Two wickets only before tea gave the day and match its cast. In their contrasting ways, Joe Denly and Ben Stokes had put the match out of even Steve Smith’s reach; England’s lead then was approaching 300. Denly did it with mellifluous timing, Stokes by wrenching the ball to far-flung parts.
There was a flurry of wickets in the final session when the old ball swung and spun and then was traded in for a new one. Two brilliant catches in successive balls, by Steve Smith in the slips and Marnus Labuschagne in the outfield, attested to an unbroken Australian spirit. But bodies have been bent.
Neither Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, Australia’s bowling pillars of Hercules, took a wicket with the first new ball. As a raw number, that zero is inaccurate. Both sustained their pace, accuracy and hostility admirably, but you had to wonder about their limits.
Nathan Lyon was restricted to lighter duties than usual because his spinning finger is cracking up. His was not the lion’s share. Mitch Marsh and Peter Siddle were unable to play their appointed parts by applying the brakes, and Siddle at times was a liability. Containment theory itself appears to be running out of steam.
It meant that as deftly as Paine might shuffle his pack, he had always to return to his pair of aces. Unflagging as they were, there is a difference between bowling to mitigate a deficit and to reinforce a lead.
It was a day of sore points. Australia let two run-outs go begging and spilled another catch, making five for the match. One reprieve was for Denly on 0; he made 94. Having spent reviews speculatively all series, Paine now over-corrected. Denly at 54 was lbw to Marsh, as per his operatic three-stage appeal. Later, Jos Buttler on 19 was lbw to Lyon. But neither was given, and neither was sent to review, and so they became rear views instead. The cost was 68 runs.
Momentarily, an echo of old Australia was heard when England captain Joe Root came to the wicket and had his eardrums assailed by Matthew Wade. Umpire Kumar Dharmasena intervened, then fellow umpire Marais Erasmus interceded with Paine. As players left the field for lunch, Stokes was heard to utter a fierce imprecation at David Warner. Somehow, the irritability transmitted itself to the broadcast booth, where suave David Gower neglected to notice an open mike, and soon was trending on Twitter. But troubled waters quickly were stilled.
After tea, Stokes fell to a perfectly pitched Lyon off-break, and Denly was overcome by nerves. At 33, he cannot know if he will ever again be so close to a Test hundred. But England, confident in their position, pressed on even as more wickets fell. So they should be. They will leave Australia all but 400 to make, and give themselves two days. That is the box seat.
The batting sins at the top of this homily are all of omission, and in Warner’s case almost absenteeism. Take out Smith’s contribution and the balance of the rest of Australia’s batting has only twice made more than 200 in the series. From this can be seen the magnitude of Sunday’s task.
If and when it leads to defeat, the Australians will shrug it off in the moment as the Ashes urn is presented and the champagne corks pop, but they will kick themselves all the way home.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.