Everything was in place for England to fight back in the Ashes. All was in their favour when Ben Stokes won a crucial toss on a gloomy day and, with barely disguised glee, asked Australia to bat on a green Lord’s pitch. But, bafflingly and inexplicably, they blew it.
It is difficult to over-estimate just how crushingly bad England were. Difficult, too, to explain how they could be so poor, so lacking in energy and imagination, when there was so much at stake against an Australia side who, let’s be honest, had stolen the first Test.
Only when Stokes turned in desperation to the spin of Joe Root on a day made for seam and saw him dismiss Travis Head and Cameron Green in four balls did England have any sort of hope. Their old nemesis Steve Smith is still there on 85 and Australia ended a quite miserable first day of this second Test for England in control on 339 for five.
This was the worst day of a Bazball era that has already provided so much joy and had promised so much more in what was meant to be a thrilling and closely contested Ashes.
Much worse than the narrow defeats against New Zealand and in the first Test at Edgbaston and worse than the defeat here last year against South Africa because this means so much more.
England had a joyless day in ideal conditions for bowling after winning the toss at Lord’s
Ben Stokes’ side looked short on inspiration and firepower as Australian made hay in London
The partnership of Steve Smith and Travis Head was a particularly formidable one late on
Australia dominated to such a degree it is already difficult to see England coming back and somehow gaining the victory they desperately need to keep the Ashes alive. It was a shambles, said Kevin Pietersen on Sky, and it was impossible to disagree.
From the moment David Warner hit the fourth ball of the day off Jimmy Anderson, struggling again to make any sort of impact, to the boundary England resembled so many sides of the past who were intimidated by Australia almost before they had started.
This year was meant to be different – and it was at Edgbaston until Pat Cummins somehow got Australia over the line. What a missed opportunity it felt like for England at the time and it feels even more like one now.
There was no spark about England. They were just not on it all day. Not even the rousing ovation Jonny Bairstow received for picking up one of the Just Stop Oil protesters who invaded the pitch after the first over and marching off with him could inspire England.
Play was halted briefly in the opening minutes after Just Stop Oil protestors invaded the field
Jonny Bairstow bodily carried off one protestor in what England hoped would hint at a dominant display with the gloves to come
Ashes’ debutant Josh Tongue looked good taking wickets of David Warner and Usman Khawaja
The bowling was lacklustre and lacking in pace and penetration, at least until Josh Tongue provided a glimmer of hope by taking the wickets of Warner and his fellow opener Usman Khawaja. There was plenty of assistance both through the air and off the pitch for England but not even the big two in Anderson and Stuart Broad could take advantage.
There were more dropped catches, too, a difficult one spilled by Joe Root at slip and a far easier one by Ollie Pope at fourth slip that gave both Australian openers a reprieve. And 12 more no balls to add to the 23 at Edgbaston that were a factor in England’s demise.
Most surprisingly, there was none of the tactically astute and daring captaincy we have seen so often from Stokes, just conventional fields for his pop-gun attack until he finally attempted to get funky when Smith and Head were running away with the Test. Too late.
As if to complete England’s misery Pope had to leave the field after diving and damaging his right shoulder. There was no news of any scans from England but it did not look good for a man who has twice had serious injuries and surgery on his other shoulder.
England will be worried as they await the verdict on Ollie Pope, who suffered an injury
The apparent shoulder injury forced Pope off and England will wait with baited breath to see if he can continue in the series
Marnus Labuschagne was able to involve himself after two premature exits at Edgbaston
Tongue, only playing here because every other English bowler with extra pace has fallen, can be excused criticism. His first three overs went for 24 runs but the first ball of his fourth was a beauty that went down the Lord’s slope and bowled Khawaja offering no shot.
Even better was the 87 miles per hour ball Tongue bowled to Warner that swung and seamed into the left-hander before taking the top of his stumps and bowling him for 66.
That brought Australia’s big two in Smith and Marnus Labuschagne together, both on a mission after failing at Edgbaston and being knocked off the top of the rankings by Root.
It was always unlikely both would fail again but both were given out and reprieved on review, Smith on 24 off just 15 balls when technology found he had not edged Broad, and Labuschagne on 33 when Broad’s lbw shout upheld by Ahsan Raza was found to be missing.
Labuschagne could not take advantage, slowly dragging himself off after edging Ollie Robinson, but Smith marched on, slowing down after his lightning start but looking every bit as immovable as when he dominated the last Ashes in England four years ago.
Ollie Robinson claimed the wicket of Labuschagne but the Australian took some dislodging
Head notched up 77 in double quick time, claiming a century with Smith in a blistering show
Head was eventually forced out by Bairstow’s quick thinking as he took the player’s stumps
Joe Root (centre) provided the silver lining with his two wickets after a difficult day at Lord’s
There was a desperately close lbw shout when Smith had reached 70 but Chris Gaffaney said no and was vindicated, of sorts, when technology showed umpire’s call. If he had raised his finger Smith would have had no complaints because it was mighty close.
Head had been identified by Stokes before the series as the batsman he most feared could take the attack to England and here he did just that in racing along to 77 off 73 balls and looking on course for the fastest Ashes century by an Australian.
But out of nowhere Root turned one sharply past the advancing Head and saw Bairstow, who had such a difficult game with the gloves at Edgbaston, complete a good stumping. Three balls later Green aimed a big shot at Root and scooped to mid-off.
It was a rare shaft of light but, really, it flattered to deceive. England will have to take the remaining five wickets quickly on Thursday and then bat out of their skins to win this now. Whisper it but they may have to try to play for a draw – and we all know they won’t do that.