Battered and bruised, Bairstow and England finally discover their fight

If there was ever going to be an English counterpunch, it was going to look like this.

Two familiar Australian foils, all fire and fury from hair to bat, deciding at last they'd had enough.

On Friday afternoon at the SCG, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow brought life back to a Test match that threatened to follow its predecessors' path into farce.

Both batted through injury, Stokes with a strain in his side and Bairstow with a thumb blown to smithereens by Pat Cummins, coming to the crease amid yet another English top order surrender.

It all looked a little Melbourney in the morning session, as wickets fell as freely as Sydney's habitual morning shower.

There was Scott Boland again, sending statisticians scurrying to their scorecards as his figures grew more and more ridiculous. Two wickets for no runs in his first spell meant his last eight overs in Test cricket had delivered him 8-7 — and no, that's not using the English mode of scoring.

Haseeb Hameed and Jack Crawley were bowled with strokes more befitting second-grade tailenders than Test openers, bat keeping a safe social distance from pad.

Haseeb Hameed should have been caught on 2, but did not last much longer.(Getty: Mark Kolbe)

Joe Root played a lazy, burnt-out stroke befitting a man who needs a long hibernation after his historic 2021.

And Dawid Malan was caught down the leg side on the stroke of lunch, strolling carelessly into Australia's trap with minimal resistance.

Throughout that period and beyond, Australia bowled 70 balls without England scoring a run. It was part suffocating pressure, part weary indifference as the batting allowed itself to be overwhelmed by the bowling.

Early in the Bairstow-Stokes partnership, the latter was dropped by Cummins off his own bowling. And then, something clicked.

At first, it was just the noise of a Cameron Green delivery striking Stokes's off stump, somehow without dislodging the off bail.

But that scare, perhaps combined with the injuries, the morning woes and the blow after ceaseless blow suffered on this god-forsaken tour, woke England up.

Ben Stokes was clearly not healthy, but still managed his best innings of the series.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

And so Stokes and Bairstow did what they do as well as any cricketers in the world. They had a go.

Stokes stood tall and bashed the fast bowlers through the line. Bairstow dropped to a knee and belted Nathan Lyon over square leg. They cut the wide ones and drove the full ones. They fought like they had one more punch left to throw, so they may as well make it a good one.

Suddenly, the cricket was riveting again. If there's one thing you can say about Ben Stokes the cricketer — and in truth, there are many — it's that you dare not look away when he has centre stage.

It couldn't last for Stokes, caught LBW by a Lyon slider, but Bairstow wouldn't be denied.

Bairstow has proven even more of an Ashes enigma than Stokes. There have been times when he's seemed as vulnerable as the rest of them, but every series he seems to have at least one of these knocks in him.

Like Usman Khawaja for Australia, Jonny Bairstow was not considered in England's best XI to start the series.(Getty: Jason McCawley/Cricket Australia)

That he completed this century, his seventh in Test cricket, with such a badly injured thumb makes it particularly special. Just as Graeme Smith did on this ground 14 years ago, Bairstow won admirers with his courage.

But Bairstow's greatest victory was to force Australia to question their plans, maybe for the first time all series.

When he was joined by Mark Wood and his flashing blade, the Aussies looked rattled.

Captain Cummins, sent for three sixes by a hooking Wood, suddenly looked more Dick Whitman than Don Draper.

And yet, at the end of one of England's best days of the tour, Australia's position in the Test remains strong.

The lead is still 158 and England's tail cannot be expected to bat long into day four. In theory, Australia could quite swiftly blow their advantage out towards something insurmountable.

Once again, neither England opener could put significant runs on the board.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

But there is rain on the horizon, potentially quite a lot of it on Saturday. If time is lost, Australia's hand will be forced. If Australia's hand is forced, their third innings total could be compromised or they could be forced into a premature declaration.

There is a window here. A tiny crack of light for England to dig towards through the last two days of this Test.

And should they find their way to that impossible escape, they'll have the scrappy defiance of Bairstow and Stokes to thank.


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