Events in Sydney were never going to rival those witnessed across the Tasman Sea in Mount Maunganui, where Bangladesh completed a historic victory against the world Test champions, New Zealand. But 13 days into an Ashes series with the urn settled in 12, England could finally walk off an Australian field feeling content with their lot.
They sprinted, in fact, with the latest burst of rain on a soggy opening day at the Sydney Cricket Ground forcing stumps at 6.27pm local time. Australia, seemingly in control for the bulk of 46.5 overs witnessed by a patient crowd of 25,000, had two fresh batters out in the middle by this stage – Steve Smith and the returning Usman Khawaja – and closed on a less conclusive 126 for three.
Given Joe Root’s tourists had slightly shambled into this fourth Test, ears ringing from the eruption of existential angst that followed their 68 all out in Melbourne, and their preparations affected by an outbreak of Covid-19 among the coaching staff, a mini-fightback of two wickets in the space of seven balls represented a boon. At one stage it looked like Stuart Broad’s earlier removal of David Warner would be their only success. It was Jimmy Anderson, armed with a replacement Kookaburra ball thanks to the damp conditions and a persuasive Root, who had sparked the turnaround too, nicking off Marcus Harris for 38 in the 40th over with a good length delivery from over the wicket that flew to first slip.
Harris does not always project permanency thanks to his hopping trigger movement but for the previous 108 balls the left-hander looked calm. He cut and drove well and hinted that a second successive innings of substance was brewing. Nelson had struck here, Australia 111 for two as a result, and then an almost instant follow-up came from Mark Wood. For the second time in 10 balls this series England’s quickest bowler dismissed Marnus Labuschagne caught behind by going wide of the crease, angling the ball in and getting a smidgeon of movement away. The world’s No 1 batsman, who had put on a breezy stand of 60 with Harris, had had his bubble gum burst for a 59-ball 28 that similarly promised more.
The arrival of the locally raised Khawaja, 10 years on from his Test debut at this ground, induced arguably the biggest cheer of the day, and when he pulled Wood handsomely for four to get off the mark the spectators had a nice image to dwell on when they eventually filtered out. One of them, a follically challenged gentleman, was even boasting Jack Leach’s autograph on his head after England’s spinner had obliged while fielding on the boundary’s edge.
Half a day’s play went beyond expectations first thing and there were times during the numerous stoppages when one wondered whether the Welcome to Country delivered by Uncle Allen Madden before the national anthems was going to be the highlight. “There’s an old Aboriginal saying out there and I think it’s very appropriate for you mob out here today,” the Gadigal Elder joked at the end of his speech. “They say where there’s a will … there’s relatives.”
It was a lovely moment of levity before the more serious stuff began, Pat Cummins having won a delayed toss and elected to bat on a green but firm-looking pitch. And in between the groundstaff hokey cokey that followed there was a creeping sense of same old, same old from England. Root’s bowlers have not been the primary reason for the 3-0 scoreline but a lack of potency compared to their relentless Australian equivalents has been in evidence during this one‑sided tour.
Four years on from various farewells to Anderson and Broad being written in the Australian newspapers the old firm were reunited at the SCG once more, the latter fresh from voicing displeasure at recent absences. But with the new ball no impact came, Anderson’s initial rattling of Warner’s glove with one that jagged back followed by 12 less threatening overs either side of a short rain break leaving Australia 30 without loss before a longer break as the heavens opened again.
Upon resuming after lunch, however, Broad claimed the breakthrough, bringing back memories of the 2019 Ashes and his dominance of Warner when, from around the wicket, he got one to swing away from the opener on 30 and Zak Crawley took a sharp catch at second slip. Just to temper talk of bunnies or back pockets, this was the first time Broad had removed Warner in Australia since the 2013-14 series but it still begged the question why their rematch had not begun in Brisbane.
Broad aside, England were slightly shabby as Harris and Labuschagne set about their alliance from 51 for one. Wood’s numbers on the speedgun were impressive but his radar was not always in sync while Ben Stokes, who often gets the ball to hoop in such soupy conditions, bowled without an obvious plan. Extras, England’s third highest scorer with the bat in 2021, were still letting them down in the field, Stokes overstepping three times and 12 runs leaked in wides overall.
But shortly after sunshine broke out for the first time in the day, bringing with it hopes of play up to 7pm that were eventually dashed early, Anderson shook his side out of their torpor with the removal of Harris. The 39-year-old recently said this would likely be his last tour of Australia but you can forgive the locals here for being sceptical.