The pinnacle of Test cricket? This Ashes feels more like an apology

Stirring century by Usman Khawaja heaps more Ashes misery on England

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In a series that might well mark the nadir of England’s Ashes history it has been difficult to pinpoint the actual lowest point, such is the glut of choice.

The second day of the Sydney Test, with the series already long since lost, threw up a variety of contenders all on its own.

Maybe the moment when Joe Root, the tormented touring captain, shelled a simple chance to catch Usman Khawaja at slip off the similarly afflicted spin-bowler Jack Leach. Or when, moments later, the wearying allrounder Ben Stokes went off the field to nurse a side injury.

Or perhaps, with England’s players now fully wilted, tailender Nathan Lyon launched Stuart Broad for six way back into the members’ seats and promptly scurried off in the same direction. Pat Cummins, Australia’s captain, had declared his side – with 416 for eight – had plenty enough in the bank.

Yet maybe none of those summed up the mess England are in quite so acutely as when Khawaja had been within a single of a stirring century on his comeback to the Australia side.

It was at that point at which Root deigned it time for Dawid Malan to have a bowl. Malan, a part-time leg-spinner with two Test wickets to his name, and a mere 63 in total across a 15-year first-class career.

This in a week when Bangladesh turned Test cricket upside down by toppling world champions New Zealand in their own backyard for the first time.

And while, simultaneously, India and South Africa are playing out a compelling Test at the “Bullring” in Johannesburg.

Then in the series that supposedly means the most, between the format’s oldest rivals, there was a bit-part spinner doling down some friendly lobs while a player – who was, it should be pointed out, at the non-striker’s end - was within reach of a ton.

Australia's Usman Khawaja acknowledges applause from spectators as he walks back to the pavilion. AFP

Imagine if the roles were reversed. Cummins would have had the ball in the hand himself rather than tossing it to Steve Smith or David Warner, and tried to bomb the batter out.

As it was, Khawaja did not get on strike against Malan, but he did make it to three figures shortly after. It was the ninth time he has done so in Tests.

Those who witnessed his brilliant 141 for Australia to save the Dubai Test against Pakistan in 2018 must be wondering where he has been for much of the time since. This is his first Test since the 2019 Ashes.

As emotional as his century was on his return to the side, he will score far more taxing runs. For much of it, it appeared as though England had all but given up.

The Ashes claims to the pinnacle of Test cricket. At the moment it feels like an apology.

It is supposedly the only bilateral encounter with enough interest to regularly sustain a five-match series in the format. And, true, there were 25,000 in attendance for the second day running. But the way things are going, they would be better served dropping the fixture altogether, such is the mismatch.

At least Broad proved a point. The seam-bowler, who has cut a frustrated figure after being omitted twice in this series on pitches which would surely have suited him, took five for 101. It was his eighth Ashes five-wicket haul, which is the most by an Englishman in over 100 years. And yet he was overlooked twice in the series. Sigh.

Australia’s first innings tally was not a mammoth one by Test standards. Given what has gone before in this series, though, they probably feel capable of bowling out their opposition twice, or perhaps even three times, given the chance, before they have to bat again.

At least England were afforded at least one morsel of mercy late on when Zak Crawley was spared being dismissed for a duck. He was caught at slip off the bowling of Mitchell Starc, but the TV cameras picked up the fact the fast bowler had faintly overstepped.

Between Crawley and Haseeb Hameed, England made it through to stumps on 13 for no loss after five overs.

Updated: January 06, 2022, 8:05 AM