The Ashes: First Test on a knife edge going into final day

The final moments of the fourth day produced riveting Ashes theatre. The bandana-draped Stuart Broad, all gliding limbs and giggling smiles, made the ball and script bend to his will. Steve Smith gasped and blew his cheeks in dismay. Jonny Bairstow leapt into the skies and punched the turf. Marnus Labuschagne hurled a volley of abuse at himself as he walked back to the dressing room.

The eyes and faces of the audience flickered between joy and agony, and they exhaled a deep clump of breath when the day ended. Their hearts could beat a bit slower now, the emotions could settle in, the eyes could wink again, as the most fascinating day of the first Test ended with the promise of another, perhaps even more, engrossing day of cricket. The Day of Judgement, when either Australia or England would emerge victorious and gather momentum into the series.

A classic is unfolding at Edgbaston. Rather another classic at a ground where the sweat and tears of many Ashes heroes and tragic-heroes have merged with the grass. After the final ball of the day, Australia progressed to 107 for 3, chasing 281, one short of what the batch of 2005 were asked to hunt down, and agonisingly fell short (by two runs). That match produced iconic moments, none more defining than Andrew Flintoff consoling a devastated Brett Lee on his haunches. The lens of Ashes history would be clicking away on Tuesday as well.

But for much of the final session, Australia seemed in utter control of the chase. David Warner and Usman Khawaja saw off the new ball spells from James Anderson and Broad. The pitch was placid and benign, the target didn’t daunt. Then against the run of the narrative, Ollie Robinson produced a wobble-seamer of outrageous precision to gobble up a fluent Warner, who edged to Bairstow.

The stage was set for the man of eternal theatre, Broad. There would not be a more trolled, mocked, pantomimed Ashes hero. But here he was, dealing two unkindest cuts of all to Australia. First, he nicked out Labuschagne, nearly a first-innings replay. A full, wide out-swinger that the Australian batter could have left alone, but felt obliged to feel for, and ended up edging to Bairstow, who was not in as generous a mood as he was in the first innings. Broad barely celebrated; he might have visualised this a hundred times in his elaborate plotting for Labuschagne during the off-season.

Getting the big fish

He though would celebrate the Smith wicket more boisterously. It was a tale of two in-swingers. The first kissed the outside edge, hit the pad in front of off stump and bounced just short of Bairstow. The next one was a trifle wider, luring him into the drive, with unusually leaden feet, that he edged to the ’keeper. Surviving moments of anxiety, Khawaja and Scott Boland saw off the evening, setting up a thrilling fifth day.

To win the fifth day, both sides knew they had to win the fourth. It’s true about every day of a Test match, but even more about the fourth, when the plot could race to the climax. It’s like the penultimate chapter of a whodunit, the nerves shivering, the fingers tapping restlessly on the table, all thoughts cooking imaginary plot-lines of the endgame.

Thus, every thought and stroke, each change and ploy, were weighed thus, in view of how it would impact the day of judgement. England bounded out charging, to nullify the mental scars of the carnage Pat Cummins and Boland had subjected them to in the 22-ball passage of firestorm on Day 3. Joe Root, the most prolific Test batsman of our times, unfurled a reverse scoop first ball off Cummins. The intention was clear — to batter their foes psychologically, to bend them into submission, to squeeze out their self-belief. Though Root missed the scoop entirely, the stroke, a missed stroke that is, stupefied the Australians.

Suddenly, they lost their snarl. Root seized this moment and reverse-scooped Boland for a six and four, spreading the field far and wide. The gully was immediately repositioned to a deep third man. Under the blazing sun, Root and Ollie Pope made hay, pillaging 50 runs in 6.3 runs. Cummins’ clarity scattered like frightened pigeons upon a gunshot. He kept fiddling with the field, and for some bizarre reason, persisted with the still-shocked Boland. The field and lines were outright defensive, the lone preoccupation of Cummins seemed to squeeze the flow of runs, so that they didn’t end up chasing a monster score.

Seizing the initiative

But just when it seemed that England were blitzing with the game, Cummins discovered the light of wisdom. He made two decisive changes. A) Brought Nathan Lyon on, on a dry surface under the sun; B) Influence the game on his own. From looking to stop runs, he transformed into the fearsome wicket-taker the world knows. From nowhere, he produced a ripping yorker to blast the stumps of Pope, who yet again retreated with unfulfilled renown. Lyon’s introduction entailed risk, as Root, in such a destructive mood, could take him apart. So could Harry Brook, who looted 13 from his first over and six from his next. But the next over, overeager to impose himself on Lyon, Root galloped out of the crease, swiped an unrefined swipe, and found himself beaten in turn to be duly stumped.

Followed a cat-and-mouse game, wherein England would look to Baz-bat while Australia mixed caution with aggression, holding onto their fort despite the relentless assault. They were akin to a welterweight boxer soaking relentless blows from a heavyweight boxer, but in between throwing timely punches themselves. None of England’s partnerships yielded more than the 50 runs between Pope and Root. Whereas Lyon relied on perseverance to bargain wickets, Cummins, even on as dead a track as this, produced a few magic balls. The in-ducker that trapped Ben Stokes was a seaming beauty, sliding in with the angle and snaking into his knee-roll.

At 229 for 8 at the departure of the last recognised batsman Moeen Ali, England shed the macho approach and looked to creep rather than blast forward, but the 44 runs the last two stands added could turn out to be precious in the final analysis of the game. The situation they found themselves in was such that survival mattered more than show-stopping. In the end, those runs accrued in the second hour of the second session have set up an exciting fifth day. Then, it was such a day that everything, every move made, and every move not made, every shout and every whisper, flowed organically into the last day.

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