England 7 for 258 (Bairstow 103*, Stokes 66, Boland 2-25) trail Australia 8 for 416 dec (Khawaja 137, Smith 67, Broad 5-101) by 158 runs
Jonny Bairstow saved England’s blushes and saved his Test career with a stunning SCG century to help his nation avoid the follow-on having slumped to 4 for 36 in the face of an Australian barrage on the third day.
Bairstow’s century was both brave and chanceless. He copped a vicious blow on the thumb from Pat Cummins in the afternoon that left him doubled over in pain. But he brushed it off to score his second century in Australia and his seventh in Test cricket. It was his first in three years and 38 Test innings. He roared to the rooms after bringing it up with a flashing cut over backward point in the last over of the day in an emotional moment as the England team and fans stood and applauded a rare show of fight on this tour.
He was brilliantly supported by Ben Stokes, who fought through obvious pain to make a vital 66 in a century stand with Bairstow, while Mark Wood made an excellent 39.
It was an extraordinary day all up. Two hours were lost to rain and England went 70 balls without scoring and lost three wickets in the process. Australia dropped three catches, Stokes was bowled without the bails coming off and Scott Boland took 2 for 0 before hurting his side in a fall – he went for scans and was later cleared of injury. Australia produced their most ragged four hours of the series as Bairstow picked them apart with excellent footwork and positive intent to leave England 158 runs behind with three first-innings wickets in hand and two days remaining.
After his top-order had literally ground to a halt in the morning, he never let Australia settle. He moved fluently onto the front and back foot but didn’t try and overhit the ball on a surface that played all sorts of tricks. He picked the gaps consistently and never missed anything straight. He was particularly savage on Nathan Lyon, with the offspinner conceding 71 from 12 overs. Bairstow struck eight fours and three sixes in his 103 not out from 140 balls.
Stokes combined brilliantly with Bairstow as the pair batted through the middle session and put together England’s third-highest partnership of the series. It was also the fifth time in Test cricket an England fifth-wicket pair had scored a century partnership after coming together with the score at 40 runs or fewer. Stokes has been involved in three of them
Stokes did have some luck. He offered a life to Cummins early but Australia’s skipper dropped the sharp return chance. He also survived one of the most bizarre moments of the series. As he shouldered arms to Cameron Green from around the wicket, the ball hit off stump and took a significant deflection but the bails stayed on. Australia appealed thinking it hit the back pad and he was given out lbw by umpire Paul Reiffel. Stokes reviewed and his pad was nowhere near the ball. He laughed with the Australians when replays showed it had rattled off stump without dislodging the bail to deny Green a wicket.
Thereafter he was ultra-aggressive moving around the crease to disrupt Australia’s lines and length. He was in obvious pain with every stroke causing a jab in his injured side but he had Australia rattled. He crushed three consecutive boundaries off Mitchell Starc and played an outrageous lofted cover drive for six off Lyon after being beaten in flight. But Lyon got his revenge having been thrashed by Stokes and Bairstow either side of tea. Stokes played back to one that slid on straight and was trapped plumb in front. He walked off without looking at the umpire.
Jos Buttler meekly chipped one to cover shortly after but Mark Wood picked up the slack. He was peppered with short balls but cracked 39 off 41 including three towering hooked sixes. The short ball tactic did work eventually for Cummins as Wood was out hooking, getting a tiny edge onto his helmet only for it to balloon to Lyon at point. Wood was initially given not out but it was overturned on review.
Earlier, play was delayed by two hours due to a frustrating drizzle before normal service resumed for England in the shortened morning session as they lost 4 for 23 despite Haseeb Hameed and Zak Crawley producing England’s second-best opening stand of the series of 22. But even that wasn’t without luck. Following Crawley’s reprieve off a no-ball late on the second night, he was dropped at short leg by Marcus Harris although it was a very difficult chance high to his right. Hameed was given a life of his own with Alex Carey spilling him off Mitchell Starc diving late to his right in front of David Warner at slip. Having left two similar chances in the previous two Tests he made the late decision to go and spilled the one-handed offering.
Both drops didn’t cost anything. Starc cleaned up Hameed snaking one back through a gaping gate to crash into middle and off. Hameed’s promising contributions at the Gabba look a distant memory following five single-figure scores. Crawley played two cracking strokes in his 18, thumping a drive on the up and smashing Starc forward of square on the back foot.
But he too left a gaping hole between bat and pad for Boland to breach with some sharp movement back off the seam. It was part of a mesmerizing passage where Boland and Green put a stranglehold on England. They bowled 53 balls in the lead up to lunch without conceding a run. Crawley fell on the 24th ball of the sequence. Joe Root succumbed on the 43rd, wafting another loose square drive off the back foot with an angled bat only to be brilliantly caught by Steven Smith at second slip for a duck. It gave Boland figures of 2 for 0 from four overs and his Test bowling average dipped to 6.11, with a career tally of 9 for 55 following his heroics in Melbourne.
Green deserved some reward at the other end and he struck with the 53rd ball of the sequence and the last before lunch. Dawid Malan was caught at a fine leg slip trying to glance a ball that reared at his ribs. The sequence stretched to 70 balls after lunch before Stokes and Bairstow finally broke free.
Jonny BairstowBen StokesMark WoodScott BolandAustraliaEnglandAustralia vs EnglandICC World Test ChampionshipThe Ashes
Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo