Ashes 2015: Joe Root century, Australia make late gains
AT 12.22 (UK) today, barely an hour after the Ashes had begun, the fate of the session, the day, the match, perhaps the whole shebang might have been altered. It was then that Joe Root, on whom the hopes of much of the nation are resting, jammed his bat down late on a fast ball from Mitchell Starc of Australia.
England were already 43 for 3 and in a spot of bother. Root had yet to score, this was the second ball he had received, and it took the edge. Brad Haddin, the wicketkeeper who had already snaffled one smart catch, plunged to his right, one hand outstretched at waist height. The ball clanged into his glove and off it again like a knell being sounded.
Four hours later, Root completed his seventh Test hundred, his second against Australia, with his 14th four off his 111th ball. It was a resplendent stroke through the covers, as glorious as had been almost all of his innings since the single early lapse.
Root and Gary Ballance, in a rather different style, shared a partnership of 153 for the fourth wicket. It pulled England from the brink of peril. Root and Ben Stokes, bristling with audacity and almost daring the opposition to bring it all on, then put on 84 for the fifth. Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali shared 50 in 53 balls for the seventh.
England had batted on winning one of those tricky little tosses - should they bat and invite collapse on an overcast, drizzly morning or should they bowl and risk their opponents going over the hill and far away when the sun broke through? - and it was beginning to look the wrong choice.
Had Haddin made the catch, as he ought to have done, England would have been in dire trouble. With Ballance completely out of touch, Australia might have been rampant. It could, probably would have been calamitous.
By the close of the opening day of this first Investec Test, England had reached 343 for 7, Root gone for 134, but they did not allow uncertainty to stalk them. This is hardly an unassailable position but it puts them in the game, they had not let Australia's array of speed merchants, much touted for weeks, run through them.
As it happens, the tourists' attack was dulled if not nullified for long stretches by being asked to operate on a slow pitch. The third ball of the day bounced twice before it reached Haddin and, who knows, its effect may have been to place doubts in his mind of how the surface might behave and how the ball would arrive at him.
There was not much subsequent evidence of misbehaviour but nor were there many encouraging signs for an attack which must crave bounce and carry. Some late swing for Mitchell Johnson in his early spells, propelled at pace, did not yield any reward, though it was quite enough to suggest that on faster pitches he will be a handful. His fellow left-arm swinger, Starc, took three wickets, including that of Root, caught at slip driving at a wide one, and the audacious Stokes with a ripping delivery.
England may not exactly be begging their groundsmen to add spice in their preparations. To counter the shortage of assistance, Michael Clarke, Australia's captain, regularly changed his bowlers, from the fifth over of the series on and 22 times in all by the day's end. They were not as accurate as they might have been. The spinner, Nathan Lyon, had an early triumph, but England might in general have liked what they saw. Maybe it was a pitch more suited to dibbly dobbly seamers who used to fill up the English shires.
Root was imperious, as has been his form since the end of the last Ashes series when he, like all other England batsman, was in a pickle. This was his fifth hundred in his last 21 innings, in which he has also passed 50 seven times.
It is his sense of certainty that marks him out, the feeling he engenders now that all be well when he is around. Two balls after he was reprieved, he opened his account with a stunningly effective drive for four between mid-off and bowler, the shot of a man who knows. When he was on 62, Australia reviewed an lbw verdict, probably because they were prepared to try anything to see the back of him. It was rejected.
He kept Ballance going and it was to his Yorkshire colleague's credit that he refused to be embarrassed out by his lack of fluency. Following his victorious initial excursions in Tests, Ballance has had a hard time of it, his feet seemingly super-glued behind the popping crease.
For most of the time he was floundering and when Johnson found a few spiteful short balls, which he took his eyes from as if he could not bring himself to look, it seemed he would perish. He saw it through, still off the back foot, until soon after tea.
The match started late and badly. Rain interfered with the start and the opening ceremonies seemed to be unfinished as the players readied themselves for the business at hand. Sometimes it is possible to think that the ceremony is more important than the game.
The first wicket fell to the 12th ball when Adam Lyth, who had hit a handsome boundary, edged Josh Hazlewood to gully, where David Warner made a low catch seem deceptively easy. Clarke, perhaps wanting all his bowlers to ease their way into the series, turned to Lyon's off spin in the 10th over.
Alastair Cook played two maidens, though he played an aggressive stroke to almost every ball, hitting the field each time. It was clearly in his mind that Lyon had to be targeted. So it was that to the 14th ball he faced, Cook attempted to cut a ball that was marginally too close and he top-edged behind to Haddin.
Ian Bell, whose place will shortly be in jeopardy, lasted seven balls before being lbw to Starc's swing. He has made 56 runs in nine innings. It cannot continue like this, but England would be happy enough.