Match Analysis

Short-ball shortcomings exposed again as Australia leave door ajar

Wood barrage hints at what might have been after Australia wilt in face of high pace

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Steven Smith ended the series without a century, Australia vs England, Men's Ashes, 5th Test, 3rd day, Hobart, January 16, 2021

Steven Smith ended the series without a century  •  Getty Images

Usman Khawaja had a wry smile as he was asked on the third morning whether he had enjoyed moving from No. 5 to opening for the Hobart Test.
The night before he nearly had his head ripped off by a 148kph/92mph Mark Wood bumper in the dark, gloving a catch behind, as Australia slumped to 3 for 33 in their second innings.
"To be honest the pink ball has made it pretty tough," Khawaja told Fox Cricket. "The wicket is doing a little bit. The pink ball is just so inconsistent. Some balls swing, some balls seam a load, some don't, it's a bit harder to line up [than] the red ball.
"It's certainly more challenging opening the batting and I've said it before.
"Obviously coming out at four or five is probably a little bit better in Australia, but it changes everywhere.
"I think any batter would say, even Marnus [Labuschagne] jokes around about batting five is probably the best spot to bat because you sort of hide from the new ball a little bit. But in all honesty the last wicket we played on was pretty good. The ball really didn't do too much for the majority of the game. This game, this ball has been very different."
Three hours later Wood had bombed Australia out for 155 and dragged England back into the game with a herculean spell of fast bowling.
What Wood proved is that Australia can't afford to undervalue absorbing pressure against high-quality fast bowling. Australia got away with losing three cheaply once in this match thanks to Travis Head and Cameron Green, but not twice, as Wood's searing pace and bounce wreaked havoc. Why Wood only bowled six short balls to Head in the first innings remains a mystery after he barely received a ball in his half in the second and was out gloving down the leg side as he jumped on the back foot to fend from his ribs.
What would this series have looked like if Jofra Archer was fit? What would this series have looked like if David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne weren't given a stack of lives each by England's fielders in Brisbane and Adelaide?
Would the result be any different? It would seem unlikely given England's batting. Their average per wicket of 20.21 was their lowest ever for a five-match series in Australia.
But it could have been closer. As good as Australia's batters usually are in home conditions, they have shown a vulnerability at times against both express pace and short-ball barrages.
Their superman, Steven Smith, has exemplified how it has become his and their kryptonite. Smith was bounced out by Wood for 27, his third-highest score of the series in his first Ashes without a century since 2010-11.
It was the second time Wood has prized Smith out in the series. He also fell defending on the back foot in the first innings to Ollie Robinson.
Since the 2019 Ashes, where he was better than Bradman, he has averaged 36.86 in 14 Tests, all at home, and his Test average has dipped under 60 for the first time since 2017.
Wood's bombardment in both innings exposed the decision-making of Australia's batters as well as their technical play off the back foot, albeit the pitch and the pink ball have made it harder to trust the bounce and seam.
But it's not the first time in recent summers searing pace and bounce has unsettled Australia at home. India's Jasprit Bumrah dominated in Australia in his last two series down under, taking 32 wickets at 21.25. Neil Wagner, not as quick as Wood or Bumrah, but equally awkward, took 17 wickets at 22.76 in three Tests in 2019-20.
The way to beat extended spells of short-pitch bowling in Australia is to absorb them. To ask whichever quick is breathing fire to dig further and further into their reserves as they extend spells beyond their limits and return for second and third efforts.
That's what Warner and Labuschagne were able to do to Wood in Brisbane with a 156-run second-wicket stand. Warner and Marcus Harris were able to do it with half-century stands in Melbourne and Sydney. Smith and Khawaja added to their work with a 115-run stand at the SCG.
Australia's batters didn't do that in Hobart. Green panicked in the first innings and took on the man in the deep with a pull shot in what would have been Wood's last over of his spell on the first night.
Smith did likewise on day three, hooking straight to fine leg in what would have been Wood's last over of a five-over burst that had already yielded 2 for 9. His dismissal opened the door and Wood and England waltzed through.
The last time Australia had been razed for under 180 it was Jofra Archer who took 6 for 45 with his express pace at Headingley in 2019. England needed a similar miracle which quickly evaporated, but for a little while Australia's batters had left the door ajar.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo