Sunday, January 16, 2022

Head and Australia push England back after flying start

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England saw a brilliant start slip through their fingers in the last Ashes Test, with Travis Head’s superb century and an injury to Ollie Robinson changing the momentum in Hobart.

Joe Root won the toss under a dull sky in the day-night battle and his decision to put the Australians in first seemed to pay off well as they reduced their opponents from 3 to 12.

But Head marked his return from a bout of Covid-19 with a breakthrough 101 from 113 deliveries – converting a dangerous position into a Stumps score of 241 for six. When rain disrupted play in the final session, in part due to bowler run-up concerns, it was England who were happiest heading towards the pavilion.

Head tied for 71st and 121st with Marnus Labuschagne and Cameron Green, respectively, and had wonderful ball timing as he put in a bowling attack weakened by fitness issues.

With all-rounder Ben Stokes already unable to bowl with a side load, England had banked on a four-man attack and saw their nightmare scenario unfold when Robinson moved into the second session with a lower back problem .

With record wicket-taker James Anderson absent due to a few minor issues, it meant a heavy workload for Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood.

Of the three, only Broad really got the spotlight, with Woakes and Wood being brutalized, especially by Head, and runs leaking out at an alarming rate. With Robinson returning to the field but unable to contribute, Root was forced to deliver 10 overs of his own part-time off spin.

England granted wicketkeeper Sam Billings a debut in a team that showed five changes from the XI, who scrapped a tie in Sydney last week. Billings became the 700th man to win a Test game and was joined by Rory Burns, Ollie Pope, Robinson and Woakes in a side refreshed for both form and fitness reasons.

Supporters at the Bellerive Oval had to wait an extra half hour for their very first taste of Ashes cricket due to afternoon showers and were then faced with the unusual sight of England on a reel.

In a one-sided series, there were few periods of visitor dominance, but Root correctly called the toss, taking advantage of dismal overheads and watching Robinson and Broad make their entrance.

For the first time in 91 Tests together, Australian duo David Warner and Steve Smith bagged ducks in the same innings, Robinson teased them in the channel outside the stump and Zak Crawley held onto a few catches on the second slip.

Broad also landed a punch, Usman Khawaja, who continued his two centuries in Sydney with a less flattering score of six. There was only one blemish on the English account, but it was a costly one.

Crawley’s enthusiasm overwhelmed him as Labuschagne was able to steal his second goal from Robinson, with the Kent man diving to his left and fumbling the ball to the ground. Right away, Root had been waiting for an overall simpler variant.

Labuschagne treated his second life as a free-kick as he swung the racquet generously and soaked up nine boundaries. Woakes and Wood bore the brunt and Head was encouraged to follow in the same aggressive direction.

Labuschagne’s oddity of an inning ended in a bizarre way before the first break.

He jumped wide to open the side of his leg, leaving his stumps hopelessly exposed and was in the wrong zip code when Broad flipped in the middle. Labuschagne (44) lost some of his dignity as well as his wicket, falling flat on his face after throwing his footwork into a terrible tangle.

If that moment brought England’s smile back to 83 for four, it was soon erased again. Robinson started the evening’s game but was visibly straining and dove to 70mph before heading out for judging. He returns to the field but not to attack as his absence puts England at risk for the rest of the day.

Australia hit 130 runs over the next two hours, Head was unstoppable until the moment he reached his century and then gifted his wicket from the next ball to Woakes. Green picked up the baton and made 74 before spinning Wood into deep midwicket after a bouncer barrage.

England were tired by this point and benefited most from the referees’ hasty decision to call for the covers.

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