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The Ashes: James Anderson and Mark Wood strike late to give England hope on rain-affected first day of Fourth Test

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  • Marcus Harris
    Australian cricketer

Only very late on the first day did gaps emerge in the thick clouds at the Sydney Cricket Ground. With that little opening, a gap also emerged in the thick clouds that hover over this torrid tour for England.

Rain – overnight, before and during play – made this a frustrating, stop-start day that saw cricket break out in four bitesize chunks: 4.3 overs after a delayed start, eight more before an early lunch, 9.1 in the afternoon, and 25.4 in the evening. Inevitably, a squally shower brought a premature close, too.

It was in that final session, just as things seemed to be slipping away thanks to a slightly slack performance, that England found two key wickets that give them something to cling to. James Anderson had Marcus Harris caught at first slip then, crucially, Marnus Labuschagne fell to Mark Wood again.

Suddenly, things had a rather prettier feel at 126 for three after Australia opted to bat first. England had chipped away; like David Warner before them, Harris and Labuschagne had fallen when set: all between 28 and 38.

Since winning the toss and choosing to bat on a green pitch under slate grey skies in Brisbane – an act of hari-kari given the relative poverty of England’s batters compared to their bowlers – Joe Root has lost all three tosses. This was the one he would least have minded losing. Given the decline – yes, things have got worse! – in the batting since Brisbane, another pitch with a greenish appearance, and more low clouds. Pat Cummins’ decision to bat left the door ajar.

Mark Wood celebrates the wicket of Marcus Labuschagne at the Sydney Cricket Ground (Getty Images)
Mark Wood celebrates the wicket of Marcus Labuschagne at the Sydney Cricket Ground (Getty Images)

The pitch was flat, as knowing locals (including Cummins) had warned it would be. And, for much of the day, so were England, who lacked rhythm and perhaps bowled a touch short. They were wasteful, giving away 20 extras (including five wides, sailing miles over Jos Buttler’s head, almost every time Ben Stokes or Wood attempted a bouncer). They are an infuriating bunch.

After an opening stand of 52, Stuart Broad had Warner caught at second slip shortly after he was narrowly missed in the same position off Stokes’ bowling. This was the 13th time Broad, back for just his second appearance of the series (and no doubt keen to point out how flat this pitch is), has dismissed Warner in Test cricket.

Harris and Labuschagne added 60, looking increasingly assured, before Anderson’s intervention. Harris, who looks so much better for his battling 73 at Melbourne, had driven well, but the ball angled across him and found the edge, and Root made no mistake at first slip.

The following over, Wood’s pace did for Labuschagne. Since being crowned the ICC’s No1 Test batter, Labuschagne has fallen twice in 10 balls to Wood, which has taken his average below 60. Labuschagne left the field at his usual glacial pace.

Earlier, Stuart Broad had dismissed David Warner for the 13th time in Test cricket (Getty Images)
Earlier, Stuart Broad had dismissed David Warner for the 13th time in Test cricket (Getty Images)

There were six threatening overs before stumps, but Steve Smith and the recalled Usman Khawaja – playing Test cricket for the first time since the 2019 Ashes due to Travis Head’s positive Covid test – weathered the metaphorical storm, then sprinted off when the heavens opened. They will return with work to do tomorrow, when the forecast remains poor.

On the available evidence, this Test will do well to top the other two taking place this week. At the Wanderers, South Africa and India are playing out another excellent low-scoring tussle.

And even better, in Mount Maunganui today, Bangladesh pulled off an historic win over World Test Champions New Zealand. It is hardly an exaggeration to say this might be Test cricket’s greatest upset ever; New Zealand were on a 17-match winning run at home, while the Tigers had only previously won five Tests overseas.

A win at this stage of the series for England would have nowhere near that sort of significance but, frankly, they will take what they can get. If they are to have a hope, they must keep Smith in check.

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