In England, the statistic that Ben Duckett has left alone only six of the last seven hundred deliveries he’s faced since his return to Test cricket is frequently cited. To the point where you would consider it a virtue. It is admirable to possess a Test opener who refuses to shoulder arms. It appears to be one of the most accurate depictions of England’s contemporary approach to Test cricket in this new era of English Test cricket.
On Sunday afternoon (18 June), Duckett had no choice but to drop the ball. After a 1-and-a-quarter-hour rain delay, the game resumed. It was an unanticipated downpour. The forecasted ominous clouds had not yet materialized. Around the time Duckett and his opening partner Zak Crawley walked out to bat, they began to make their first apparition over the Hollies Stand. The distinctive ‘e’-shaped floodlights surrounding Edgbaston were commencing to operate at maximum capacity.
It felt as though you were witnessing a cricket match in a Hitchcockian universe. The illumination literally changed every thirty seconds. The progressively lengthening shadows surrounding the players, Pat Cummins and Scott Boland in particular, gave them an even more malevolent air than usual. For the first time during the first three days of the opening Ashes Test, conditions were favorable for fast bowlers. Cummins perceived movement in the air. Boland exhibited movement off the wicket.
Duckett just had to be reminded to leave the ball outside his off-stump. But he didn’t. Instead, he maintained his reputation for wanting to strike every ball he encounters. As a result, he attempted a rather feeble glide to a wide-ish delivery from the Australian captain that kept moving further away, giving Cameron Green yet another opportunity to demonstrate his freakish abilities by going low and making an incredible catch at gully that others would not have even considered getting nearby.
At the other end, it appeared as if Boland had turned back time to December 2021 and transported us to the MCG when he made his remarkable Test debut. With ominous clouds now lingering directly above the English batters, the Victorian displayed his seaming prowess by beating Crawley’s inside and outside margins at will. He was also taking advantage of Crawley’s persistent propensity to play at deliveries outside his off-stump. After nearly getting the right-handed batter to take a nibble on a pitch that missed him, Boland hit him on the pads with a pitch that went past his bat before getting Crawley to elevate his arms in response to a pitch that nicked back into him. Boland’s first delivery of the next over to the opener pitched on the same length and nipped away, capturing Alex Carey’s mitts with a slightest outside edge.
As remarkable as they have been with their daredevil technique to’revitalizing’ Test cricket, English batters have not had to face and surmount truly difficult batting conditions too frequently in the past year. And the 20 or so minutes they endured against a full-strength South African attack on a dismal afternoon in Birmingham may have been the most arduous period of play since Lord’s last year. Bazball didn’t quite work in London, and it didn’t work here either, as they lost two wickets for two runs in response to Cummins and Boland’s 22 deliveries. This also included a fantastic delivery from Cummins to Root, which nearly caught an edge.
England’s commitment to their game plan is unlikely to waver in the near future. Likewise, it cannot be assumed that they will consistently struggle when faced with challenging bowling conditions, such as the ones experienced on Sunday. They are determined to confront such challenges head-on. However, the decision made by the umpires to call off play on Sunday, after numerous pitch inspections, was met with surprise and disappointment by captain Ben Stokes. Even though it would have meant exposing their top batsmen to the formidable Cummins & Co in difficult conditions, Stokes was keen to continue. While their determination is commendable, one must question how this England team will adapt their game strategy when opposing bowlers gain control of the game. We may not have to wait long to find out, as the weather is expected to improve on the fourth day. However, the pitch is drying up, providing increased turn and bite for the spinners from the far end. Dealing with Nathan Lyon on this surface, particularly given England’s style of play, will certainly be a challenging task.
However, it was largely due to Stokes’ remarkably innovative captaincy, which occasionally bordered on the unconventional, that England was able to secure a narrow lead. Khawaja and Carey had started the innings with a rapid pace, but it was Stokes’ strategic use of his fielders, akin to moving chess pieces on a checkerboard, that led to the dismissal of the last five wickets, including the resilient Khawaja. Despite the skepticism that others may have had regarding the short-ball strategy on a slow pitch, Stokes persevered. At times, it seemed as though he was attempting to apprehend a cunning fugitive rather than dismiss an opposing batter. However, his unconventional approach paid off splendidly, and they will need to replicate that success with the bat on Monday (June 19) to gain an advantageous position in this finely balanced Test match.