If this series had reached the point where England’s main aim was to stop the bleeding, then a rainy first day at the SCG, ending with honours roughly even, almost felt like a triumph.
Australia closed on 126 for three after showers limited play to 46.5 overs. They may yet prove to be useful runs if England end up having to chase any kind of second innings target against Nathan Lyon, but it was less imposing than a scoreline, seven overs earlier, of 111 for one.
England could also point to a couple of psychological points scored, not easily done from 3-0 down in the series, and went at least some way to backing up Joe Root’s latest pre-match request for some kind of show — any kind of show — of character.
Mark Wood celebrates taking the key wicket of Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne in Sydney
It marked a late fightback from England, who have cause for optimism after the first day
First, after the weather had restricted the morning session to 12.3 largely uninspiring overs, Stuart Broad rehashed one of the storylines of the last Ashes in England, when he removed David Warner seven times at a personal cost of just 35 runs.
Going round the wicket, he again persuaded Warner to prod at one outside off stump that he might have left. The edge was held by Zak Crawley, just, and Warner had gone for 30. Described by stand-in coach Graham Thorpe as a ‘caged tiger’, Broad let out something close to a roar.
For England, there may have been mixed emotions. Warner might have been neutered before he could wreak much damage, but surely the 2019 narrative should have been resurrected from the start of the series by picking Broad at Brisbane? It will be one of the many regrets of this tour that it took until now for Warner to fall to his nemesis.
Later, Jimmy Anderson got Marcus Harris to dangle his bat at a ball angled across him. It clipped the edge and flew to first slip, where Root took a step to his left and held on.
Shortly before Wood struck, Jimmy Anderson removed opener Marcus Harris for 38
Anderson’s eight wickets in this series have cost just 15 each, but again England’s pleasure was not unmitigated. By scoring 38, Harris took his series tally to 152 at 30, which means the weakest member of Australia’s batting line-up has out-performed all his opponents bar Root and Dawid Malan.
The final wicket of the day, at least, left no ambivalence. At Melbourne, Mark Wood winkled out Marnus Labuschagne, newly crowned as the world’s No1 Test batsman, for a single.
Now, the ball after Labuschagne moved to 28 with a gorgeous back-foot shot through the off side, Wood (below) induced another edge and Jos Buttler held on, which has not always been the case over these past few weeks.
‘I’m delighted, because he’s a top player,’ said Wood. ‘I know we’ve had this bowl fuller thing but we have to hit the wicket hard and make them play as much as we can. To get big players makes you very happy.’
At 117 for three, another wicket might have tipped the day’s ledger towards England and it did not feel far away. Usman Khawaja was playing his first Test innings for two years after replacing the Covid-hit Travis Head, while Steve Smith was trying to ease his way back into form.
Root took the catch of Harris at a key point in the game for his side, who needed a wicket
Khawaja finally scored off his 13th ball, thanks to a rasping pull for four off Wood, and Smith repeated the dose off Ben Stokes. When the heavens opened again at 6.23pm, neither side had made a break for the front. Perhaps the subdued day — a crowd of 25,000, barely half-full, deprived the SCG of its usual buzz — was no surprise. After all, a combination of Australian dominance and English ineptitude has robbed the series of its edge.
But the tourists also went into this Test on the back of a grimly realistic appraisal from Ashley Giles, their managing director. There were many threads to his assessment, but the overriding message was no clarion call: things could get worse, he suggested, before they get better.
The sad truth was that, even in advance, this game felt like the third-most interesting Test of the day. Across the Tasman in Mount Maunganui, Bangladesh were completing the finest result in their 127-Test history, stunning New Zealand by eight wickets. In Johannesburg, meanwhile, South Africa and India were involved in a tense struggle.
It wasn’t just England who needed a strong day. It was the Ashes, a brand whose global value has taken a battering.
Earlier in Sydney, Stuart Broad had removed his old rival, David Warner, once again
In his latest attempt to rouse his troops, Root said they needed to show they were better than the first three Tests showed. Yet perhaps this is as good as they get.
There was more sloppiness in between the showers though. Broad and Anderson could not locate a threatening new-ball length, while both Stokes and Wood conceded five wides with harmless bouncers that looped over Buttler. To concede 12 in wides, and 20 in extras, seemed unnecessarily generous.
It was also chastening to think that the stand of 51 between Warner and Harris was six more than the sum total of England’s various opening partnerships in this series. What constitutes a middling day for the Australians would be considered a successful one for England.
And yet it could have been much worse. On a tour where most things have been precisely that, England at least reached the close with their pride intact.
But Steve Smith reached the end of the day unbeaten and will lead his side’s rebuild on day two