Seldom on a single day can it have been possible to see the two leading batsmen of their team more far apart in terms of their command. Steven Smith’s lowest score of a remarkable series was also his most impudent and domineering, making a wearing pitch and desperate England bowlers look like a computer game in beginner and/or practice mode.
The flip side, though, was the seemingly inevitable departure of David Warner for his third duck in a row and his sixth dismissal out of eight by Stuart Broad in this Ashes contest.
By this stage, both Warner and Broad looked very used to their roles. When Broad skidded his sixth ball through a backtracking Warner and into his pads in front of middle and leg, he ran towards the slips in celebration without even bothering to appeal to the umpire Marais Erasmus. When Warner walked down the wicket in the direction of his partner Marcus Harris, who motioned the possibility of a referral, he simply offered the rebuke “that’s salmon” trout, aka out.
Batsmen sinking to such depths in series past have taken varying approaches to their plight. In 1989 Graham Gooch, his feet and mind muddled by Terry Alderman, asked to be dropped late in the series and had his request granted. In later years his answering machine message is said to have been “I’m out, probably lbw Alderman”. Daryll Cullinan, having been rendered useless by Shane Warne and his flipper across several series, sought the help of a sports psychologist, only to have Warne greet him with, “what colour was the couch, Daryll?”
Whatever the approach Warner chooses to take, it is beyond all doubt that his chosen method for this Ashes series has proven faulty. With the exception of a single innings on the first day at Headingley, where he admirably played the line of the ball as it zipped repeatedly away from him, Warner has been left looking indecisive, defensive and above all vulnerable to the new ball. It is not a sensation many of the opposing bowlers and captains to face Warner in Test matches have ever felt before.
Old Trafford, in fact, was Warner’s first pair in Tests, three ducks in a row in all after the second innings at Leeds. That statistic underlines how superbly consistent he has been for Australia, as does another: as of this moment his career Test batting average stands at 46.01 – the lowest it has been since early 2014. Back then, Warner was in the midst of the best year of his Test career, being the dominant Australian performer in series in South Africa and the UAE, underlining his aggressive versatility in a range of conditions.
In England, Warner has never performed at his very best, to this day being unable to make a Test century here, but on both the 2013 and 2015 Ashes tours he looked to be on an upwards trajectory as a batsman. There were times in both series when he felt only a strong half an hour away from soaring to a match-shaping hundred. Four years later, older, wiser and refreshed by an enforced 12 months out of the game, he seemed intent on sanding down his usual English method to a point of perfection.
As he put it in Leeds: “My theory has always been the same when I come to England … for me it’s about taking out that lbw equation but then not trying to get out nicked off from a good length ball and knowing where your off stump is there. So it’s about creating … you want them to come into your pads when you bat outside off and you can get the cheeky one inside midwicket, that’s the thought process behind it.”
At the same time, Warner had worked on his tempo, trying to calm himself down and ensure he was not forever batting in a state something near to rage against his opponents. To achieve this he had taken measures including the use of headphones when batting in the nets, listening to chill out music by the likes of Lewis Capaldi, and generally trying to take on a more pacific air around the Australian team.
Unfortunately for Warner, he has come up against parallel evolution from a genuinely great bowler in Broad, who had enjoyed some success against him in four previous Ashes encounters, but nothing to suggest he would b quite as dominant as this. The cornerstone of Broad’s attack has been to attack both stumps and edge from around the wicket, causing Warner to be worried on both sides of his bat with a range of consequent dismissals.
Nothing has underlined the muddle quite like the fact that Warner has twice been dismissed edging balls he was never fully committed to playing and ultimately tried to leave. It’s the sort of indecision that Alderman used to provoke in a host of English batsmen while taking 83 Test wickets across two tours here in 1981 and 1989. But it is more or less unheard of for Warner, who has generally taken the approach of playing shots and asking questions later.
There are, of course, mitigating factors for Warner. Collectively there have been few Test series more dicey for opening batsmen than this one, with the decision to use the older vintage specification of the Dukes ball aiding new ball bowlers on both sides. Equally, the struggles of those around him have also hurt: so often Warner has eased pressure on his partners by getting the scoreboard moving early. This time, when he perhaps needed some help in the other direction, it has not been forthcoming from Cameron Bancroft, Marcus Harris or Usman Khawaja.
That being said, Australia’s selectors have been left with a lot of questions about their top order for the future. While Smith has been magnificent and Marnus Labuschagne has emerged, there is very little certainty to be found elsewhere, even from someone as good as Warner has been. Quality over an extended period should be recognised, and Warner has this very much in his favour. At the same time, Khawaja’s dropping for Manchester provided a reminder that no-one is indispensable, as the coach Justin Langer continues his search for a deeper well of prolific Australian batsmen to choose from.
Ironically, a source of potential inspiration for Warner was provided by the fortunes of Mitchell Starc on day four. Initially left out of this series and then struggling in his first spells, Starc showed how he had learned and adapted to English requirements, while not losing the impact that has made him so striking an option for Australia down the years. In the long session after tea on day three during which he did not bowl a single ball, Starc had time to ponder how he had bowled in his first spells of the series.
Undoubtedly he had not targeted the stumps enough, dropping too short and also offering width. But with Ben Stokes and Johnny Bairstow fairly well entrenched on the fourth morning, he was granted the chance to make amends with the brand new ball. At Headingley the second new ball had been struck about firmly by the same two England batsmen, but here Starc was able to bend it to his will. Smartly mixing up scrambled seam deliveries – devised to move off the pitch – with straighter seam offerings searching for swing, he was soon discomforting both batsmen.
Stokes nicked one centimetres over his stumps, and Bairstow was little more comfortable. A couple of deliveries shaped to swing back without going the whole way, but eventually Starc got one exactly right, swerving neatly through Bairstow’s expansive drive. It was his biggest swinging delivery of the match so far, and had a sequel soon after when Stokes went back and could not cover a ball with bounce and just enough seam away, resulting in a third catch of the innings for Steven Smith a second slip.
In this spell, Starc demonstrated not only his strike power, but also an evolving ability to ask different questions in English climes: exactly what the selectors had wanted from him when they left him out of the first three Tests. It was a spell that had a huge bearing on Australia’s commanding position by the end of the day, but also provided something in the way of an example for Warner to look towards. For him, the only way is up.