As the spectators poured out of the Sydney Cricket Ground and into the bars and restaurants of Paddington only one name was on their lips. Stuart Broad may have issued a statement about his deployment on tour with a five-wicket haul but of the two recalled 35-year-olds on show, it was Usman Khawaja who headlined day two.
Over the course of nearly seven hours at the crease, and with his shirt buttoned up to the collar in defiance of the sweltering heat and humidity, Khawaja compiled a stylish old pro’s 137 that drove Australia into their latest position of dominance in this one-sided Ashes series. Declaring on 416 for eight, after Nathan Lyon had swatted Broad for six to give the bowler final figures of five for 101, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc then had 20 minutes before the close for their latest crack at England’s openers.
For the first time on tour, and to the relief of the nightwatchman Mark Wood in the charming 19th century pavilion, they survived a late onslaught to reach stumps on 13 for no loss – but only by a whisker. After the year of the duck in 2021, Zak Crawley appeared to have rolled the trend into the new year when Starc’s 10th delivery found the edge of a tentative bat and flew to David Warner at first slip.
Starc, however, had put a foot wrong for the first time this series, the replay showing he had overstepped. Crawley, who had backed himself to make a century before this Test match in a remarkably confident press conference, was spared a good few blushes.
If this represented progress for the tourists then the day as a whole had further underlined the difference between the two teams. England have chopped and changed their batters to little effect on tour but when Travis Head was ruled out of this fourth Test after testing positive for Covid-19, Australia were able to call on a replacement of proven international pedigree. That it was on Khawaja’s former home ground, and scene of his Test debut 11 years ago, added to a sense of destiny calling.
Queensland may have adopted Khawaja during the intervening years but there is little doubt that the cricket-loving public in Sydney consider him one of their own. When he tucked Jack Leach off his hips on the stroke of tea, scampering three runs of which the first brought up his century, they rose as one to applaud an innings of poise, class and featuring the rasping pull shot that hinted at his promise a decade ago.
It was worth noting too that for all the talk of England’s limited preparation, bubble life meant this was Khawaja’s first innings in nearly a month. He timed it perfectly, watchfully accumulating 44 runs from his first 120 balls, then upping the ambition and finessing 93 from the next 140. Cummins incurred the wrath of the crowd by pinching the strike with Khawaja on 99, and has already said the asymptomatic Head will definitely return for the fifth Test. It’s a good job the match is being played in Hobart.
It may be Khawaja nudges out Marcus Harris at opener but either way Australia’s depth is the source of English envy right now. The guests continue to be obliging also. Leach could have removed Khawaja for 28 during a grim wicketless morning, only for an edge to feather Jos Buttler’s gloves, deflect off his thigh and evade Root’s grasp at slip.
CricViz recorded it as England’s 16th drop of the series which, while not reflecting the difficulty of some, goes some way to explaining the 3-0 scoreline.
How this reads at the end of the fourth Test may well hinge on a pitch that was already starting to show signs of inconsistent bounce. As Khawaja put it during one of the SpiderCam interviews that the broadcasters insist upon during drinks breaks: “I wouldn’t want to be batting last on this.” Not that England’s bowlers failed to capitalise on helpful conditions here, with the surface instead flat in the main, the temperatures stifling and Root losing a key man in Ben Stokes when the all-rounder, attempting a short-ball barrage before lunch, walked off clutching a side strain.
Stokes is unlikely to bowl again in the match, perhaps even the series, but Broad stepped up to deliver his 19th five-wicket haul when both he and England were clearly mulling over his future. Recalled through Ollie Robinson’s fatigue, and having groused about absences in Brisbane and Melbourne, Broad made the second new ball talk after lunch with a two-wicket burst in which the seemingly ominous Steve Smith was caught behind for 67 and Cameron Green fenced to third slip on five with a hard-handed push.
However, Smith and Khawaja had already put miles into the legs of England bowlers during a 115-run fourth-wicket stand. So much so in fact that within 22 overs of the second new ball, with the seamers out of gas for the time being and no Stokes, Root found himself bowling in tandem with Leach. Even Dawid Malan got an outing on the second day, his three overs continuing the lineage of English leg-spinners in Sydney that goes back to Mason Crane in 2017-18 and Scott Borthwick four years earlier.
A day-two pitch was never going to offer Leach much assistance but even factoring in the left-armer’s defensive around-the-wicket plan, the fact his 24 overs, none for 89 included the first three maidens of his series, compared with 37 for Lyon, said plenty. Mark Wood bowled with heart and sustained pace but little luck, while Jimmy Anderson was parsimonious when called upon but unable to add to his one wicket overnight.
Instead, after Root had profited from a wild slog by Alex Carey, it was down to Broad’s force of personality to break a growing stand of 46 between Khawaja and Cummins when a well-targeted bouncer tickled the latter’s glove on 24 and flew behind. A fifth eventually arrived when the tiring Khawaja played on to his stumps, Broad raising the match ball and sharing the applause.
But with Starc crashing an unbeaten 34, and the last two Australian wickets adding 131 runs against a leggy attack before Cummins declared, there was little doubt about which side had taken the honours and the player that the Sydneysiders enjoyed the most.