Boland finally loses grip on perfection as Australia belatedly return to earth

After Scott Boland’s dream run at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, it seemed self-evident that things would never be that easy again. In his second bowling innings on debut, the Victorian seamer rolled in for four overs and picked up six wickets. Catches streamed into the cordon, he hit the stumps, he hit the pads, and he took a return catch himself. Another catch was dropped at gully. The longest he went without a wicket was five balls, and when it was done the whole enterprise had cost him seven runs.

When he came on to bowl in his second match in Sydney, though, the dream continued. His first over was a maiden, and nearly had Zak Crawley playing on to his stumps. His second over kept Crawley guessing, hitting the seam with a perfect position that sometimes ducked away and sometimes in. The final ball of the over was a little fuller, carving back off the seam to hit the very top of off-stump. Perfection.

His third over was tight on the off-stump, keeping Joe Root quiet throughout, so that when Boland offered some width in his fourth over, England’s captain and best player chased it and edged to slip. Ben Stokes blocked out the rest of that over and another after lunch. Combined with Boland’s Melbourne outing, that made nine overs for eight wickets and seven runs.

Eventually, perfection has to pass. It may even have been some sense of relief for Boland to return to cricketing normality after that, given the tiny abashed waves he gave to the crowd at fine leg every time he returned to their sonic embrace. Stokes scored a single in Boland’s sixth over of the innings, England’s first run in 70 balls. Soon afterwards Jonny Bairstow scored a brace, then in what seemed a minor miracle the batting pair scored three boundaries in the next four Boland overs.

Coming down to earth happened literally in Boland’s 12th and final over of the day, when he lost his footing bowling the final ball of the second session and fell heavily on his side. In obvious discomfort, he left the field and was taken for a scan. Cleared of damage, he returned to the ground in his training kit to test himself out in the SCG nets, and was back fielding by the end of the day without being called upon to bowl. Ending the day sore with figures of two for 25 was more in keeping with reality.

It was a similar story all round for Australia’s bowlers. Alongside Boland, they put on a show through a rain-shortened morning session that was no less torrid for its brevity. Cameron Green extracted alarming bounce, using it to discomfit Dawid Malan before making him fend a catch. Pat Cummins smashed a few gloves himself, and Mitchell Starc burned a full ball through Haseeb Hameed. Aside from reducing England to 36 for four, the innings also saw Australia drop three catches, have a wicket overturned for a no-ball, and have Stokes survive a ball from Green that smashed off-stump but didn’t disturb the bail. Far from being a source of frustration, these misses only reinforced the feeling that 10 wickets would fall in no time.

It was a great surprise, then, when things stopped going Australia’s way. At Headingley in 2019 it was a counterattack from Stokes and Bairstow that changed the game. The version in Sydney will probably not lead to the same result, but it shifted the atmosphere, nonetheless. Nathan Lyon was targeted, the off-spinner conceding the second-fastest 50 runs of his career. Instead of settling into his rhythm he sometimes slipped too full or too short, as he was hit repeatedly to the fence or over it. Winning that battle was a big part of England adding 99 wicketless runs in a session.

Suddenly there was a sense of enjoyment in England’s game that has been sorely missing this tour, and there was a sense of things not going Australia’s way. That course looked to have reversed abruptly when Lyon burrowed through the Stokes defence with a ball that skipped on, and when Cummins just about detached Bairstow’s thumb from his hand with the very next ball. But Bairstow got treatment, took stock, and carried on.

A couple of Bairstow sixes followed soon afterwards, the wounded man swinging, including an audacious pull from Green. Then it was Mark Wood – a wholehearted performer but batting too high at No 8 – who laid into Australia. Cummins had never been hit for three sixes by a player in one innings. He has now, by a most unlikely source. All of the sixes were hook shots, all with two catchers out in the deep. The first of them had Cummins laughing. By the third the humour had faded.

None of this has much chance of changing the ending, England are still 158 runs behind with three wickets in hand. But for one thing, the fun of the day means this doesn’t really matter, and for another, one never knows what twists a game will bring. More to the point, after a series in which almost everything has gone their way, Australia’s bowlers for the first time experienced consecutive sessions where things didn’t.