When the England brains trust held back Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad at the Gabba under a belief they could work their magic under lights in Adelaide, it is fair to assume – although perhaps we cannot be certain – the scenario envisaged was not the pair trying to push their team past the follow-on mark with the bat.
Yet here they were, England’s two most decorated seamers united out in the middle and Mitchell Starc bounding in with a hard, new, pink Kookaburra ball in hand. The specialist batsmen above them had earlier produced their latest heinous collapse, the crowd was up, the famous Edwardian scoreboard on the grass hill read 220 for nine and the deficit was 253 runs. The gulf felt greater to be honest.
Prepare to be shocked but they did not quite make it. Instead, the chief positive in a rather gruesome 10th-wicket stand of 16 was Broad’s lucidity after wearing one of a number of fearsome bouncers from Jhye Richardson on the grille. It did not take long for Starc to end this tail-end torture before it was back to the day job for England’s old guard as Steve Smith, having masterminded England’s 236 all out, elected to bat again.
Four years ago on this ground, when he was the full-time Australia captain rather than a stand-in for the recently pinged Pat Cummins, Smith made the same decision and his side suffered a dose of night terrors before claiming the win.
This time one wicket fell, David Warner self-immolating on 13 when calling Marcus Harris for a run that wasn’t, but Australia closed on 45 for one with their lead swollen to 282.
Perhaps one of the most galling aspects of England’s latest misfire on tour was their best work coming while the UK was still tucked up in bed. After the loss of two cheap wickets the evening before, and a late storm that spared any further damage, Joe Root and Dawid Malan delivered a serene first session of 123 runs in bright sunshine as they walked back to the pavilion unbeaten on 57 and 68 respectively.
Root was continuing his march up the ladder of most Test runs in a calendar year, passing the marks of Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Michael Clarke to go fourth on the all-time list with 1,606, while Malan, though challenged by the angle of Nathan Lyon, was slotting fours across the outfield like long pots on a snooker table.
Smith even betrayed some impatience when the bustling Michael Neser talked him into burning a review. At 140 for two, though still 333 in arrears, England had a foothold.
One of the greatest differences between the two teams in this Test, however, is the variety Australia possess even without Cummins or the injured Josh Hazlewood; novelties such as a left-armer, a frontline spinner, pace and height, all supported by slick fielders with adhesive hands.
In the second session this heady mix told almost immediately, with a collapse of four for 19 sparked by the giant Cameron Green’s probing line to Root finding the edge for the second time this series.
Coming during a cage of six consecutive maidens shared by Green and Lyon after the break, Root’s demise on 62 was the eighth time in Australia he had made a half-century, without reaching three figures.
The familiar punch of the bat summed up the England captain’s anger, a feeling that only deepened when Smith swiftly turned back to Starc, Malan slashed loosely at his fifth ball on 80 and another catch flew into the slip cordon.
If the loss of two set batsmen in the space of 15 minutes was bad enough, what followed was arguably more alarming. Ollie Pope is 22 caps into his Test career and yet, despite being a short, compact, correct right-hander, he somehow struggles with right-arm off-spin. While he correctly reviewed a bat-pad catch on five that flew off his elbow, the total lack of gameplan to the admittedly wily Lyon was exposed two balls later when he danced down the pitch and clipped a sharp catch to short-leg.
Jos Buttler, 33 caps Pope’s senior, continued a horror match, the guilt of those two drops off the first innings centurion, Marnus Labuschagne, compounded further when, 15 balls in and yet to get one away, he reached for a delivery that slanted across him from Starc and the edge once again flew into grateful hands.
During the T20 World Cup the shot tended to result in a four but those short-form talents still have not transferred.
Though defiance followed from Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes before the second interval, a session of 56 runs for four wickets was a remarkable turnaround by Australia – and Lyon put paid to it after the resumption anyway.
The pitch, a surface he helped to prepare back in the day, had been biting and gripping for his over-spinners all day. In quick succession he struck twice, Woakes bowled on 24 the ball after being bamboozled by some extra bounce and Ollie Robinson lbw for a duck.
Standing on a burning deck, Stokes had little choice but to chance his arm by this stage and though one muscular swept six off Lyon gave the smattering of England fans a highlight in the gloom the return of the impressive Green had him bowled off the inside edge for 34, prompting Anderson’s latest grumpy emergence at No 11.
England lost eight for 86, nine runs better than an all-too-similar second innings shambles at the Gabba. A team that talks about big totals has stuck 400 on the board once in their past 20 outings, while the ducks for Buttler and Robinson made it 48 for England this year.
They have three innings left to dodge the record, 54 set in 1998, but at this rate you would not back them to do so.