Zak Crawley struck a glorious 189 to dispel any questions surrounding his place at the top of the England order as Australia were left scrambling for answers on the second day at Old Trafford.
In a series that has so often been poised on a knife edge, with each side winning sessions, day two was one where the momentum swung fully in favour of the hosts, who finished the day 384 for four and a lead of 67, largely due to Crawley’s innings.
Before the start of the series, Crawley was under pressure to perform, less from Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum than the wider cricketing audience, but he showed why he has always held the faith of the England selectors.
Ahead of the start of the County Championship season, and again before the start of the international summer, Crawley was questioned to defend his place in the side, but after the day’s play in Manchester, he will only be left disappointed that he could not score a double century, falling just 11 runs short.
It was slightly strange to focus on the Kent opener when his position in the Bazball set-up has never been under threat, despite his Test average of 27.60 from 33 matches before the start of the Ireland Test which preceded the Ashes.
His knock on day two against Australia would have squashed any remaining doubts over his ability, and there’s one thing that cannot be denied: Crawley plays beautiful shots.
Even on those days he does not come off with big totals to his name, his innings are rarely without flashes of brilliance, especially off the back foot, and his 189 in the fourth Ashes Test will make for some highlights reel.
It was a slightly streaky start with an edge short of slip, and a successful overturning of an lbw decision when he had 20, but it is rare that batters who go on to make big scores do not do so without some stroke of fortune.
If England manage to get anything out of this crucial Test match, as Australia lead the series 2-1 and with the weather forecast over the weekend looking increasingly dismal, it will largely be down to Crawley’s innings.
He showed his intent from the start, getting off the mark first ball with a streaky boundary down to fine leg, but it was not a typical Bazball innings from the outset.
Crawley’s 50 came from 67 balls, but his second steered England into a dominant position, from just 26 balls, and he could take his helmet off in celebration of a first Ashes hundred.
His effortless strokeplay continued after he reached the milestone, including a well-executed six off Mitchell Marsh to move on to 184 over long on, before he was eventually out, playing on for 189 from 182 deliveries off the bowling of Cameron Green.
Overall, it was England’s day. Moeen Ali scored a useful 54 runs as a makeshift No 3, and after an instinctive suggestion at Headingley, he has become at least a semi-permanent feature in the absence of the injured Ollie Pope.
Moeen also passed the impressive milestone of 3,000 runs and 200 Test wickets, before he was dropped by Pat Cummins on 53, then caught by Usman Khawaja on 54.
The wicket brought Joe Root to the crease, who is not usually overshadowed by the man at the other end, but on this occasion, it will be Crawley’s 189 in the headlines rather than Root’s impressive 84.
Root played an attacking innings from the start, but instead of being Bazball and reckless, it was smart.
He hit a reverse scoop off Mitchell Marsh for six to move on to 38, and another from Cummins to bring up his half-century, but neither had to force the runs. Root was eventually out, bowled by Hazlewood to a delivery that kept improbably low, but England were already dominating.
Australia looked more uncomfortable in the field than they have all series, with 11 no-balls bowled, dropped catches and misfields, all of which will encourage England as they look to pile on the runs quickly on day three, with weather likely to affect the game over the weekend.