Lightning strikes give England Ashes respite as Australia take control again

It took a spectacular intervention from the heavens to halt what was a second day of home dominance at the Adelaide Oval. As lightning flashed around the ground, forcing players and umpires off the field to seek refuge and spectators into the nearest watering holes, it represented blessed relief for an England side looking thunderstruck.

The tourists had spent the best part of 150 overs chasing pink leather around the outfield while their hosts racked up 473 for nine declared. Steve Smith had marked his surprise return to Australia’s captaincy after three years with 93, his tail then wagged, before it was time for the visiting openers to face the perils of batting under lights.

With a sense of inevitably both were removed during the 52 deliveries sent down before the elements ended proceedings. Rory Burns had delayed his rematch with Mitchell Starc once again, opting to start his innings at the non-striker’s end, but three balls after its resumption Australia’s marauding left-armer was once again wheeling away in celebration after a fine delivery that squared up his mark and flew to slip off an edge.

Haseeb Hameed fared little better. A couple of drives through the covers had hinted at the right-hander’s relative comfort initially but when Smith turned to Michael Neser, fresh from crashing 58 runs from nine overs alongside Starc, this turned out to be an illusion, with the right-armer’s second ball chipped to mid-on in rather meek fashion. Neser is making his debut after Pat Cummins was pinged into a spell of isolation and the 31-year-old’s first day on the field is one he will never forget.

The upshot to all this was that England closed on 17 for two and Joe Root, with Dawid Malan alongside him, was once again tasked with launching a salvage mission. England’s captain travelled out to Australia with lofty thoughts of regaining the Ashes but in the space of just six days of cricket these have already started to fade, his batsmen having folded at the Gabba and his bowlers following suit here.

It was hard not to predict such punishment for England when they walked out at the start of play with Australia 221 for two. The mercury had hit 37C and there were already 89 overs in the legs of a homogeneous attack that had placed so much stock in the second new ball working the oracle under lights the night before, only for Jos Buttler to squander the solitary chance that materialised with a second drop of the innings.

Marnus Labuschagne was the batter reprieved on 95 and he wasted little time guiding his 287th ball for four to bring up his sixth Test century, his third against the pink ball, and a first in Ashes cricket. It may have been a charmed innings, with a life on 21 also, but the rise of Australia’s gum-chewing, self-commentating No 3 ever since stepping out as Test cricket’s first concussion sub back in 2019 is a source of English envy.

This fortune continued too when Ollie Robinson’s first ball of the morning found the edge of his bat on 102, only for groans and laughter to follow in the stands when replays showed a front foot no-ball. England’s ODI team sent down 11,366 deliveries between 2017 and 2019 without overstepping once – Chris Silverwood strangely put this was down to the “consequence” of the format’s free hit rule last weekend – yet twice already in this series England have seen a wicket scrubbed off in this fashion.

Unlike at the Gabba, where David Warner was bowled off a no-ball for 17 en route to a hugely consequential 94, the cost was at least minimal but this was the latest example of the basics that are proving so elusive right now and making the difference between these two sides look far more of a chasm than is probably the case.

Robinson, in fairness, was arguably the pick of a seam attack that notably bowled fuller in length than 24 hours earlier. He soon trapped Labuschagne lbw offering no shot for 103 and figures of one for 45 from 27 overs, including 13 maidens, were the thriftiest on show. England’s opening session returned three wickets for 88 runs and represented a decent return given the oppressive conditions out in the middle.

Travis Head rather yorked himself on 18 to give Root a wicket, while Ben Stokes dispensed with the leg-theory to remove his fellow all-rounder, Cameron Green, fifth ball with a beauty that pegged back his off-stump. But Smith, who had resumed on 18, found an ally in Alex Carey, with the pair’s sixth-wicket stand of 91 over two hours laying a platform for the lower order to swing with full impunity at dusk.

Smith was once again in his usual bubble of ticks and quirks, the leave as maddening for England’s bowlers as it ever was and his strokes still outrageous at times. A tennis smash four to bring his half-century may not have gone where it was intended, but the pulled six of Chris Woakes to take the total past 350 was as sweet as anything struck all day. Carey simply furthered the belief he is an upgrade on the man he replaced, Tim Paine, with some buttery left-handed strokeplay in a maiden half-century.

The absence of Mark Wood’s pace meant little by way of physical threat, with the pair able to dictate terms. Jimmy Anderson did remove them eventually, Smith denied a century when struck in front by one that nipped back, and Carey chipping to cover on 51. But though the 39-year-old’s final figures of 29 overs, two for 58 were typically thrifty, elsewhere the pain became heavy and the fielding increasingly slapstick.

Indeed, as Neser and Starc began clubbing England’s weary seamers to all parts, making scores of 35 and 39 not out respectively, one began to wonder how much progress England have made since the equivalent Test match four years ago, when a similar right-arm fast-medium attack resulted in similar Australian first innings of 442 for eight declared. The recalled Stuart Broad failed to create chances after an initial surge of energy and the wicket of Marcus Harris on the opening day, while Woakes, though lacking some fortune earlier in the piece, started to unravel by the end.

It meant that when Smith eventually called in his troops to raucous cheers, a pleasure he had not enjoyed for nearly four years, England’s opening pair were pretty much on a hiding to nothing. Starc surged, Neser crackled and the electricity ultimately told.