Usman Khawaja capitalized on a dropped catch to score a century on the second day of the fourth Ashes Test, leaving England ready to remain in the fight in Sydney.
Hawaza was only playing due to Travis Head’s Covid-19 diagnosis, returning for the first time since Australia’s famous defeat at Headingley in 2019, and marked the occasion by reaching an unbeaten 102 at tea.
Helped by some sluggish handiwork from wicketkeeper Jos Buttler and Joe Root at the slip, the pair reduced them to 28, taking the hosts to 321 for six.
This canceled a Stuart Broad-inspired fight, in which the veteran seamer dismissed Steve Smith and Cameron Green on the second new ball.
England were not only concerned about the scoreboard, however, as leading all-rounder Ben Stokes suffered a side injury in the morning, which is likely to hamper his participation for the rest of the match, or even the tour.
After just 46.5 overs were possible on the first day, the game was brought forward by half an hour to make up for lost time. But instead, New South Wales’ weather continued to disappoint with three separate rain breaks in the morning session.
Regular interruptions didn’t deter Australia, with Smith and Khawaja adding a total of 83 runs for no loss.
Instead it was England who struggled to find a groove to settle in, using all four of their specialist bowlers in the first eight overs of the day, with none able to embrace the game.
The batsmen were warming up before the first delay and warmed up later, Smith pumped James Anderson’s first ball back to the ground as Khawaja over-pitched before crashing Leach through cover.
Australian progress held steady, Khawaja shared a 50 with an aerial cut-off from Leach as Smith demonstrated his ability to make scoring shots en route to a quiet half-century.
When Jack Leach made a mistake at the end, Butler removed the glove and the side of the thigh, before Root dropped Ricochet. There was some mitigation for the skipper’s error but it arrived at gentle speed and the right height.
England’s faces told a tale of exhausted desperation, but that turned to worry, as a terrifying barrage of short-pitched bowling ended with Stokes leaving in search of a cure.
He was able to join the field again after lunch, but he looked tight and was highly unlikely to bowl again in the match. The tourists relied on the new ball to pursue their objective – never more so when Australia scored 12 runs in the last two overs of the old one.
It was Broad who seized the moment, breaking Smith’s often impenetrable shell during an eventful spell. Smith sent a square drive racing for the boundary but then lost his coordination, making a bizarre offer to drop one that threw him over the front pad over the leg-stump line.
The DRS showed that the ball was short but Broad was in the hunt. A jolt from his pads kept the catcher interested in leg lane, but there was no doubt when he moved off his body and went straight into Butler’s glove.
Then there was Greene and, although Stokes’ limited movement saw half a chance at the begging from Wood at slip, Broad’s brilliant spell was delivered again when he was caught by the 6ft 7in all-rounder by Zac Crowley.
The experienced seamer took two spells for 19 and tied the bow for the third wicket of the innings. So far, Khawaja was cashing in on his hard work, timing the ball with certainty and elegance and showing his authority with a series of clean drives from Leach.
Root’s occasional off-spin saw his latest partner, Alex Carey’s top-edge caught over the shoulder by Jonny Bairstow, but Khawaja went into the 90 with a swivel to Wood.
Pat Cummins almost left Khawaja high and dry when a sharp single at the non-striker’s end left his partner on 99 not out. But the pair managed to run for a single, leaving enough to sweep Leach off his pads and score a ninth Test century.