Joe Root’s first Ashes century in eight years provided calm amid the storm as England and Australia traded blows in a high-octane opening day at the first LV= Insurance Test.
Root’s masterful 118 not out, the 30th ton of his career but a first against the old enemy since 2015, provided the centrepiece on a day of fiercely competitive cricket and outstanding entertainment that bodes well for the summer ahead.
Ben Stokes pulled a rabbit from the hat when he waved Root in at 393 for eight – the earliest declaration in Ashes history after just 78 overs of the match – but his hopes of sniping a late wicket did not materialise.
The renewal of Stuart Broad’s personal duel with David Warner provided some late theatre, but Australia will resume on 14 without loss after surviving the challenge.
The tone was set by the first ball of the series, when Zak Crawley crashed visiting captain Pat Cummins through the covers for four in a bold statement of intent. England went on to score their runs at a fraction more than five-an-over, once unthinkable but fully in keeping with this side’s spirit of adventure.
Crawley’s flowing 61 set the agenda, and repaid a portion of the faith he has been shown during patchy form, while Jonny Bairstow’s first Test innings in 10 months found him in rude health.
He hustled and bustled his way to 78 at exactly a run-a-ball, bossing a stand of 121 with Root and proving the badly broken leg that interrupted his career-best hot streak last summer had not dulled his effectiveness.
But England needed someone to go on, take it deeper and hold the line as Australia repeatedly made timely breakthroughs on an placid pitch. That man was Root.
He may have gone three Ashes series and 16 Tests since he last made a century against the Baggy Greens, but the 32-year-old remains his country’s classiest performer.
Here, he measured his innings to perfection. Arriving at the crease in the 18th over at 92 for two, Root quickly settled into a familiar rhythm as he worked the ball meticulously around the arc between deep third and point.
In the afternoon he eased to his half-century for the fifth time in his last five innings, allowing Harry Brook and Bairstow to press the accelerator at the other end, and in the evening session he finished the job.
Twice he pulled out his audacious reverse ramp, dispatching Scott Boland and then Cummins over his shoulder for six, and he was building to a crescendo when Stokes declared.
England won the toss and, with it, the chance to bat first under sunny skies.
The first ball of the Ashes has acquired a mythology of its own over the years, with the most memorable moments falling in Australia’s favour.
Michael Slater slashing Phil DeFreitas for four in 1994, Steve Harmison serving up a massive wide in 2006 and Mitchell Starc smashing Rory Burns’ leg stump 18 months ago are all etched into the story of this series, and Crawley made a game attempt at joining their ranks.
Offered a modicum of width first up by Cummins, he found the sweet spot of the bat and pounded the ball emphatically to the ropes at extra-cover.
The crowd roared its approval, joined by an England balcony who had seen their fighting talk come to life in a matter of seconds.
Josh Hazlewood, recalled in place of Starc, was welcomed in similar style as Crawley pinged his first delivery to the square-leg boundary, but Ben Duckett made an early exit. One ball after chopping past his stumps he was caught behind in familiar fashion.
Crawley and Ollie Pope refused to be rattled, putting on a bright 70 as they ran hard, played positively and used their feet to confront the bowlers head on.
By contrast, Australia quickly reverted to defensive field placings, piling up the boundary riders in a clear attempt to throttle England’s aggressive game.
Crawley was buoyant. When Nathan Lyon was handed an early look in the 10th over, he pulled out a reverse sweep and clean drive down the ground, before leaving his mark on Boland with some flowing strokes.
Yet the first session ended with Australia back in the hunt at 124 for three, Lyon trapping Pope lbw for 31 and Boland getting one to lift as Crawley gloved the final ball of the session behind.
By then Root had settled quietly into his work and he was happy to sit back and watch Brook’s 32-run cameo at the start of the afternoon.
Brook showed glimmers of his ball-striking prowess, pounding Lyon over extra-cover and clobbering Boland on the charge, before his fun ended in a stroke of misfortune.
Padding away the spinner, he saw the ball loop into the air, hit his leg and dislodge a bail.
Stokes made just one before nicking Hazlewood, but Bairstow kept the tempo up. He and Root produced their latest made-in-Yorkshire stand, Root providing the finesse, while Bairstow scampered greedily for every single and pounded out 12 boundaries.
Both he and Moeen Ali were stumped running down the pitch at Lyon, the latter having heaved Cummins for six over midwicket, but only Stokes’ surprise declaration could bring an end to Root’s magnificent innings.