As the Edgbaston Test entered its final hour on Tuesday evening, everyone at the venue knew they were about to witness something special.
All four results were still possible as Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon slowly chipped away at the deficit, with the demons of 2005 lingering in the background.
The Edgbaston Test, which had been on a knife edge for the best part of five days, ended with a misfield at deep third man, a career-defining moment for Cummins that will forever be ingrained in Ashes folklore.
BAZBALL IS FLAWED, BUT IT’S GLORIOUS
Watching this English team play Test cricket is like listening to a podcast at 1.5x speed. Every time you glance up at the scoreboard, an additional 20 runs appear, seemingly out of nowhere.
Under the guidance of Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes, England has created a fascinating brand of cricket, colloquially dubbed ‘Bazball’, that has prioritised entertainment and enjoyment over results.
It’s flawed, as proven by February’s one-run loss in Wellington and this week’s two-wicket defeat at Edgbaston, but it has also provided some of the most memorable Test matches in a generation.
England’s batting throughout the Ashes opener was fast-paced but never reckless — with the exception of a couple of regrettable slogs against Australian spinner Nathan Lyon.
The hosts scored at 4.61 per over across the match, considerably higher than Australia’s 3.20 — as revealed by statistician Andrew Samson, you have to go back to 1904 for a Test match where the difference was greater.
England’s attacking mentality ensured there was a result in Birmingham — if they had batted at a traditional tempo on that flat Edgbaston deck, the rain-affected contest probably would have ended as a stalemate.
But draws are not an option in the ‘Bazball’ era — on this occasion, to Australia’s benefit.
There will be endless debate about Ben Stokes’ first-innings declaration on day one when centurion Joe Root looked settled and could have easily slapped another thirty-odd runs before stumps.
The reasoning was understandable — Stokes wanted a short burst at Australia’s openers when conditions were hardest for batting, and it would have been a masterstroke if England snared a breakthrough or two.
“No, not at all,” Stokes said in the post-match presentation when asked if he regretted the declaration.
“I saw that as an opportunity to pounce on Australia. No opening batsman likes to go out for 20 minutes at the back end of the day.
“I sensed an opportunity to potentially take two wickets and then start day two really on top, but who knows how it could have worked out.”
Birmingham spectators were treated to glimpses of the ‘Bazball’ spectacle in action throughout the exhilarating contest. Joe Root’s audacious reverse scoops on Monday morning quickly swung momentum in England’s favour, forcing Australian captain Pat Cummins to abandon his plans after just seven deliveries.
England’s seamers conceded more runs by bowling a yard fuller than usual, but the pay-off was a higher chance of LBW and bowled wickets, including the first-innings dismissals of Steve Smith and Alex Carey.
Stokes was repeatedly tinkering with his fielders, but his experimentation produced the reverse umbrella field setting that, to an extent, accounted for Usman Khawaja on day three.
Root takes the mickey with reverse scoop | 00:42
“The way England played now makes sense,” South African legend AB de Villiers tweeted on Tuesday.
“Call it what you want, some say ‘Bazball’, I just think it’s smart cricket. The best teams are prepared to adapt and play situations in a way that’ll ultimately put them in a winning position more often than the rest, whether that’s by making bold declarations or playing reverse sweeps a lot, whatever it takes.
“The only way to make it impactful is to have a complete buy-in from every individual, no egos, no stats-driven players, just a full-on buy-in to be the best team in the world. That’s how I see the England team play at the moment.”
However, having suffered back-to-back defeats after being in dominant positions during both matches, Stokes and McCullum might need to reassess their ‘Bazball’ limitations ahead of the Lord’s Test.
“I think England have got the most questions to answer. Their style of play, is it going to hold up in an Ashes series?” former Australian captain Ricky Ponting said on Sky Sports.
“By no means am I saying that England’s method is wrong, I have loved watching them play, but it just goes to show there is more than one way to skin a cat.
“This is a long and hard game. Australia’s method has stood up and it has worked.
“I want this series to be played the same way and I know Ben and Brendon will play the same way, which adds even more to next week.”
CAUTIONARY TALE IN KHAWAJA’S EIGHTH REITERATION
Australia doesn’t deserve Usman Khawaja.
The Queenslander has been dropped seven times throughout his Test career, sometimes even when form wasn’t a concern. Having averaged 58.10 during the previous home summer, he was axed for Mitchell Marsh ahead of the 2017 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, with national selectors cautious of his perceived flaws against turning pitches.
“(It is) very hard to develop your game and play some consist cricket if you’re not getting consistent opportunities overseas, which I haven’t been getting,” Khawaja said at the time.
The left-hander was dropped again during the 2019 Ashes, and had to wait nearly three years for his next opportunity at Test level.
“Without sounding arrogant, I still feel like I’m one of the top six batsmen in the country,” Khawaja boldly declared in May 2020.
Having averaged only 25.25 in his first 15 away Tests, the numbers suggested Khawaja was vulnerable in foreign conditions — but he has since become a cautionary tale for the dangers of relying on data.
Khawaja was unfairly branded a flat-track bully, a stat-padder who couldn’t score runs overseas — on Saturday morning, a busker outside Edgbaston sang: “No I’ve never seen Khawaja score a run.”
The 36-year-old responded by compiling one the most elegant hundreds of his career, rescuing Australia after an early collapse in the first innings. He backed it up with a gritty half-century on day five, facing 518 deliveries across the match, the most for an Australian opener in an away Ashes Test since 1964.
It was a herculean effort from the People’s Champ, and Australia wouldn’t have come close to victory in Birmingham without him.
“I don’t read the media, but when I’m getting sprayed in the nets and getting sprayed when I’m walking out there that I can’t bat in England, I guess (my century celebration) was just a bit more emotional than normal,” Khawaja said at stumps on day two.
Since his fortuitous national recall in January 2022, courtesy of Travis Head’s Covid-19 scare, Khawaja has scored Test centuries in Pakistan, India and England. Nobody has accumulated more Test runs than him since the start of last year, and he is statistically the greatest opening batter in Test history.
He has admitted that every match in Australian whites feels like a bonus, because he genuinely believed his Test career was over. Family has since become his priority, and without the nagging fear of being dropped, Khawaja is batting with the freedom and confidence he was denied earlier in his career.
“In my heart, I probably know it’s going to be my last tour in England,” he told reporters on Saturday.
“It’s just about enjoying it. My wife’s been awesome to me, been my rock throughout my career.
“Just like me, every Test match is a bonus for her because we thought my career was over.
“Herself and our young (children) keep me grounded and make me realise there’s a lot to life … after I stop playing cricket.
“That kind of perspective just makes it a lot easier for me to go and enjoy it as much as possible.”
Highest batting average for Test openers
66.87 — Usman Khawaja (AUS)
61.10 — Herbert Sutcliffe (ENG)
56.90 — Bruce Mitchell (RSA)
56.47 — Leonard Hutton (ENG)
56.37 — Jack Hobbs (ENG)
* Minimum 25 innings
Uzzie conquers UK with emotional ton! | 00:50
ASHES NEMESIS BROAD DOES IT AGAIN
For a decade and a half, Stuart Broad has terrorised Australia, and mere days before his 37th birthday his stunning Edgbaston display shows he can still give the visitors nightmares.
Having played in all five Tests in his four previous Ashes series on home soil (since 2009), a key question will be whether the aggressive paceman can maintain his effectiveness down the length of this campaign.
Before the Ashes began, England publicly mulled starting the express pace of Mark Wood over Broad. But England skipper Ben Stokes pointed to the veteran seamer’s “incredible” record as the reason they stuck solid with Broad and his tried-and-tested pairing with James Anderson.
Stokes said: “When you say Broad, (Ollie) Robinson, Anderson, it’s a pretty good three guys to say they’re in your starting XI.
“Broady’s record against Australia is incredible and it’s very hard to look past someone like that in the opening game of such a big series.
“I think what the Ashes brings, it’s just so hard to look past someone like that.”
Broad was the chief destroyer of Australia’s vaunted batting attack this week – and not just his ‘bunny’ in David Warner, who he picked up for just nine in the first innings. It was the 15th time Warner had fallen to the seamer – and nine of those have come in single figures.
Broad also knocked Marnus Labuschagne over twice in five balls in near-identical fashion. The world’s No. 1 ranked Test batter fell into a trap, with Broad enticing him to chase a wide one and edge it behind.
Only a no-ball denied him the wicket of Khawaja, too, in the first innings. But the point remains – after all this time, Australia still seems to have precious few answers.
Since his Ashes debut in 2009, Broad has racked up 137 wickets at 27.59 in 36 Tests, good enough for fourth on the all-time wicket-taking list in the grand rivalry – and with Hugh Trumble’s 141 wickets firmly in his sights this series.
His iconic 8-15 at Nottingham in 2015 is the fourth-best bowling figures in an innings in Ashes history, behind Jim Laker’s stunning 10-53 and 9-37 in 1956 (in the same Test, no less) and Arthur Mailey’s 9-121 in Melbourne in 1921.
That virtuosic performance in 2015 turned the series, as he did back in 2009 with another magical spell at The Oval including 4-8 in 21 balls.
He’s highly unlikely to play all five matches this series. But Australia’s arch-villain has already made a statement – and Warner, Labuschagne, and the Aussies as a team have been left desperately searching for answers.
“Ashes cricket is just magical,” Broad said on Monday.
“I loved every second of that last hour. It was so good running in and hearing that roar.”
Marnus & Smith succumb to Broad magic | 01:09
THE ASHES ARE GOING TO BE ‘HOSTILE’
The Ashes are one of cricket’s fiercest rivalries, and it’s abundantly clear this year’s series won’t be an exception.
Ahead of the Edgbaston Test, England captain Ben Stokes warned his side wouldn’t back down if things got heated out on the field.
“It always does, it’s just the occasion,” he declared.
“I’m sure no individual will back down if that happens.”
Meanwhile, Australian skipper Pat Cummins said he would be surprised if verbals played a part in the five-Test campaign.
“Our team is pretty chilled out there,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“We are quite a confident bunch, but not overly loud or in your face. I think you have seen our personality reflected out on the field. I am sure there is going to be emotion at times, but I would be surprised if that bubbled over, like maybe it has in the past.”
And there was certainly plenty of emotion throughout this week’s engrossing contest in Birmingham.
England quick Ollie Robinson dominated headlines for giving Australian centurion Usman Khawaja a send-off on day three of the Edgbaston Test, defending his actions in the post-match press conference.
“I don’t really care how it’s perceived to be honest,” Robinson said.
“It’s the Ashes, professional sport. If you can’t handle that, what can you handle?
“I think when you’re in the heat of the moment and you have the passion of the Ashes, that can happen.
“We’ve all seen Ricky Ponting, other Aussies do the same to us. Just because the shoe is on the other foot, it’s not received well.”
Robinson and Khawaja exchanged some unfriendly words during a drinks break on day five, and umpire Marais Erasmus needed to have a word with the England quick before play continued.
“It’s an Ashes,” Australian wicketkeeper Alex Carey said.
”At times it is going to be pretty exciting and hostile cricket.”
Although both sides downplayed the incident, Robinson’s remarks caused a stir in the media, igniting juvenile debate among cricket fans on social media channels.
The Australians aren’t immune to letting emotions get the better of them either, with Marnus Labuschagne seemingly reprimanded by Erasmus on day three following an appeal for caught behind.
The Birmingham crowd played their role in the drama as well — the Hollies Stand belted a tasteless chant of “Rolf Harris, he’s one of your own,” on Saturday, adding a rendition of “Same old Aussies, always cheating,” whenever the visitors claimed a low chance.
Nathan Lyon was targeted with “You’re just a s**t Moeen Ali,” which the Australian spinner quickly disproved at Edgbaston, while Steve Smith’s maiden visit to the boundary rope was greeted with jeers of “We saw you cry on the telly”.
AUSSIE FOURTH-INNINGS CURSE FINALLY OVER
The last time Australia successfully chased a 250-plus target in the fourth innings of a Test match, debutant Pat Cummins hit the winning runs.
It took 12 years for Australia to replicate the feat, and once again Cummins dealt the decisive blow — but on this occasion, as team captain in an Ashes thriller.
It ends a decade of frustration and heartache for the Australians, who couldn’t seem to step up in clutch moments, particularly on day five when the pitch had deteriorated and fatigue had taken its toll.
After Cummins’ Test debut, Australia suffered 20 losses and two draws when chasing 250-plus targets in the fourth innings, with zero wins before Tuesday’s dramatic victory. Meanwhile, England has achieved the feat six times in the past decade, including four occasions in the last 12 months.
One of the rare exceptions was the 2018 Dubai Test against Pakistan, where none other than Usman Khawaja survived 302 deliveries to help Australia clinch an unlikely draw.
Australia’s fourth-innings woes extended to fielding stints too, regularly failing to get the job done despite being in a commanding position — Adelaide 2012, Headingley 2019, Sydney 2021, Brisbane 2021, Karachi 2022, to name a few.
Hopefully, this week’s Edgbaston triumph has laid to rest the ghosts of fourth-innings past.
“There have been a few occasions where Australia have bottled close games. You think back to Headingley in 2019 as an example of that,” former England captain Alastair Cook said on BBC Test Match Special before play on day five.
“So if they do get the 170-odd runs to win here they’ll take lot mentally from that. Otherwise the momentum will be hard to turn.”