Australia go short but it may yet be an Ashes opportunity missed | Adam Collins

The hosts sparked an England collapse with some short stuff but the same tactic allowed the tail to eke out 53 runs for the final three wickets

The short ball. A point of fascination before the series, Australia used it belatedly on morning two, then superbly to open England up at a vital moment, but failed to put it away when more rudimentary means might have sufficed against the tail. Namely, hitting the stumps.

Of course, this enthusiasm stems from four years ago. But an unresponsive surface initially gave little opportunity to use the tactic. A day later, the track remained slow, but the game’s circumstances had changed.

As England made unbroken progress through the opening hour, Australia barely ventured upstairs. Eventually, a shift in gear was inevitable. It worked, Dawid Malan unable to resist temptation for long enough, gifting a top-edge.

With this evidence that it could still work for them even on a slow pitch, Australia’s bowlers had finally found batteries for their dormant Christmas present. Starc, Pat Cummins, then Starc again pounded the ball into their own half until the job was done.

Until the 90th over, according to CricViz, Australia’s quicks had bowled 32% of their deliveries short. That exploded to 74%. Cummins garnered a second top edge, Jonny Bairstow fourth to fall in a collapse that had England out by lunch.

It was on to England’s tail, but an opportunity was lost. Starc took back-to-back Sheffield Shield hat-tricks knocking over the tail in the lead-up to this Test, but with his yorker. No one hits the stumps more regularly. However, England’s lower order eked out 53 runs for their final three wickets. It wasn’t pretty, but with fielders loaded around the bat on the legside, they knew what was coming.

For Australia it was still mission accomplished with six for 56 to dismiss England by lunch. But with three of those initially coming inside four overs, the damage could have been closer to the collapse Mitchell Johnson triggered on the corresponding day four years ago.

A man vital to both those stumbles was Nathan Lyon; 2013, when he took wickets with consecutive balls, was a different time – he had hair on his head, and was so timid that he did not appeal for the second of his wickets. Luckily his team-mates had more belief. It smacked of a bowler who did not feel worthy of striking gold twice in two minutes.

This time around, it was twice in four balls, but timidity is well in the rear-view mirror. Moeen Ali was first, the left-hander trapped leg-before moments after Malan’s misadventure. Next was Chris Woakes, Lyon finding the most deviation in his 36-over shift through a chasm between bat and pad.

“My confidence has grown a large amount over the last 14 months,” he said at stumps. “I’ve nailed my consistency and know my game inside out. It is the best it has ever come out.”

Nathan Lyon successfully appeals for lbw after a delivery to Moeen Ali.
Nathan Lyon successfully appeals for lbw after a delivery to Moeen Ali. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

If Australia’s plans with the ball were predictable, England’s first attempt to execute theirs was clinical. After Cameron Bancroft tickled nervously, David Warner was dismissed with a half-pull to midwicket just as he was twice in the 2015 Ashes.

Soon after, Usman Khawaja was beaten on the inside edge by spin as he was routinely last year in Sri Lanka; the reason he is not a first-choice feature in Asia. But their early look at Peter Handscomb proved they had really done their homework. To begin any innings, the Victorian sets up dangerously deep in the crease. Jimmy Anderson was brought back to relentlessly target his stumps during this awkward period. The reward: a leg-before decision four balls after tea.

On the verge of a collapse of their own when the ever-maligned Shaun Marsh met Steve Smith, the two saw off a sustained spell of accurate seam from the old pros Anderson and Stuart Broad before safely accumulating through to the close.

If the low-scoring nature of this game persists, Australia might wish they had tried a bit more of the stump-to-stump business themselves.