Great Expectations, so the rather lame joke goes, is not nearly as good a read as you would hope. And it is fair to say they were in short supply when Craig Overton tramped out to the middle at 4.58pm on the third day in Adelaide with England staring into the void and Australia rampant.
Here was England’s debutant No9 joining Chris Woakes at the crease with the score 142 for seven and the deficit a neat 300. A swift and total subsidence by Joe Root’s side and there was every chance Steve Smith may have invited them for another evening interrogation under the lights. Overton, fresh from three ducks in the warm-ups, was on for the dreaded “Audi”.
While it was known that Overton is no mug with the bat for Somerset, in these parts it is as much about courage for the lower order. A working over in the nets on the night before his debut – a first clue that we would replace the heavily-bombed Jake Ball from the XI at Brisbane – was still but a mere taster of what was to come from Australia’s quicks.
But what followed showed that while the 23-year-old is clearly still raw, and his promotion has come about through a combination of injuries and suspension, the greatest unknown when making the step up to Test level – temperament – can be ticked off.
In gutsing out an unbeaten 41 – one of bobs, weaves, guides and the odd club, while never taking backward step against Mitchell Starc and co – Overton not only added to his three wickets in the first innings but became the first England debutant to top score from No9 for 118 years.
The stand of 66 from 99 balls between Woakes (33) and the 6ft 5in Overton, while resembling Han Solo and Chewbacca firing off their blasters on the retreat and forcing Smith to bat again, also brought with it of sense of what might have been from the batsmen earlier in the day however; the players for whom expectations are greater.
After all, morning rain on the banks of the Torrens had made way for what was a fine afternoon on what has been the flattest of the three Adelaide day-night pitches to date. England, for all the gloom of their first two days, were expected to lay down a statement of intent that, if the Ashes are indeed changing hands, theirs would at least be cold and dead upon release.
But just four balls into his morning’s work and James Vince was toddling off, having for the second innings in a row nicked off to offer a creeping suspicion that his 83 first up at Brisbane was the exception. Josh Hazlewood has now located the ideal length for a No3 so flirty he will be next up on “Ashes Pashes” challenge that urges couples in the crowd to kiss on the big screen.
“This is the partnership, this is the Test, this is the Ashes,” drawled Shane Warne on the Channel 9 commentary after Root punched gloves with Alastair Cook in the middle. Twenty minutes later, however he was gone, having skewed a drive to slip off Pat Cummins on nine when failing to get fully over the ball. Australia, it must be said, are enjoying their hold over England’s captain.
Thereafter it was a case of the specialist batsmen not meeting the brief of their head coach, Trevor Bayliss, and being ruthless enough to go big when set. Each had faced 50 balls, two – Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali – chipped return catches and Cook, though moving better than in Brisbane, was particularly deflating when he nibbled at Nathan Lyon’s first ball after a drinks break.
Only Dawid Malan, undone by a fine piece of bowling from Cummins that nicked the inside edge, can be said to be exempt, although Nathan Lyon, enjoying himself against the left-handers, is clearly in his head after some skittish dancing down the track to Australia’s emboldened off-spinner.
In the summer England’s batsmen were accused of not respecting Test cricket after a loose and crushing defeat to South Africa at Trent Bridge and a response resulted thereafter. Here, though they are facing a well-oiled attack bowling fuller and quicker than their own, some personal hunger may need to be challenged again or the expectation is for a heavy series defeat.
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