England edge ahead in tight tussle but Smith looms large

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Aug
4

Australia 284 and 124 for 3 (Smith 46*, Head 21*) lead England 374 (Burns 133, Root 57, Stokes 50) by 34 runs

At the end of the third day of a pulsating Test, it felt like the fortunes of both sides rested on one man: Steven Smith. He was unbeaten on 46 at the close, again batting in a different league to his team-mates, having taken Australia into a narrow lead with seven wickets in hand on a surface where a target around 200 would likely be tough.

England had scrambled to an advantage of 90 having started well placed for much more, but were eventually grateful for what they had following a middle-order collapse in which they lost 4 for 16. It took Australia three wickets to erase the deficit but by the close Smith and Travis Head had added 49 in 12 overs to offer hope of giving their attack, particularly Nathan Lyon, enough runs to work with in the fourth innings.

There was one moment of unease for Smith, on 41, when he was hit on the helmet by a Ben Stokes bouncer. New concussion protocols or not (he was cleared by the team doctor), being forcibly removed from the field looked like the only way he would depart. And when it comes to a like-for-like replacement, well there isn’t one.

Stokes had struck with his second delivery, ending a fluent innings from Usman Khawaja – who had been dropped on 11 at second slip by Jos Buttler off Moeen Ali – when he found an inside edge through to the keeper. At that point Australia were still 15 behind, and Stokes looked in the mood as he challenged Head but couldn’t find a way through again before bad light ended the day.

In the field, England were again without James Anderson who had batted for half an hour with his injured calf but not moved well between the wickets. However, Stuart Broad gave them the ideal start when he completed a double over David Warner for the match, finding the edge as Warner tried to withdraw his bat. Joel Wilson gave it not out on field and again it was left for the DRS to earn its keep. Moeen, who was brought on in the eighth over, struck in his second when Cameron Bancroft inside-edged to short leg meaning Australia’s openers had contributed just 25 runs for the game.

Moeen was close to having a second wicket four balls later but Buttler, who had moved from short leg to second slip, couldn’t stay low enough to take the edge. Runs then came as freely as they have at any time in the game as Joe Root regularly tinkered with his field. If there was a criticism it was that Khawaja – and later Head – were given comfortable options to get off strike with men on the boundary. Whatever Smith was faced with made no difference, and his speed between the wickets meant it was often difficult to keep him to a single. However, this game has not yet taken its decisive swing.

England resumed on 267 for 4, hopeful of a total well in excess of 400 given the nature of the surface. Initially progress was slow but solid for the first half an hour before Stokes, having just reached a very classy fifty, edged a cut off Pat Cummins which exposed the out-of-form part of the middle order.

Because Australia hadn’t let the scoring rate get away, they had stayed in the game even when wickets were tough to find. Now came the rewards, especially for Lyon. Firstly, Rory Burns was finally extracted after 312 balls when he edged a terrific delivery that spun and bounced. The catch from Tim Paine was equally good, if not better.

Five balls later Lyon resumed his dominance over Moeen, dismissing him for the eighth time in Tests with one that went straight on and Moeen didn’t offer a shot. Moeen has admitted in his Guardian newspaper column that his batting confidence is low and, while he has asked to be judged on his bowling, it is a problem for England because Jonny Bairstow – one spot above – has also struggled in Test cricket over the last 18 months.

He fell in the over after Moeen, slashing at Peter Siddle, to leave him with 47 runs in his last nine innings at home and an overall return of 521 runs at 23.68 since the beginning of the last English season. England had lost 3 for 4 in 11 balls and the lead was threatening to be barely worthwhile given they have to bat last.

However, through a mixture of nudges, deflections, scampering and occasionally more powerful strokes, Broad and Chris Woakes added 65 priceless runs for the ninth wicket while also putting more miles in the legs of the fast bowlers. It was a surprise that Australia did not attack Broad early with the short delivery, seeing as it was eventually how he fell, flicking a delivery to fine leg having done what he loves to do: annoy Australia.

Anderson, who had bowled before play and again during the lunch interval to test out his injured calf, shuffled between the wickets before top edging Lyon. How Root would have dearly wanted him with the ball. There is a chance that his 19-ball innings could be his last act in Ashes cricket.

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