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Dawid Malan, having been softened up by blows to the hand, had just turned Cameron Green to leg-slip. He was the third wicket to fall with the score on 36, where England had been stuck for 44 balls, and the fourth overall. The tourists were still 380 behind Australia’s carefully-compiled 416 for eight.
With the pitch already misbehaving (Zak Crawley was hit hard on the hand by one that misbehaved from Mitchell Starc), even the follow-on felt like Everest. It did not feel beyond the realms of possibility that the game could end today.
The two openers, Haseeb Hameed (dropped by Alex Carey) and Crawley (dismissed off a no-ball then dropped at short leg), ended charmed lives by being bowled through gaping gates trying too hard to attack. Joe Root kicked off England’s duck tally for 2022 (they will do well to top 2021’s record-equalling 54) with an impetuous poke that betrayed a mind frazzled by a tour from hell.
It had only been an 80-minute morning session, because of rain that began overnight and continued until around 11.30am on Friday. Eighty minutes had been all it took to lop off England’s final six wickets on the third day in Melbourne.
This, on the third day in Sydney, was quite possibly even worse, and became bleaker the more you thought about it. Ben Stokes was at the crease with a suspected side strain that was making him grimace with every stroke.
The next man in, Jos Buttler, had an injured hand that could rule him out of the final Test in Hobart. After that? Mark Wood, heading up a tail made up of thirty-somethings who spent 134 overs toiling in the dirt.
Australia’s brilliant attack were rampant. Scott Boland, having taken six for seven on debut at the MCG, had five maidens in his first five overs, picking up Crawley and Root. His Test average had dropped to 6.11.
It was remarkable, then, that in the final over of the day, Jonny Bairstow would be sprinting towards the beautiful Members’ Pavilion with his arms aloft, celebrating his seventh Test century, perhaps a knock that saves one of the strangest England careers.
It was a wonderful hundred, crisply timed and defying injury; when on 60, he had been hit hard on the thumb by a Pat Cummins snorter that could yet end his series.
Bairstow was not the only glory for England. They enjoyed an entirely wicketless session, Stokes would have played one of his bravest innings yet, and Wood would be launching Pat Cummins for successive sixes. Sure, they were still 158 runs behind and perhaps remain reliant on rain – which is forecast –to save this game.
But they had battled their way out of the deepest hole they had found themselves in yet – and reached a first-innings 250 for the first time, too. On a tour this grim, it is vital to take the small victories.
Stokes and Bairstow had taken their time to lay the foundations, extending that run of dot balls to 70 in a tense opening to the afternoon session. But when they got going, they raced. Nathan Lyon’s introduction was particularly welcome, and he was milked for six runs an over not long after England could barely hit the thing off the square.
Stokes was quite clearly playing through considerable pain, whether in attack or defence. But he relishes battles like that and, despite riding his luck on two occasions, was soon looking more fluent than he had a right to be. On nine, Cummins dropped a sharp caught-and-bowled and, on 16, things just got plain weird: he left a ball from round the wicket from Green, which angled back in sharply, grazing his off-stump but failing to dislodge the bail.
Remarkably, umpire Paul Reiffel gave Stokes out lbw, despite the ball being inches from his pad. Stokes’ review saved him; he laughed, and was soon launching a remarkable six over the offside off Lyon and bringing up a 70-ball fifty, his first of a tough series.
At tea, the pair left the field to a volley of abuse from fans, and stopped to respond. After the break, Stokes, lbw to Lyon, and Buttler, chipping tamely to cover for a duck, fell quickly. But Wood joined Bairstow to forge ahead, and played some remarkably confident shots.
The day, though, was all about Bairstow. He was belligerent to Lyon, and tighter to the seamers than he has been for some years. He made it hard work for Australia, who lost Boland to an injury.
Bairstow’s has been a complicated career. He has struggled since Buttler’s recall in 2018, been in and out of the gloves, up and down the order, in and out of the side. He has kept coming back, the hunger to represent England – which he considers to be in his blood – never dying.
After Stuart Broad’s five-wicket haul yesterday and Bairstow’s hundred, England’s first major milestones of the series might complicate whatever rebuild follows this heavy defeat. But they should not mind one bit.