Sydney: Why change a winning formula? That was the attitude Australia’s selectors took in Sydney by naming an unchanged team for the fifth consecutive Test. It was also how the Australian players seemed to approach their task. In all four Tests of this campaign Australia’s top order has had a go early, knowing that Brad Haddin was there to save them. In every first innings they have wobbled. In every first innings Haddin has saved them. And so it was again.
This time Haddin had support from Steven Smith, whose second century of the series confirmed him as a mature player who can score runs when the team is down. Smith has been one of Australia’s revelations of the past year; Ben Stokes has been one of England’s on this tour. Stokes proved himself a fighter in the defeat in Perth, where he became England’s only centurion of the series so far; in Sydney he claimed six wickets to keep England in the match.
By stumps, England were 1 for 8 in reply to Australia’s 326, trailing by 318 runs, and the early loss of Michael Carberry to Mitchell Johnson had hurt. Michael Clarke’s knack of stationing fielders in the right positions continued when Carberry flicked off his hip and was caught low to the ground by Nathan Lyon, diving to his right from leg slip for a nine-ball duck. Alastair Cook was on 7 at stumps with nightwatchman James Anderson on 1, and much work remained to avoid a 5-0 defeat.
It could all have been so different for England after Cook won the toss and sent Australia in on a green, grassy pitch under cloudy skies. Anderson, Stokes and Stuart Broad reduced Australia to 4 for 94 at lunch and soon afterwards, when George Bailey finally edged one after a series of plays and misses, they were 5 for 97. And then, as it has whenever Haddin has been at the crease in this series, it all went wrong for England.
Australia survived some tight calls. Runs began to flow. England’s bowlers strayed from their plans. Haddin and Smith moved along at a brisk rate, Haddin pulling or hooking anything short, driving through cover or down the ground with power and timing, Smith cover-driving punchily and going down the ground against the legspinner Scott Borthwick, who was on debut.
To add injury to insult, England’s debutant fast bowler Boyd Rankin left the field with a hamstring injury – twice. Rankin had caused some awkward moments for the batsmen earlier with his extra bounce but after the first ball of his ninth, limped off with a problem with his left hamstring. Oddly, England’s medical staff allowed Rankin back on the field and he bowled again 18 overs later, but again pulled up after one ball and again left the field. It was doleful to watch.
Meanwhile, Smith and Haddin had put on 128 for the sixth wicket, saving Australia in much the same way as they did at the WACA. Haddin’s 75 meant that in every Test in the series he had scored at least a half-century in the first innings, an extraordinary feat given the holes the top order had left in most matches. He eventually edged behind when Stokes got one to swing away a fraction, but Smith had more runs in him.
Powerful through the off side and down the ground, Smith struck 17 fours and one six, a lovely loft over long-on off the bowling of Borthwick to take him to 99. If anyone is qualified to understand the plight of a nervous leggie it is Smith, and he had only to wait two balls for another loose one, this time a rank full toss, that he could baseball-slog over long-on for a boundary to bring up his century from his 142nd delivery.
It was Smith’s third hundred in the back-to-back Ashes contests; only Smith, Ian Bell and Michael Clarke have scored that many. Alas, Smith started to run out of partners when Mitchell Johnson skied a catch into the deep to give Borthwick his maiden Test wicket and Ryan Harris drove Stokes to short cover. Stokes claimed three wickets in that over to finish the innings with 6 for 99 – including two from two balls – and Smith was the last to go, driving a catch to mid-on for 115.
Stokes, Anderson and Broad all bowled searching spells at times, Broad and Anderson especially so straight after lunch, when they made the ball talk on a seaming pitch. Too often after that the bowlers dropped short, but when they pitched it up they had a chance, as when Bailey edged to slip off Broad for 1 off 10 balls. Bailey might end up part of an Ashes clean sweep, but he’ll need a big second innings to retain his place for the tour of South Africa.
After Bailey fell, Anderson nearly had Smith a couple of times, padding up to inswingers, but the ball was generally going over the top. Haddin survived a review on 9 when England thought they heard an edge behind, but it was the ball brushing both legs on the way through to Jonny Bairstow, and the wicket they needed to get into the lower order just didn’t come. It was frustrating for England after their strong start.
Shane Watson fell from the final ball before lunch, lbw to Anderson for 43; remarkably it was the first lbw against an Australia batsman in the series. Earlier, Broad had pitched the ball up and, despite leaking three boundaries to David Warner in his second over, was rewarded when he straightened one that took Warner’s off stump as he tried to punch down the ground on 16.
Stokes had Chris Rogers bowled for 11 when he bottom-edged a pull back on to his stumps and Michael Clarke caught at second slip for 10 off a lovely delivery that straightened off the seam. There was no wicket, though, for Rankin, one of three debutants picked by England, the first time since 2006 that they had played that many in a Test and the first time since the 1993 Trent Bridge Test that they had blooded so many debutants in an Ashes Test.
On that occasion it was Graham Thorpe, Mark Lathwell, Mark Ilott and Martin McCague; here it was Rankin, Borthwick and batsman Gary Ballance in for Joe Root, Monty Panesar and Tim Bresnan. It also brought to 18 the number of players England had used throughout this series, not only a record for England in an away Test series but an equal high for all teams in away Test campaigns. The only other squad ever to use 18 players in a Test series away from home was West Indies in South Africa in 1998-99; incidentally, they lost that series 5-0.
The situation could hardly have been more different for Australia, who for the first time named the same XI in every Test of a five-match series. Harris and Watson were both passed fit to play after emerging from the Melbourne victory with niggles. The selectors decided that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So, it seems, did the batting order.
England 1 for 8 (Cook 7*, Anderson 1*) trail Australia 326 (Smith 115, Haddin 75, Stokes 6-99) by 318 runs