Pat Cummins leads by example as Australia beat England in thrilling Ashes opener

Pat Cummins leads by example as Australia beat England in thrilling Ashes opener

Australia captain Pat Cummins led his side to a remarkable two-wicket victory in the Ashes opener at Edgbaston, holding his nerve in a heart-pounding chase that left Ben Stokes and his England team distraught.

The shadow of the famous 2005 Test between the old rivals had loomed large over this final day but where England edged that one in a dramatic two-run win, Cummins exorcised some of those ghosts as he ushered the tourists home amid unbearable pressure.

Cummins made an outstanding, unbeaten 44 as he led a match-winning stand of 55 with number 10 Nathan Lyon, who clung on for 16 not out. Between them they ensured Australia successfully completed their second highest chase in England conditions, reaching a target of 281 that had seemed beyond them less than an hour earlier.

Stokes looked to have dealt the decisive blow when he landed the key wicket of Usman Khawaja, defying the aches and pains of his chronic knee problems to dismiss the man who seemed to hold the result in his hands.

But the England skipper’s Midas touch evaded him when he leapt to pluck an outrageous one-handed catch out of the sky, only for the ball to slip through his fingers as he fell to earth. Lyon, on two at the time, was able to breathe again and kept his captain company until the climax.

The end came in agonising fashion at 7.20pm – 80 minutes after the scheduled close due to morning rain – when Cummins steered the ball to deep third and a sprawling Harry Brook parried the ball for four.

England were hampered by Moeen Ali’s badly blistered finger, with the first choice spinner barely able to contribute after sneaking the wicket of Travis Head in his first over. It was a gamble England had taken when they asked a player two years into his Test retirement to step into the breach and it left them leaning heavily on Joe Root’s occasional off-breaks.

More surprising was the peripheral performance of record wicket-taker James Anderson, not used at all in the final session as he watched the game slip away from the outfield.

But those questions, alongside those over Jonny Bairstow’s missed chances as wicketkeeper and Stokes’ day one declaration, must wait for another time.

England v Australia – LV= Insurance Ashes Series 2023 – First Test – Day Five – Edgbaston
Australia’s Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon celebrate getting their team over the line (Mike Egerton/PA)

Heavy overnight rain and morning showers kept the players in the dressing rooms until 2.15pm, more than three hours after the scheduled start, but there was still just enough time to create an Ashes classic.

The opening session was something of a false dawn, with Australia nudging defensively to add 76 runs for the loss of two wickets.

Stuart Broad got Edgbaston rocking when he had nightwatchman Scott Boland caught behind and Moeen nipped out Head, but with Khawaja bedding in for another long stay the real drama was still ahead.

England v Australia – LV= Insurance Ashes Series 2023 – First Test – Day Five – Edgbaston
There was frustration for Ben Stokes and England (Mike Egerton/PA)

With 98 runs needed in 38 overs and five wickets in hand there was a week’s worth of heart-stopping moments ahead. With Moeen off the field at the start of the concluding session, Root was charged with holding up the one end while Robinson attacked from the other. The tension was tangible as he ploughed away in the channel outside off stump, searching for a lapse.

And then it came. Tailing one in from wide on the crease, Robinson cramped Cameron Green for space and watched as he dragged down his stumps. Robinson thrust his arms out to the side, twirled in circles and bellowed in triumph.

The game had taken another big swing, but Khawaja’s continued presence increasingly seemed the deciding issue. After a final one-over burst from Moeen went awry, Stokes stepped up to take his turn from the Pavilion End.

His introduction sent another wave of energy through the crowd and within two overs he had worked his magic. Attacking from round the wicket he spread his fingers across the ball, taking pace out of the delivery as it skidded through low.

England v Australia – LV= Insurance Ashes Series 2023 – First Test – Day Five – Edgbaston
Ollie Robinson celebrates after taking the wicket of Cameron Green (Martin Rickett/PA)

That was finally enough to trump Khawaja’s defiance, with the opener playing on into middle stump. England’s fielders were ecstatic but the two key protagonists barely reacted, Khawaja momentarily frozen at the crease and Stokes offering little more than a grimace.

His gambler’s instinct kicked in when he delayed the second new ball to extend Root’s spell and paid dividends when the part-timer picked up Alex Carey with a rapid return catch in front of his face.

With 54 needed and two tail-end wickets in hand, it looked too much for Australia. But they came again as Cummins hammered Root for two sixes, an abrupt end to his day’s work and vitally important runs.

The pendulum swung again as Broad returned and Lyon clubbed hooked a short ball high towards square-leg. Stokes threw himself into the air and seemed for a split-second to have taken a sensational one-handed catch – but it slipped through his fingers and the captain sat disconsolate on his haunches before reluctantly returning to his feet.

England v Australia – LV= Insurance Ashes Series 2023 – First Test – Day Five – Edgbaston
Nathan Lyon played his part in Australia’s success (Mike Egerton/PA)

With 27 needed England finally unwrapped the new ball, only for Lyon to punch Broad through mid-off for four. The target dropped into the teens when Cummins flashed Robinson for four through cover – Pope briefly sensing a chance but failing to get a finger on it.

England’s record wicket-taker Anderson was overlooked in the closing moments, with Stokes trusting the final moments to Broad and Robinson. With Cummins controlling the chase with commendable coolness, England were desperate to get at the more vulnerable Lyon.

When he stepped inside the line and hit Broad over mid-on, it felt like hope had gone and Cummins sealed victory, leaving England to wonder what might have been.