Australia strike at the death to seize day one initiative in Sydney
Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow dismissed late on at the SCG to leave England on the ropes
Joe Root after his late dismissal on day one at the SCG. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty
Fifth Ashes Test day one: England 233-5 (England won the toss and chose to bat)
Joe Root set out in search of his inner Steve Smith on a sunlit Sydney evening. But he could not quite find him. He was England’s best batsman by a margin but yet again that major innings eluded him. Having batted with more discretion than derring-do for his 83 he was dismissed just before the close in the first over by Mitchell Starc with the second new ball.
It may be that Root had been excited by the advent of a harder ball in a highly eventful over. As he always does Starc pitched full, hunting for swing. To the first ball Root played a sumptuous drive to the long-off boundary; the second took his inside edge and raced to the fine-leg boundary. The third was full and on leg-stump and Root clipped the ball firmly towards square-leg, where Mitchell Marsh took the catch inches from the ground. Root slumped to his haunches, distraught that another golden opportunity to play the major innings had vanished.
Australia, as they have done throughout the series, seized their moment. Curiously England shunned the nightwatchman. Out came a pumped-up Jonny Bairstow with ten minutes to the close. A loose shot against Josh Hazlewood and Tim Paine ecstatically held the edge. All the graft of a 133-run partnership between Root and Dawid Malan had been dissipated. England closed on 233 for five, not the worst score, but the impetus was undoubtedly with Australia.
Root has poured his heart and soul into this tour. It may be that he has tried to do too much, an easy trap for a young captain. There have been the fripperies that he would have been better off ignoring and leaving to others to sort out: in the headbutts and the head-drenching; his agonies in the field as he has attempted to conjure 20 Australian wickets with a monochrome attack on surprisingly bland surfaces have been palpable.
In the harshest of environs he may have learnt – from watching the Australia captain – that if he swapped all these exertions for concentrating on his own batting; if he had been more single-minded, selfish even, then that might have been more beneficial to his side. His runs are more important to this side than his decision-making. Indeed, as Smith has demonstrated, captaincy is a breeze if you are scoring stacks of runs.
Until the second new ball Root had methodically bided his time just as Smith has done throughout the series. He was never dull but seldom dashing. He aimed to guide the ball between the fielders rather belt it to the boundaries – with the exception of the odd out-of-control hook shot.
Perhaps it was his turn to make the bowlers toil and to torment the opposition captain. That late evening aberration banished such thoughts.
In his captaincy role Root had one slightly tricky decision to make earlier in the day. Morning mizzle hung around so that the day was divided into two long sessions. He won the toss again, not a good omen in this series, and batted despite the grey clouds hovering above. Soon those clouds dispersed and his decision seemed the correct one. Though there was more bounce for the seamers than at Melbourne there was little lateral movement for the pacemen and only occasional turn for Nathan Lyon.
Before too long there was familiar exasperation for the England camp. Once again Mark Stoneman settled impressively and clipped anything full to the boundary with the minimum of fuss. Then having hit 24 from 23 balls he sparred unnecessarily at a short ball from Pat Cummins and was caught behind. Stoneman has not looked out of his depth here and will probably survive as Cook’s partner for the New Zealand Tests. But a substantial innings is overdue. In 13 Test innings he has failed to reach double figures only three times but his top score is a modest 56.
James Vince’s record is even worse yet watch him in isolation for 15 minutes in this series and he has looked masterful. The same applied on Thursday. He was seldom troubled; there were a couple of gorgeous cover drives. Then he edged a wide, hittable ball from Cummins to the keeper and no one was surprised. Vince offers a conundrum for the selectors. If he had scored 25 and played and missed a dozen times the decision about his future would be so much easier. Instead he bats like Michael Vaughan in his pomp and then gets out. After 19 Test innings Vince averages just under 23, which is a mystery.
Alastair Cook was less fluent than both Stoneman and Vince yet patently more likely to produce the major innings. But on 39 the Australians asked for a review after an lbw appeal and it transpired that the ball from Hazlewood just pitched in line by a millimetre or two. So Cook had to go.
The Australians offered few free runs and the outfield was relatively sluggish, but the sun shone and the grass seemed to lose its hint of green as the day progressed. It was tough work from both sides but Root found a willing ally in Malan. He enjoyed a couple of escapes. On 29 he found himself at the same end as Root but was able to scramble to safety; on 32 he edged towards slip off Lyon but Smith barely managed to touch the ball.
No matter; it was the Australian side who were smiling at the close.
England first innings:
Batsman Runs Balls 4s 6s
A N Cook lbw b Hazlewood 39 104 3 0
M D Stoneman c Paine b Cummins 24 24 4 0
J M Vince c Paine b Cummins 25 54 4 0
J E Root c Marsh b Starc 83 141 8 0
D J Malan 55 160 5 0
J M Bairstow c Paine b Hazlewood 5 7 1 0
Extras 1lb 0 1w 2
Total for 5 233 81.4 overs
Bowler O M R W
M A Starc 16 4 63 1
J R Hazlewood 17 2 47 2
P J Cummins 17 4 44 2
N M Lyon 26 4 61 0
M R Marsh 5 0 17 0