who only two days ago looked scintillating with the ball – suddenly looked like an attack with weaknesses there to expose.

Mitchell Starc was poor, justifying Shane Warne’s pre-series criticism. He leaked runs at more than four an over and even made the usually obdurate Haseeb Hameed look free-flowing at stages earlier in the day. He was not, today at least, someone who Cummins could reasonably rely upon to keep things in check. Sure, his primary job isn’t to restrict, but going at 4.28 runs per over does too much to alleviate the pressure on the batters and crucially, makes life more difficult for his more economical bowling partners.

Nathan Lyon is still stuck on 399 Test wickets – going back to the start of last winter he’s taken nine Test wickets at 64.55. He’s a fine bowler who will likely bounce back but he was overly defensive with his fields and lacked his usual dip and kick off the pitch. Cameron Green has just one Test wicket but was one of the more threatening bowlers with the old ball, causing some problems with his steepling bounce and pace. Josh Hazlewood was used sparingly, delivering just eight of the 70 overs bowled by Australia. Though he stayed on the field throughout, it’s hard to imagine Cummins turning to him so rarely if he was 100 per cent fit.

It was only possible to expose those chinks in the Australian armour because of how England battled through the tricky new ball period and combatted a fresh Hazlewood and Cummins earlier in the day.

It’s hard to overstate just how special Root has been in 2021. He’s scored big runs on three continents against some of the best attacks in the world, while captaining a chaotic team often short of their best players. Today, he was supreme and radiating that quality reserved only for the elite that leaves onlookers scratching their heads thinking, ‘How the hell do we get this guy out?’.

He was ably supported by Malan, who, once he overcame a nervy battle against the new ball, eased into his innings and never retreated into his shell, ensuring that the scoreboard was always moving regardless of who was facing up.

Root and Malan have given England hope, but not much more; Australia should still win this Test. But they showed that this Australia attack, for all its star quality, is fallible when conditions aren’t as favourable as they were on the opening day and a half and that if their top order can withstand Australia’s new ball barrage, its middle order can capitalise on the hard yards upfront. This series is no longer the foregone conclusion we feared after two days, the hope is back.

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