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Australia Maddened By England’s Bazball And Undone By Mark Wood | Barney Ronay

England keep giving Jimmy Anderson a stage in this series. It happened again just before tea on the third day of a match that already feels like a staging point, another turn in that narrative arc carrying us on inevitably to the Oval and a perfect reckoning up.

In the event it was Mark Wood who took the moment, producing a spell of high-class, often savage fast bowling from the Anderson end that left England on the brink of levelling the series over the next two soggy-looking days.

In the process Wood confirmed his own status as a genuine point of difference, a 33-year-old tearaway producing in his own senior years the most exhilarating sustained pace bowling the England Test team has seen in the modern era.

England’s players had walked out at 3pm into a thin, white Manchester sun, a pre-rain sun (unless specifically stated otherwise, all Manchester sun is pre-rain sun). Australia were 275 runs behind at the start of their second innings and looking a little ragged. Here is a team that has gone from 2-0 up and cruising towards a victory for righteous Test match orthodoxy, to a frantic 2-2, and the looming horror of finding themselves cast as straight men in the most maddeningly showy, self-mythologising comeback in Ashes history.

There is a sense the Bazball stuff has become a genuine weapon if only through sheer repetition. England are sick of hearing that word. Imagine how Australia must feel as their northern summer threatens to turn horribly cold.

It has been an amazing feat to insert a third entity into the centre of England v Australia, the oldest two-hander in Test history. But here it is, dear old Bazball, shunting itself into the middle of things, hogging the duvet, monopolising the pillow chat. How maddening for Australia, a place of grizzled truisms, points of red ball honour handed down like a tear-stained baggy green, to find themselves being chased around the set by blokes in bucket hats who feel they’ve won when they’ve lost, who are basically doing this for the vibes, who even have the gall in the middle of it all to preach about doing the right thing.

Australia’s Pat Cummins ‘looked as if he’s been sleeping in his car’. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty ImagesEven the prospect of rain was recast as a plus before this game, an urgent new feature of the Baz-verse. And that pressure has been gruelling. Australia were ragged in the field in the afternoon session. Pat Cummins, usually so startlingly handsome and bright-eyed, spent Friday wandering around looking as if he’s been sleeping in his car.

As Australia batted again to save the game and retain the Ashes it felt like the perfect moment for a little cold, hard Anderson. Could he find a little energy, a twitch of the wand after the emptiness of his five bowling innings to date? Anderson measured his run at his eponymous end and bowled as he does now, with the same movements, same easy, splay-footed run, but still with that oddly deathly feel, the ball mute, refusing to talk dance, jag.

Instead it was left to Wood to bring energy to the stage. And there was a startling contrast as he replaced Anderson with the score at 32 for 0 just before tea, a feeling straight away of the colour contrast being turned up. It took an over to break the game open. Wood’s second ball was a little wide, but it leapt and took the faintest flick off Usman Khawaja’s edge, the first nudge towards victory.

In that moment Wood’s bowling average ticked down from 30 to 29.7, a transition that feels, foolishly but still undeniably, like a step up into some other world, a digital point that says, yes, you have now succeeded in this sphere. His first two balls to Marnus Labuschagne were 92mph throat shavers. Later in the day he came back and fizzed another low trajectory bumper past Steve Smith’s shoulder, drawing a wild swivelling pull and another feather behind. After that it was Travis Head’s turn, flapping in self-defence to gully. And through it all there was more heat, more life from this vigorous 33-year-old tearaway, to end the day with three for 17 and 11 wickets at 16 in the series.

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Above all Wood has been a joy to watch, with no filler, no loose stuff, just cold hard cutting edge. He is also a difficult presence for Australia for other reasons, and not only because it is clear even their best batsmen are uncomfortable facing this stuff.

It is also a tonal thing. England are edgy and out-there. England have old lags and a semi-retired spinner. But they also have the most thrillingly hostile bowler on either team, in effect the most Australian bowler, a presence that outflanks Australia’s familiar sense of itself in these contests as harder, more authentic, more unforgiving.

Ricky Ponting compared Wood to prime Mitchell Johnson here, which will strike some as a kind of heresy, but Ponting would know.

It already feels as though rain is Australia’s best hope of avoiding that final reckoning up at the Oval. For Anderson the battle within the battle will be doing enough to be there. Wood looks England’s best hope to end this thing at a clip.

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