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Ashes: Travis Head hits brilliant final Test century as Australia fight back to thwart England on day one

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  • Joe Root
    Joe Root
    English cricketer (born 1990)

Australia have dominated this Ashes to such an extent that, even when England reduce them to 12 for three in the first 10 overs of a Test, it is hardly a surprise to see them reassume total control by the first day’s end.

Twelve for three, that is, with David Warner (22 balls) and Steve Smith (two balls) gone for ducks, and Usman Khawaja – he of the twin tons at the SCG – on his way for just six. Rain had delayed the start by 30 minutes, Joe Root won the toss, the pitch was green, and conditions felt tailor-made for bowling. England had every early advantage, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson were superb, but Australia still battled back.

From there, until the very lightest rain brought an end to the day’s play almost two hours early (shortly after 9pm), Australia veritably zipped along to add 229 for three in the next 50 overs. Play resumes 30 minutes early on day two because just 59.3 overs could be bowled.

Marnus Labuschagne had set their fight back on its way, before a truly comical dismissal, ending up on his knees having been bowled behind his legs by Broad’s full delivery. It was a hubristic stroke from Labuschagne, who left the field, embarrassed, at the glacial pace that has become his trademark.

Marnus Labuschagne after being bowled by Stuart Broad (Getty Images)
Marnus Labuschagne after being bowled by Stuart Broad (Getty Images)

That did not perturb Travis Head, back from Covid-19 to score his second stunning century of the series. The first, a tone setter in Brisbane, was from 85 balls. This one was a little slower, at 112 balls, but was even better, although he was dismissed the ball after reaching the milestone, looping Chris Woakes – who he had treated with utter disdain – to mid-on.

The damage was done. Head had shared swift stands of 71 with Labuschagne and 121 with Cameron Green, who soon had another half-century.

Australia feasted on England’s wilting bowlers. England’s team for the final Test of ugly away Ashes series are often a curious breed, and this one is a classic of the genre. It featured five changes. It featured a debutant, Sam Billings. It featured two batters, Rory Burns and Ollie Pope (in for the injured Jonny Bairstow), who were dropped just two Tests ago. It featured an injured all-rounder, Ben Stokes, playing as a specialist batter.

Stokes’ inability to play a full role always throws England. So while they normally hand a debut to a spinner in the final Ashes Test, they decided to drop Jack Leach this time.

The four-man seam attack felt thrown together. Still, in the conditions and with Jimmy Anderson not quite able to saddle up for a fourth successive game (he has a sore hamstring and back so his only involvement was presenting Billings his cap), the attack looked right.

That was true until, in a desperately slow first over after lunch, Robinson pulled up with a sore lower back. He had been a doubt with a shoulder injury – although he played golf on Monday – and there are frustrations in the camp about his general conditioning. Perhaps it is not a surprise that he has pulled up lame.

Even by then, only he and Broad were bowling well, which left England horribly exposed. Mark Wood and Chris Woakes struggled. The upshot was that Root was bowling after just 33 overs with a soft pink ball. He got through 10 of the first 60 overs, which probably was not in the script.

That dizzying opening passage felt like ancient history. Not only did Zak Crawley take two fine catches at second slip to see off Warner and Smith off Robinson, he also shelled one – Labuschagne on 0 – diving in front of Root at first slip. Root took a tidy catch to see off Khawaja, too.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Head came to the crease, therefore, in trying circumstances. With lavish movement for England’s seamers, he and Labuschagne chose to stroke their way out of trouble. Their timing was crisp and, with England’s change bowlers offering a considerably reduced threat, there were plenty of bad balls to put away. He took each chance, especially through point.

It felt like he would continue blitzing England to all parts long after reaching his hundred, but he looped Woakes to mid-on from nowhere. Robinson, perhaps on the field as punishment, grimaced as he took the simplest catch.

Woakes was simply ineffectual as, sadly, he has so often been outside England. Wood, meanwhile, has had a fine series, but this English-style pitch does not suit his more direct bowling style. In his third match in a row, there was a weariness too. His only reward came when Green, who found his feet in Sydney and looked good here, became perhaps the first batter ever to fall straight into England’s telegraphed bouncer plan.

That they resorted to the Bodyline tactic at all – the very opposite of the skills that had served them so well first thing – showed quite how desperate they had become.

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