There was a period either side of tea on the second day at the Gabba where the Brisbane-based battalion of the Barmy Army were in full voice and the sleep-deprived viewers watching at home in the UK had been rewarded for a collective patience that had been sorely tested.
Mark Wood had kept Steve Smith down to a mere 12 runs on a day of searing speeds, Ollie Robinson had found himself on a hat-trick by ending David Warner’s charmed pursuit of a 25th Test century on 94 and persuading Cameron Green to leave a ball on off stump, and Chris Woakes had profited from Alex Carey’s skittish first innings as a Test batsman when a long-hop was clothed to mid-wicket on 12.
Australia were wobbling for the first time in the match on 236 for six, having lost four for 47 in the space of 11.4 overs. Although thoughts of waiting for both sides to bat before judging what represented a good first innings total had long since evaporated – hint: it wasn’t 147 all out after winning the toss – a lead of 89 runs meant Joe Root’s tourists were still just about still breathing.
Yet as the players left Woolloongabba’s concrete coliseum after three sessions of 31C temperatures that baked a previously green surface, the two teams felt much the same way as 24 hours earlier. Travis Head had just blitzed the third fastest century in Ashes history, needing just 85 balls to do so in the space of a session and driving home Australia’s advantage. At stumps the freshly-recalled left-hander was unbeaten on 112, his side 343 for seven for a lead of 196, and England once more in the mire.
Head over Usman Khawaja was probably England’s preference when Australia chewed over the No 5 spot. But in the blink of an eye such thoughts were being revised, a weary attack that saw Robinson pull up with possible cramp taken for 12 fours and two sixes that required none of the Big Bash League’s pyrotechnics to whip 20,000 Queenslanders into a frenzy. With a moustache akin to that of David Boon, and similar fortitude to the former No3 when struck on both elbow and chin by Wood, the headlines were his.
English heads might have dropped from the outset at the sight of azure skies over Queensland first thing or been haunted all day by the two Banquos, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, wheeling away in the nets throughout. However the three frontline seam bowlers selected did themselves justice in the main. Robinson in particular impressed during his first Ashes outing, figures of three for 48 reflecting the nagging accuracy and extra bounce that has been the hallmark of his nascent international career.
Woakes, handed a new ball he might have been primed for earlier in England’s year-long preparations, took time to find his length but beat the edge while keeping it tight. And Wood didn’t just satisfy those with a lust for pace – achieved when his fifth ball was clocked at 94.1mph, quicker than anything England sent down four years ago – but offered a constant physical menace.
Keeping the pressure up proved elusive as the ball got softer and whenever Root turned to his support cast of Ben Stokes and Jack Leach, the former battling a succession of physical strains and the latter five runs short of shipping in a gallon from just 11 overs. Warner and Marnus Labuschagne looked to hit him out of the attack when compiling a second-wicket stand of 156 that wiped off the deficit by mid afternoon.
Talk of perspiration and misfortune would be misleading too. For too long England’s slip cordon has been a glaring weakness – they have dropped a quarter of their chances since the start of last year – and so while Dawid Malan’s low pouch to remove Marcus Harris for three made it a bright start for Robinson, the life handed to Warner on 48 immediately after lunch was all too familiar. Rory Burns was the guilty party at second, Robinson the aggrieved bowler, and Warner’s grin was broad.
This wasn’t a new sensation for Warner, having been bowled by the freshly-deployed Stokes on 17 in the morning only for replays to prove the all-rounder had overstepped. In fact this had been the case for the first four of his deliveries – and 14 balls of his initial five-over spell – with a breakdown in technology meaning that the frontline is instead being monitored by the on-field umpires in this match and only double-checked at the fall of a wicket.
Two run out chances went begging too, Haseeb Hameed was unable to hit the stumps from short-leg when Warner was stranded on 60 and Dawid Malan missed a shy from mid-wicket as Smith made a frantic start to his innings. And before Head’s late counterattack there was an ominous innings from Labuschagne, whose 74 from 117 balls was full of irritating exaggerated leaves and disdain for Leach until a galling demise that saw a long-hop from the left-arm spinner slapped to backward point.
From this long-awaited incision England mustered a surge, Wood hurrying Smith from wide of the crease to find the edge and Robinson emerging from the interval to devastating effect. But though Woakes capitalised from Carey’s misjudged pull and Root’s off-breaks surprisingly made it first blood in his personal duel with Pat Cummins late on, Head well and truly buried any thoughts of this representing an escape route.