After a rather unconvincing win over Ireland, the England Test side moved on to Edgbaston for the start of the Ashes series. As expected, World Cup heroes Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes (newly appointed vice-captain) were recalled, along with James Anderson, who had recovered from a calf injury. Sam Curran, Jack Leach and Olly Stone were the ones to miss out. Jofra Archer was deemed not to be fully fit and so returned to his county for some match practice. The vexed question of England’s top three was resolved by moving skipper Joe Root up to three, with Joe Denly slotting in at four. The Surrey pair of Rory Burns and Jason Roy were selected as openers, despite various question marks over their technique, but there appeared to be few alternatives.
For Australia, with six pace bowlers in their squad, the main debate was over who would be selected alongside spinner Nathan Lyon in their bowling attack. After his World Cup heroics, Mitchell Starc was rested, while Josh Hazlewood and Michael Neser missed out as well, leaving Pat Cummins and two pacemen with lots of County Championship experience – James Pattinson and Peter Siddle – to do the work. The only other question was whether Mitchell Marsh or Matthew Wade would play at six, Marsh offering a fifth bowler option, but it was Wade who got the nod. Marnus Labuschagne, who has been in such prolific form in county cricket, could also perhaps deem himself unlucky to miss out.
With Australia skipper Tim Paine having said that he could think of at least 15 grounds with a more intimidating atmosphere than Edgbaston, it was almost inevitable that their two opening batsmen – David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, both members of the returning sandpapergate trio – received a particularly hostile welcome. With his first ball, Stuart Broad strangled Warner down the leg side, but only Jonny Bairstow heard the edge and they didn’t review it. A few balls later, Warner was rapped on the pads, and England went to DRS after the decision was turned down – it was missing by a distance. Soon after, he repeated the trick, the umpire’s finger went up, and Warner walked off, out for 2 – only for ball tracking to show it would have missed. It was a chaotic start to the series.
After Australia had slipped to 35 for three, Steve Smith and Travis Head began something of a fightback, adding 64 for the fourth wicket before Head fell for 35. A middle-order collapse saw Australia tumble to 122 for eight, but Smith was still there. As many had expected before the series began, the ball was dominating the bat. But for England there was a problem: Anderson had gone off the pitch after bowling four overs, and went to hospital to have a scan on his calf, having picked up a separate injury to the previous one. Having taken 108 Test wickets at 20.18 since the start of the summer of 2017, and with the Tests coming thick and fast, the potential loss of England’s premier bowler for the bulk of the series was alarming.
What soon became even more alarming was Smith. With Siddle, he added 88 for the ninth wicket before he reached his century while batting with Lyon, becoming more and more fluent as the bowlers began to tire. Finally, Broad had him caught out for 144 out of Australia’s total of 284. It meant Broad finished with figures of five for 86, but Smith was also his 100th Ashes victim at an overall average of 29.37. Broad was the ninth to achieve the feat, with Ian Botham the all-time record-holder for England, with 148.
For Australia, the last two wickets had added 162 runs, or 57.04 per cent of the total (the second highest share in their history), as Ric Finlay discovered. Meanwhile, Benedict Bermange worked out that, of the 745 times a side had been 122 for eight or worse in Test cricket, no one had ever finished on a total as high as 284.
England had just two overs at the end of the day to survive, and reached 10 without loss. After Roy was out early on, England didn’t lose another wicket before lunch as Burns and Root took them up to 71. It was sensible, attritional cricket, with both batsmen eventually going on to reach their half-centuries in 110 balls. Root fell for 57 when he drilled one back at Siddle: 154 for two. Denly and Buttler didn’t last long, so Stokes was at the wicket when Burns, who had passed his previous best of 84, reached his maiden Test century. By close of play, England were 267 for four and well set for a big lead.
The third morning did not go according to plan. Stokes reached 50, and then edged one behind without adding to his score. Burns was finally toppled for 133 after Lyon finally found the edge. He’d faced 312 balls and so became the first England opener since Alastair Cook at Melbourne in 2017 to bat for 300 or more balls. Moeen Ali had been tormented by Lyon in that Ashes series and lasted just five balls before he left a straight one from the spinner. He looks desperately out of touch. The same could be said for Bairstow, who followed up his pair against Ireland with 8 here, before he edged one to the slips. Suddenly England were 300 for eight, having lost four wickets for 18 runs.
Fortunately, Woakes and Broad were able to put on 65, with the latter having his longest innings (67 balls) in Test cricket since Trent Bridge in 2013. Anderson, who had been spotted in the nets earlier in the day, came out to bat, but didn’t look fully fit, as England were eventually all out for 374. With Australia’s three pacemen having bowled 87 overs between them, England’s batsmen had done a good job putting miles into their legs.
In Australia’s second innings, Broad again accounted for Warner early on – it was only the third time in his career that he had made two single-figure scores in a Test. For Broad, it was his 450th Test wicket. Bancroft also failed again, falling to Moeen. That brought in Smith, and immediately one felt this was the game, but with Usman Khawaja he added 48 in 9.1 overs before Stokes struck to remove the latter. With three wickets down, Australia moved into the lead, with the pitch looking flat and delivering slow turn. Just after six o’clock, the players came off for bad light, with Australia on 124 for three, effectively 34 for three, with Smith still there on 46.
With the match in the balance on Sunday morning, Smith immediately seized control. He and Head (51) put on 130 for the fourth wicket, as only one wicket fell before lunch, and Smith was unbeaten on 98 at the break. For the first time in his career, he scored a century in both innings of a match, and although he was eventually out for 142, he now joins Steve Waugh on ten centuries in Ashes cricket, but while it has taken him 24 Tests to reach the landmark, it took Waugh 46. Only Jack Hobbs (12 in 41) and Don Bradman (19 in 37) are ahead of him. On this form, few would bet against him catching or overhauling Hobbs during this series, so unerringly did the ball find the middle of his bat.
Wade made his third and highest Test century (110), and fell three runs short of making his 1000th run in Tests. In recent years, Edgbaston has been best for batting on the fourth day – and it looked that way here. England’s pace bowlers got little from the pitch or in the air, while their spinners – Ali in particular – struggled for consistency. Runs came at a relentless rate, with even the bowlers stepping in at the end to launch the England attack to all parts. Pattinson’s 47 not out was his highest Test score. Late in the day, Paine took pity and declared on 487 for seven, leaving England with a day and seven overs to chase 398 or, more likely, to avoid defeat. Roy and Burns saw out the day, not without difficulty, to suggest that the final day would offer little respite.
So it proved. Burns got a terrific ball from Cummins, and couldn’t get his gloves out of the way, but then Roy and Root held things together for a while. At 60 for one after 21.1 overs, England were being patient and resolute. Why Roy then decided that he needed to charge down the wicket to Lyon, only he will know, but he missed the ball by a distance, while it clattered into his middle stump. It was the sort of mistake that reinforces the critics’ concerns about Roy, that he doesn’t have the temperament for Test cricket.
His wicket set off a catalogue of dismissals, and by lunch England were 85 for four, and then Buttler fell in the first over after the break to mark the beginning of the end. Out-of-form Bairstow (who was Cummins’s 100th Test wicket, in just 21 games) and Ali were never likely to hold up the rampant Australians. In between them, Stokes became Lyon’s 350th Test victim – he looks likely to overhaul Dennis Lillee’s 355 and to move into third place in Australia’s all-time list, behind Warne and McGrath, very soon. Broad was out for his 32nd duck, and Woakes was the last man out, having made 37 runs and shown more aptitude than many above him in the order. All out for 146, England could point to some fine bowling (Lyon finished with six for 49, Cummins four for 32), and there were few genuine horror shows in their dismissals, but a defeat by 251 runs after they had had Australia at 122 for eight on the first day was a crushing blow. The swing from first-innings lead of 90 to defeat by 251 runs was, at 341 runs, the biggest aggregate swing in Ashes history.
The series now moves on to Lord’s, where England have won just twice in 20 Ashes Tests since the war – or twice in the last three, if one is trying to be more positive. In truth, once the balance of power began to turn away from England, they appeared powerless to wrest control back. The loss of Anderson undoubtedly hampered their bowling, while the form of Moeen with bat and ball looks sure to see him ousted from the side, with Jack Leach returning. Jofra Archer, if fully fit, can be expected to replace Anderson, and England will hope his pace can ruffle a few feathers.
But it is the batting that causes greater concern. Burns did well, but used up many of his nine lives in the first innings; Roy appears yet to have settled at this level; and Denly may find he doesn’t have too many more opportunities to prove he is a genuine Test cricketer. Perhaps more alarming still was the fact that Buttler and Bairstow made just 20 runs between them in the match, after the latter made a pair against Ireland. With England’s top order being so fragile, its much-admired middle order needs to rediscover some form urgently. Whatever their misfortunes, however, spare a thought for the umpires in the match, who had at least ten decisions overturned by DRS – which doesn’t even take account of the errors that weren’t sent for review. Root set some sort of new record by successfully having four decisions against him in the match overturned on review.