There’s nothing like a batting collapse, of seeing a rush of wickets on the scoreboard nearly matching the flow of runs and, for a brief time, superseding it, especially when it’s least expected. To be sure, England had a weak top three. To be sure, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow are the only batters in this English team who average over 35, thanks to the continued exclusion of Ben Foakes and the resting of Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler. To be sure, England had no one else who averaged more than 32.43 at the start of the innings.
But there was always supposed to be some sort of recovery. If not from Root or Bairstow, then perhaps from Sam Curran, the best of the rest and India’s bête noire during the last English summer. Or some sort of score from any other member of the top eight whose spot for the Ashes is not safe beyond reasonable doubt. Every boundary, whether it be one of the four from Joe Denly or the two from Curran, or even the mere arrival of Root or Bairstow at the crease, was supposed to represent a turn in the game, the start of the climb to respectability.
Yet it never did. Another wicket always fell.
England could play in another thousand Men’s Ashes Tests in the 21st century and not face a specialist Australian bowler like Tim Murtagh. Shane Watson (the older, cannier Watson of 2010-on) and Andrew Symonds are the closest in pace, and even then, they were batting all-rounders. Trent Copeland fits the bill more, but he was a response to an Ashes loss that lasted one series, and even then, he bats better than Murtagh. Murtagh is something different, a medium/slow-medium bowler who, on the pitches of Australia, may never have made it past first grade. My homeland is a place that values pace unless you can bat or spin it. Even the Peter Siddles of the world outpace the Murtaghs of the world. But that doesn’t mean Murtagh doesn’t have value. He’s been a valuable servant of Middlesex for more than a decade now, a Lord’s specialist and someone who has a natural ally in the conditions from the Nursery end.
Take Bairstow, for instance. He could take guard so far down the wicket that he could hold a conversation with the umpire without raising his voice, until he was told to knock it off for the sake of the pitch. He could pull away before a ball was bowled and watch it hit the top of off. But he couldn’t prevent Murtagh chipping away at his weakness, the gap between bat and pad, until it was wide enough for another bowled dismissal. And Bairstow wasn’t on his own. Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes were also dismissed for ducks at the hands of the veteran, and Murtagh also dismissed the openers to claim a five-wicket haul.
Murtagh wasn’t an army of one, either. Mark Adair was more expensive, but he dismissed Denly, the top scorer of the innings, and Root, the key wicket, and Olly Stone, who had hit Stuart Thompson out of the attack on a quest to give himself something to bowl at. The ball that got Root in particular was a ball which, if he were playing, James Anderson couldn’t have improved on, curving away in the air as if under remote control before running down the hill. Boyd Rankin did the rest, and considering that included the wicket of Curran, the rest doesn’t really do his job justice. India would have bought a Sam Curran Extractigator in 2018 if they could have. Ireland just needed Rankin and a short leg.
There was, however, a reason that England were still considered favourites despite having only 85 on the board. 207 was the sort of lead which Ireland needed to feel comfortable; instead, it was their entire first innings total.
And Ireland’s reply began so promisingly. By tea, William Porterfield, James McCollum, Andy Balbirnie and Paul Stirling had all faced more balls by themselves than any English batsman had in the morning session. Porterfield and McCollum had strike rates in the 30s, while Balbirnie and Stirling had strike rates in the 80s and already taken Ireland to a lead of 42. The next man in, Kevin O’Brien, instrumental in so many Irish victories with the bat, would go onto face more balls than anyone else.
The problem was, he couldn’t do it with no one at the other end. Sensing their chance, Stuart Broad and Olly Stone found a level of skill and accuracy that they hadn’t found before tea and took six wickets between them to keep Ireland’s lead to manageable proportions. The best of the rest was Murtagh, and he spent a good chunk of his 16 off 10 headed towards square leg as he tried for another quick-fire innings in the mould of his half-century against Afghanistan. Ali finished the job, leaving one over for England to survive.
So, they sent out Jack Leach to face it, and Rory Burns to sit on his bat. Normally, this would be the cue for a rant about how nonsensical a tactic sending out a nightwatchman is, but he was the only England batsman who hadn’t been dismissed in the morning, he did survive the over and, the probability of an early wicket to the Irish aside, it may cause England to further rejig their order. If they don’t, Root will come in at No. 5 and thus be more likely to be in a position where he has to respond to Irish dominance. If, however, he, Denly and Bairstow stay where they are, it will allow Roy a chance against an older ball and still leave room to give Curran a promotion to No. 7.
After Leach and Burns bat for a whole day. Hey, who could have predicted yesterday?