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England belief growing as Malan ton ticks another box

Dawid Malan prepared for the Gabba with a century AFP

Cricket Australia XI 250 and 3 for 121 trail England XI 515 (Stoneman 111, Malan 109, Root 83, Cook 70, Short 4-103) by 144 runs
Scorecard

Maybe it's the sea air or maybe they have been lulled into a false sense of security by the modesty of the opposition, but there appears to be a growing sense of optimism within the England squad.

The announcement of Australia's squad for the first Ashes Test confirmed a couple of long-held suspicions. Notably that Australia have holes and weaknesses, too. They can be beaten.

It's the Australian bowling attack that has England interested. It's not that it's weak - far from it - but it might well be thin. For however good Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc are - and they look very good indeed - they can't bowl forever. And with only one other specialist seamer in their side - Josh Hazlewood - England will know that if they can force them into fourth and fifth spells, if they can force them to pull on their boots for a fourth or fifth session in the field, the cracks will begin to show.

That's easier said than done, of course. On the last Ashes tour in 2013-14, England might have felt similarly about Mitchell Johnson. But they never could push him into those extra spells as he struck almost every time he was unleashed.

There's a key difference this time, though. Australia do not have an allrounder like Shane Watson (or even Mitchell Marsh) on whom they can rely to bowl tight overs with an old ball to maintain the pressure and allow the faster bowlers to recover. Instead they will need Nathan Lyon and Hazlewood to bowl long spells and allow Cummins and Starc, both of whom have suffered significant injury setbacks in recent times, to operate in short bursts. If England can bat long, they might be able to exploit that selection.

There's no lack of respect for the Australian squad. But it does appear they will have a man at No. 7 - Tim Paine - with one first-class century to his name, who has averaged under 20 with the bat in the last four Shield seasons and who wasn't been guaranteed a place in his state side in recent weeks. England, by contrast, will have a man at No. 8 - Chris Woakes - with nine first-class centuries to his name.

So it was encouraging that England should bat for 142.5 overs and score more than 500 here. Yes, conditions were comfortable and the opposition soft. But an England side which has, at times batted fast rather than long took the opportunity to attune to the mentality required to win the Ashes. If they keep Cummins and Starc out in the field for 142 overs

It seems churlish to find fault in a total in excess of 500, but England may be just a little concerned by another batting collapse in mid-innings. They lost five wickets for 38 runs at one stage, subsiding from 419 for 4 to 457 for 9 before a tenth-wicket stand of 58 put things right.

While such collapses occur too frequently to be brushed aside, there was an element of freakishness about most of the wickets. Joe Root, for example, was caught - brilliantly caught - down the leg side, Jonny Bairstow hit a full toss to mid-on and Dawid Malan was run-out by a direct hit from midwicket. None betrayed a particular weakness about which England should be overly concerned, though Root was frustrated at himself for failing to convert to a century once again.

The two who missed out in a more meaningful way were Moeen Ali and Craig Overton. Moeen, playing his first innings of the tour, simply allowed a straight one from the offspinner Matthew Short who, before this game had taken one first-class wicket at a cost of 91 runs, to pass through the gap between bat and pad, before Overton suffered his third duck of the tour when he turned his first delivery into the hands of short leg.

Overton continues to bowl nicely - England experimented with him bowling something approaching leg-theory in the final session - but he could have done with a few runs to shore-up his position in the first Test team. Jake Ball was fit enough to field in the CA XI's second innings (Alastair Cook was off the field with an upset stomach; it is not thought to be serious) and remains a bit of a threat to Overton's chances of making a debut in Brisbane.

The most pleasing aspect of the day was Malan's conversion of his overnight half-century into his first century in an England shirt. He has batted - and fielded - faultlessly on this tour to date and looks far more comfortable in this environment than he was during the English summer.

He feels that getting to know his team-mates, learning to cope with the media scrutiny and relaxing into his rhythm of batting has left him far better equipped for the challenges ahead. He also feels he had just lost a bit of form when he was first selected for the Test side and was forced to battle for his runs. Now, relaxed in mind and with a slightly more open technique, he is looking elegant and sound at the crease.

"When I was picked it coincided with a loss of form," he said. "It just came at the wrong time in terms of where I was hitting the ball. There were a couple of times against the West Indies where I got to 60 where I felt if I was playing well I probably could have pushed on.

"People haven't seen me at my best yet for England. Apart from in T20. In the Test matches I haven't played as well as I can. The little habits I got into restricted me in some areas where I'm quite strong. I nicked a few balls I probably wouldn't nick if I was playing well.

"I have opened my stance a bit. I think with the pressures that came last year it closed a little bit. I knew I had gone side on but I didn't know how much impact that was making on my scoring areas I had. I thought it would make it easier for me and take out a few different modes of dismissal and access the ball in certain areas.

"There are scoring areas that feel quite natural to me and I lost those during the summer, whether that be off the hip or a drive, a cut or whatever it was at the time. The shots that come naturally weren't at the time, which made it quite a battle."

Later Mason Crane again demonstrated his improvement with the bat in helping Woakes extend England's lead to 265. While the 20-over partnership was not entirely welcome from all the locals - one group, without any irony, sang 'Boring, Boring' throughout the day - it gave Woakes an opportunity to spend some time at the crease and provided further evidence of Crane's improvement in all departments.

While the CA XI started their second innings well - they reached 80 without loss - the introduction of spin brought three wickets for seven runs. Moeen found the edge of left-handed Jake Carder's bat with a sharply turning off-break, before Ryan Gibson let his opportunity for a half-century slip when he missed a sweep. When Crane induced a loose drive from Will Pucovski, it left England eying a half-day on Saturday. For perhaps the first time since the Ben Stokes news broke, you can feel the optimism within the England ranks.