Root and Malan’s unbroken 159 leads England fightback in first Ashes Test

Two days of one-way traffic on Vulture Street had threatened to derail England’s Ashes campaign from the outset but through a resumption of Joe Root’s remarkable form in 2021, and Dawid Malan’s personal penchant for Australian conditions, a hugely impressive fightback was finally marshalled on the third.

By stumps it felt like their tour had finally begun in earnest. Root was unbeaten on 86 from 158 balls, fresh from overtaking Michael Vaughan’s record of 1,481 in a calendar year, while Malan was 80 not out from 177. England appeared to require snookers when 147 proved their maximum on day one but through the pair’s unbroken stand of 159, one that saw the tourists reach 220 for two, just 58 behind, hope was building.

Both Englishmen batted beautifully to set up their respective series. Root was back in the controlled bubble that has returned six centuries since the start of January, with risks removed, Nathan Lyon swept confidently and the seamers repelled. He had spoken of setting the record straight in Australia before this series and, having battled through cramp, and worn blows to the body and knee, a new highest score in these parts had put words into action.

More importantly, however much Australia remained favourites to take a 1-0 series lead, the pair had delivered an important reminder to others that life does get easier once the Kookaburra ball has lost its shine. If Lyon can be successfully milked, the pressure on the seamers increases. Root, at the crease for eight of England’s 10 century stands this year, was always likely to be one to deliver this.

But back in the UK there is every chance that Ed Smith, the former England selector, was nodding away in his pyjamas about Malan also. It was Smith who dropped him back in 2018, with the conclusion that his game was perhaps better suited to overseas hanging over the left-hander for some time. Yet as ill-judged as that comment was, given Malan’s sensitive nature, it was one not without some basis either.

Now an experienced campaigner at 34, and with a century in Perth four years ago to his name, Malan is a player who clearly thrives on bouncier surfaces. There was one narrow escape here when a ball from Lyon missed his off-bail by less than two centimetres, plus a review for caught behind on 23 that showed nothing on HotSpot despite Australia’s belief to the contrary. But otherwise he hunkered down to perfection, with one imperious driven four off Pat Cummins arguably the shot of the day.

Needless to say that on a day when one brave England supporter successfully proposed to his Australian girlfriend in the stands, the alliance that formed out in the middle was desperately needed. When Mark Wood speared a yorker into the stumps of Travis Head on 152 in the morning to terminate Australia’s first innings for 452, a first innings deficit of 278 runs looked as sheer as California’s El Capitan.

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After raiding his century the previous evening, Head helped plunder 83 runs in the space of 20.3 overs, mowing Jack Leach square to bring up his 150 from just 148 balls and bringing up three figures in the left-armers runs column to boot; coming in 12.1 overs, Leach’s gallon is now the fastest in Ashes cricket. At least the return of Ollie Robinson and Ben Stokes with the ball allayed concerns over their fitness.

Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed gambolled off the field to strap on their pads, the former having been the embodiment of his side’s misery up to this point after a diamond duck on the first morning and the inexcusable drop at slip that gave David Warner halfway through his eventual 94. Moments like this are when Test cricket offers unrivalled torture for the player and sees the audience reach for the popcorn.

Australia’s fielders were given plenty of material too when, for just the third time in 30 Tests (and the first without a nightwatchman at the other end), Burns declined to face the first ball of the innings. But despite this briefly delayed rematch with Mitchell Starc delivering instant drama third ball, Burns given out lbw on the field, salvation followed when the review showed the ball to be going over. Reaching lunch unbeaten on 13, with England 23 for no loss, Burns could soon breathe a bit easier.

England’s Joe Root and Dawid Malan leave the Gabba after their 159-run stand.
England’s Joe Root and Dawid Malan leave the Gabba after their 159-run stand. Photograph: Jason O’Brien/PA

But the bounce that saved Burns (and was yet to return a single lbw by the end of the eighth session) proved the undoing of both openers after the restart. Cummins got his fifth ball to rear off the surface and take the shoulder of Burns’ bat for a simple slip catch. And though Hameed lined up well for the second time in the match, showing courage under fire and again ignoring the Queensland heat by batting a cable-knit tank, a strangle down leg off Mitchell Starc made it scores of 25 and 27 for the match.

This was smart captaincy from Cummins, who after the fall of Burns had then held himself and Josh Hazlewood back in the hope of hitting Root with fresh legs. But from 61 for two, still 217 in arrears, Root got himself off a pair fourth ball and, alongside Malan, set about constructing two sessions of determined yet positive resistance.

With Hazlewood sending down just eight overs to prompt questions over a possible niggle, and Warner off the field all day after being struck in the ribs by Ben Stokes 24 hours earlier, the headaches were finally not just English ones.