Labuschagne and Warner turn Ashes screw as England pay for drops

England began the day-night second Ashes Test at the magnificent Adelaide Oval wondering if fortunes might be about to turn. News had filtered through before the start of play that Pat Cummins had been pinged out of the match and, with Josh Hazlewood already absent through a side injury, suddenly Australia appeared vulnerable.

Yet come stumps, with the stunning salmon skies of the South Australian twilight having made way for darkness overhead, many of the feelings from Brisbane had returned. Marnus Labuschagne was unbeaten on 95 from 275 balls, the beneficiary of not one but two howling drops by Jos Buttler behind the stumps, and the hosts had laid an ominous platform for those to come by reaching 221 for two from 89 overs.

Labuschagne was simply a relieved man, happy to eschew any thoughts of emulating Steve Waugh in 2002-03 in attempting to bring up a century off the final ball of the day and instead offering a straight backfoot defence. The right-hander’s hopes of a sixth Test century had nearly been dashed moments earlier when, on 95, a simple edge behind off the recalled Jimmy Anderson had gone to ground. Steve Smith, back as Australia’s captain for the first time in three years after Cummins found himself the close contact of a positive Covid case, made for a calming influence here and sat unbeaten on 18.

Bar that one error from Labuschagne the pair had resisted impressively for more than an hour under lights and against the second new pink ball. Smith had emerged to cheers from the 33,000-strong crowd – a reception that suggests his temporary return to the job has largely been accepted – after David Warner had been removed for 95 by Ben Stokes. That was a breakthrough England had begun to fear may never come after a second-wicket stand of 172 on a typically batting-friendly day one pitch in Adelaide.

Labuschagne and Warner had repeated the diligence shown in Brisbane, leaving well, defending straight, running hard and dispensing with anything loose. As they did so it was hard not to wonder whether England’s Ashes campaign was starting to resemble the Two Ronnies’ Mastermind sketch: giving answers to the previous question posed.

The all-seam attack chosen here might have enjoyed the cloud cover and green pitch witnessed on day one in Brisbane (this would have required Joe Root to bowl first, of course). But with Adelaide due to turn into Hades by way of temperature this week, and the captain’s part-time off-breaks already starting to extract the kind of turn the dropped Jack Leach might have fancied, its deployment here felt ill-judged as the day wore on.

Not only that, the absence of the pacy Mark Wood, rested for a Boxing Day Test that might end up with England in miracle-required territory, made for a diet of right-arm fast-medium in the main. With no swing to speak of during the daylight hours – the ball-tracking data showing this to be the lowest amount witnessed in Australia for seven years – England were largely forced to sit in and hope that wickets would come later under lights. Like a number of their plans on tour so far, it didn’t quite materialise.

This was a good toss to win, Smith striding out in Cummins’s blazer for a first day back in the job since the infamous Cape Town Test in 2018 and happy when Root called incorrectly. Michael Neser had just been presented with his Baggy Green before a debut he was not expecting, while Jhye Richardson had replaced the injured Hazlewood. But both seamers could relax, knowing a day with feet up was likely.

This dual switch meant Australia losing 386 Test wickets of experience, while England called 1,156 victims-worth off the bench in the shape of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. For the latter, playing his 150th Test, it also meant the resumption of what was a one-sided battle with Warner in 2019 and the dominance threatened to continue with the very first delivery when his mark was struck on the pad offering no shot. But in a gripping opening session that saw Root burn two reviews and Australia grind their way to 45 for one from 25 overs, Warner hunkered down in impressive fashion.

The same cannot be said for his opening partner, Marcus Harris, who fell to a spectacular one-handed diving catch down leg by Buttler for just three when attempting to pull Broad fine. It might have been the worst delivery the left-hander received, but with a leg slip in place Broad can point to a trap being set. Buttler was the focus of the celebrations but in the second session his mood had soured somewhat when a similar, slightly easier chance off Labuschagne on 21 went to ground.

Stokes was the bowler denied here, England’s vice-captain deputising for Wood as the attack’s enforcer and operating with some eyecatching leg-side fields while Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson banged disciplined line and length. But aside from that one error from Buttler, Warner and Labuschagne continued their discipline, with the former displaying little sign of the rib injury that placed his participation in doubt bar the odd stoppage to request painkillers.

Warner is no longer solely the blaster witnessed during his younger years. For a good while now the 35-year-old has been able to graft like the best of them, with double figures reached in 53 balls and his half-century in 108. But just as Warner was starting to open up and pick off England’s increasingly desperate bowlers at will – a 25th Test century looming into view for the second time in a week after making 94 at the Gabba – he rocked back and slapped Stokes straight to Broad at cover.

This was as good as it got for England, however, their hopes of inducing some night terrors thwarted by Labuschagne and Smith. The former was still facing a restless night but perhaps nothing compared to that facing Buttler, England’s wicketkeeper having anxiously snatched at a second chance that he would usually take in his sleep.