Australia battle through after Root's toss gamble

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England fail to take Khawaja gift

Australia 4 for 209 (Khawaja 53) v England
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

It is a bold captain who sends the opposition in to bat in any Test match, let alone in the Ashes, let alone away from home, let alone on an obviously good batting pitch. But that was the decision Joe Root made on the first day in Adelaide; by stumps it still looked a bold call, and not necessarily a good one. Australia were not exactly unscathed by the close of play, but at 4 for 209, neither were they as scathed as Root had intended.

Two recent field-first decisions by England captains in Australia stick out in the memory. When Nasser Hussain sent Steve Waugh’s men in at the Gabba in 2002, he knew his mistake by the fifth over of the match. Australia closed the first day at 2 for 364. But at the MCG in 2010, Andrew Strauss was rewarded for his brave move when Australia were skittled for 98, and by stumps England were 0 for 157 in reply. Root’s call falls somewhere in between.

There was some swing and seam movement early in the day, but Australia’s openers left well and were untroubled during a rain-affected opening session. Under lights in the evening, the ball again moved around, and here Australia lost two key wickets: Usman Khawaja edged behind to a James Anderson ball that moved away, and Steven Smith played on to the debutant fast bowler Craig Overton.

Such was Smith’s impact at the Gabba that Root might almost consider getting Smith for 40 to be worth the bowl-first decision in itself. As Root noted in the lead-up to this Test, take out Smith’s score at the Gabba and Australia lost the rest of their wickets for less than 200. Still, England failed to run through the Australians after snaring Khawaja and Smith, and by stumps Peter Handscomb was well set on 36 and Shaun Marsh had 20.

Australia were hoping that one of those two men would cash in, for David Warner (47), Smith (40) and Khawaja (53) had all made strong starts that did not evolve into great innings. No partnership lasted 20 overs, and England continued to chip away through the rain-shortened day.

In fact, there was much chippy behaviour from both sides, not surprisingly after the Jonny Bairstow headbutt saga of the Gabba Test. Smith was welcomed to the crease by an aggressive spell from Stuart Broad that included many exchanges of words, and later Smith found himself involved in a petty turf-war with Anderson, who was fielding at catching mid-on to Handscomb, very close to where Smith was stationed as non-striker.

In the end, it was Overton who did the important job of actually removing Smith, and not just annoying him. Overton found the perfect length to trouble Australia’s captain, who was caught in no-man’s-land between playing forward and back, and inside-edged onto his stumps. Picked in place of Jake Ball, Overton justified his inclusion with that one delivery.

Earlier in the final session, Anderson had stopped Khawaja turning his start into something more when he moved one away just enough to be edged to gully, where James Vince took a sharp catch moving to his left. Khawaja had failed to add to his dinner score, and his departure must have relieved Mark Stoneman, who had dropped a gettable chance in the deep when Khawaja had 44 and top-edged a hook off Chris Woakes.

Khawaja was not the first Australian to flirt outside the off stump when he felt set: Warner fell for 47 when he dabbled at Woakes and was caught behind by Bairstow. Warner was frustrated at himself after working patiently for 102 deliveries, and he wasn’t the only Australian left frustrated by David Warner.

After the opening session was reduced to 13.5 overs due to persistent rain, it took only four balls for England to strike upon the resumption. Warner pushed Broad towards cover and a misfield from Moeen Ali resulted in Warner calling Cameron Bancroft through for a single. But Warner changed his mind and Bancroft was caught short at the non-striker’s end by a direct hit from Woakes. Perhaps Bancroft’s heavy head slowed down his turning speed.

It was just the boost England needed after few balls threatened the stumps in the opening session. Still, Root had to find a way through the rest of the top order and it was therefore a little surprising, given Khawaja’s struggles against spin, that he waited until Khawaja had faced 26 balls before introducing Moeen. By then, Khawaja was set, and he had no qualms about advancing and lofting Moeen over mid-off.

By the time Khawaja had the second half-century of his Ashes career, and stood alongside Smith at the crease on 2 for 139, Root’s gamble at the toss was looking poor. At least when stumps arrived, Root was well out of Hussain territory.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo @brydoncoverdale

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Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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