All series, Australia had rung changes to its XI, rotating bowlers, processing batsmen, preaching a squad-first mantra. Mitch Marsh was the second-last man available, picked here to foil for the frontline seamers as much as to proxy for Travis Head. Pre-match, Paine had challenged Marsh to be Australia’s Ben Stokes. Across hemispheres, you could sense a nation divide, or rather, unite: Ben, Bills’ brother, more like. Within the team, where he is much-loved, this grates.
And yet here he was, Australia’s heart-starter. First, pitching full and straight, he tamped down an end. England slowed to two an over. Then Marsh took four good wickets. The first was Stokes, from a miscued pull. If Marsh could not be Stokes, at least he had made sure that nor would Stokes this day. His bellow might have woken up sleeping relatives in Perth. Jonny Bairstow’s wicket was a masterpiece, five outswingers followed by a dipping inswinger that deluded Bairstow doubly, for he sent the lbw decision unavailingly to DRS, too.
Here was Marsh’s simple secret; he swung the ball. He was only fractionally slower than the front-liners, but sometimes that fraction is enough for the ball to float on the cross-breeze.
Meantime, Root had seized up. “Root to gully” sounds like an outback farmer’s memoir, but was the mode play while he was on strike. In his last 131 balls, he managed one boundary.
He cranked to a half-century, then for the second time in six days, Cummins crashed through him with a ball that should win awards by itself, straightening at high velocity into off stump. It was a dismissal with the sudden violence of a tooth yanked out by a string tied to a door-knob. Lightning had struck twice in the same place, and Root could not believe he was out any more than he could believe he had been sent in. Talk about Indian giving.
Marsh added the wickets of Sam Curran and Chris Woakes with full balls that swung. Here was the method in Paine’s kookiness. This is the latest Test match ever played in England. This was not a typical late summer Oval pitch, all white and hard, but one in and belonging to early autumn. If Australia was a bit demob happy, it might only be because all the signs say it will soon be summer at home.
In fact, after the early DTs, Australia’s cricket was sober and sustained. Its strength in numbers told; for England there was no relief. Nathan Lyon was able to spend the day resting up his scaly spinning finger at backward point. Australia’s only other blemish was when Cummins was found to have no-balled when pinning Curran lbw. No-one ever will accuse Cummins of not being able to walk a straight line, but he does sometimes over-step one. As it happened, it cost only a handful of runs.
There was, if not a last twist, some untimely torsion. Back for his fourth spell, Marsh bowled one ball, then cramped up everywhere, perhaps including his ears, and had to abandon. Jos Butter, meantime, had launched counter-offensive, drilled Hazlewood back over his head for sixes in successive balls. Now he borrowed Paine’s hat and went into full party mode, despatching the ball to all parts as effortlessly as if twirling it on the end of his bat, and suddenly had top-scored.
All Ashes series long, England despaired that a short-form mindset had been its Test team’s ruin. Now, it was their short order salvation. Perhaps, Australia’s second day of all-day bowling in five also took a late toll, a flaw in Paine’s cunning plan. Possibly on Friday, Cummins and Hazlewood will have to call for runners to help them get to the popping crease.
What matters for now is that while Australia slept, Mitch Marsh at last flattered not to deceive, but to flatten.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.