PERTH // A dogged innings from Alastair Cook kept Australia at bay for a time, but England still faced a mighty challenge to remain in contention in the third Ashes Test in Perth at the end of the second day.
They started well on Saturday, bowling out Australia for 385 and then posting their best opening partnership of the series – 85 – between Cook and Michael Carberry. But on another insanely hot day, Australia were able to prise out England’s top four with bowling of discipline spiced with occasional aggression, while England’s run-rate also slowed down to a crawl as they ended the day on 180 for four.
Cook’s 100th Test has hardly come at a time of celebration. The England captain has had to face down a 2-0 Ashes deficit, a point-of-no-return match at England’s worst Test venue, and a lean personal return stretching back across his last eight games.
On Saturday, he scored his best total in this period, with 72 runs from a long and difficult 153-ball innings. But the scripter of previous epics was unable to compose one this time, once again undone by Nathan Lyon, to leave his side in a vulnerable position.
In the first session, England put in a far better bowling performance than on the first day as they pitched the ball up and got their rewards. Mitchell Johnson was caught behind off Stuart Broad without addition to his overnight 39, and then in the fifth over, Anderson got Steve Smith in the same fashion for 111. The appeal was originally turned down, but a review from Matt Prior revealed the faintest of movements on Snicko and the faintest of smudges on HotSpot.
Ryan Harris fell for 12, but Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon frustrated England for 7.4 more overs in a stand worth 31 runs, Cook refusing to employ a fourth slip despite seven or eight edges through the area.
When Siddle nicked behind, he left England a tricky six overs to face before lunch. Cook and Carberry had a new approach to Johnson, using minimal back lift to play punchy strokes that used the bowler’s pace rather than their own.
It worked as they took nine runs from his first over, though Cook’s insistent habit of closing the face towards mid-on – the same stroke that led to him being bowled in Adelaide – caused two leading edges, both of which flew safely through the slips.
In 20 overs after lunch, England cultivated the continuity that has been so absent this series. Cook took consecutive boundaries from Shane Watson, Carberry lifted Lyon straight for six. The 50-run partnership came and went.
It was not without alarms – one skied Carberry top-edge had the batsman closing his eyes and preparing to trudge off before he looked back to realise Brad Haddin had not quite reached the ball on the dive. But his good fortune ended when Harris came around the wicket, a late attempt to leave the ball only deflecting it on to his stumps.
Joe Root followed five overs later to a contentious DRS decision. Watson’s appeal for caught behind was granted after a pause for thought by Marais Erasmus, the umpire. There had been some hint of a sound as the ball passed Root’s bat, but he reviewed without hesitation.
Replays showed no HotSpot, with only a little movement on Snicko a couple of frames after the ball had passed bat. The reading did not have the sharp spike of a nick, but could have indicated the seam touching the bat. With the bat away from the batsman’s body, the third umpire ruled there were no grounds to overturn the decision, and a confident Root was dismayed to be on his way.
At three overs before tea, it was a pivotal decision, becalming Cook and Kevin Pietersen, and the nine overs after Root’s dismissal yielded seven runs from the bat. Pietersen took 15 balls to get off the mark, his slowest in Test cricket.
Just as a few boundaries started to flow, Lyon was the man to undo Cook’s concentration, just as he had after Cook’s half-century in Brisbane. Again it was the cut shot, this time Cook getting under it a touch and looping the top edge to David Warner at backward point.
Pietersen brought up his 8000th Test run with an inauspicious edge off Johnson, then leg-glanced another four. But having trudged to a sluggish 19 from 59 balls, he proved his erratic nature one again, trying to swat Siddle down the ground with a pull shot to a ball way outside off stump. It looked like it was destined to clear mid-on, but the wicketless Johnson was going to find some way to influence this match, and somehow his arms just kept on reaching up. With the tension of a rubber band stretched to its ultimate length, he hauled in the ball and snapped back to earth without losing it in his fall.
In Tests, Siddle has now bowled 390 balls to Pietersen, conceded 174 runs, and dismissed him ten times, by far the most by any bowler. Siddle was so psyched in his snarling, toothy celebration that he looked like he wanted to eat someone’s face right off his head.
Ian Bell and Ben Stokes were able to negotiate the final 16 overs without further loss, but not without alarm. Siddle had a brute of a bouncer leaping at Bell’s face, making the batsman begin hooking riskily in some attempt to fight back. Several balls cut right through Stokes. Even ten minutes from the close, Johnson had the energy to crash another one into Bell’s chest.
With the pitch already playing a bit faster, plus the hint of a few cracks starting to open, plus a hint of swing for Johnson with the newer ball in the morning, plus another new ball 12 overs away in the morning, England have a real fight on their hands. If they can resist a little longer, they may find that the weather forecast of 42 degrees is their most useful ally.
Geoff Lemon writes for Wisden India.
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