The sun finally set on England at 6.15pm on a brooding Manchester evening, the gap to safety an agonising 13.4 overs, the gulf in class ultimately far wider. By taking a 2-1 lead in the series, Australia have settled the fate of the Ashes for another two years at least, and for all England’s fleeting defiance here they can have few causes for complaint.
With the possible exception of crowd banter, they have been the inferior side in all departments. They have lacked a batsman as good as Steve Smith or a pace attack as unerringly ruthless as Australia’s five-man battery or a spinner with the loop and penetration of Nathan Lyon. In a way, you almost judge Australia for taking so long to finish this series off: deep into the fifth day of the penultimate Test, as the stubborn resistance of England’s tail – a resistance that at times bordered on outright trolling – was finally broken.
But over six entertaining weeks, Australia have deserved their moment of jubilee, their first on these shores in 18 years. Triumphing in English conditions has been the preoccupation of Australian cricket from virtually the moment stumps were drawn at Sydney 20 months ago. While England were busy conquering the world, Australia’s captain Tim Paine and coach Justin Langer were busy plotting how to conquer them: managing their resources, laying out their preparations, road-testing strategies.
And when the key moments have arisen – that otherworldly evening at Headingley aside – Australia have seized them. England’s incredible triumph in Leeds might have derailed a less resilient team, but Paine’s men bounced back irresistibly here, seizing control on day one and never again relinquishing it. Instead, it is Joe Root who now looks increasingly adrift, the England captain found wanting on a tactical and an emotional level, his positive influence negligible, his job now hanging by a thread.
Insofar as international sport is a test of systems as much as performances, England’s no longer look fit for purpose. While electrifying individual performers like Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer have kept them in the series, the collective failure has been abject: a mess of confused roles and mixed messages, a team that has fundamentally lost sight of how they want to play, which players they want and what those players should be doing.
A cult of self-expression, encouraged at boardroom level, has created a focus on personalities rather than partnerships, acts of individual heroism rather than collective will. Departing coach Trevor Bayliss has to bear a good deal of responsibility for this: under his watch, England have become the most thrilling one-day team on the planet, but his failure to arrest the aimless drift in the longest format should weigh equally on his legacy.
English cricket as a whole has a good deal of soul-searching to do. The neglect of its domestic apparatus has created an acute shortage of Test-class batsmen capable of batting all day. The injury to James Anderson has badly exposed the thinness of their pace bowling reserves. Whether the England and Wales Cricket Board has the patience or the inclination to address these issues, having devoted so much energy to the launch of its ridiculous 100-ball game show, remains to be seen.
And yet England’s Test summer has not been entirely without merit. Jack Leach has emerged as a genuinely ballsy Test cricketer. Rory Burns has established himself at the top of the order. Jofra Archer can helm the attack for the next decade if he is used wisely. The much-maligned Joe Denly, with consecutive battling half-centuries, has done enough to earn another chance. And even in defeat here there was a certain bleak comfort to be taken, as they belatedly located some backbone and withstood for 91 overs: too little, and not late enough, but enough at least to cheer a crowd that, as has been the case all summer, never wavered in its laudable exuberance.
England set about their task with impressive purpose. The third-wicket pair lasted over an hour before Jason Roy was bowled by the marvellous Pat Cummins. His 31 was the best of the series for him, and even if he still fails to convince, there was here at least some evidence of application, resolve, an identifiable method. With the occasional ball keeping dangerously low, and the occasional one springing off a length, starting an innings was fraught with risk, and when Stokes edged Cummins behind just before lunch England’s last realistic hope appeared to have disappeared with him.
That was largely the pattern of the day: England resisting just enough to stir the optimists, Australia taking wickets just often enough to awaken the pessimists. Denly had played his way to 50 comfortably enough, but now he plopped a catch to short leg off Lyon. Jonny Bairstow saw out a disciplined hour before being deceived by the change of angle from Mitchell Starc around the wicket, pinned in front to leave England 138-6 with 52 overs still to go.
With low expectations, Jos Buttler and Craig Overton ate up 21 of them. Buttler played with admirable poise, leaving well outside off and surviving an incendiary spell from Cummins, who even with the old ball was finding lavish movement off the surface. Meanwhile Overton negotiated the spin of Lyon, no easy feat with the ball spitting out of the rough created by Starc’s follow-through.
Half an hour after tea, Buttler was bowled by Josh Hazlewood, suckered by a theatrical bouncer trap and done by the fuller ball. And when Archer succumbed too, LBW to a horrible scuttler from Lyon, the last rites appeared to be close at hand. Instead, in fading light and with Australia beginning to fret, Overton and Leach resisted for over an hour, every dot ball loudly applauded, every change of ends greeted with a throaty roar.
With little hope of securing safety by conventional means, England turned to the dark arts. Umbrellas went up in the crowd. Leach ostentatiously cleaned his glasses. To the biggest cheer of the day, a new helmet was brought out after a glancing blow to the head. England’s support staff trotted down the dressing room steps at regular intervals, and with all due care and attention, to ferry out fresh bats and gloves to the middle. All the while, the light was closing in. For the last time, England dared to hope.
It was at this time that Paine pulled out a masterstroke. With Leach looking menacingly comfortable, he turned to the leg-spin of Marnus Labuschagne, hoping to exploit the rough outside the left-hander’s off-stump. One of the unlikely stars of the series, Labuschagne’s third ball leapt off a length and brushed Leach’s glove on the way to short leg. Australia celebrated with unfettered bliss, aware that the gates of destiny were creaking open.
Ten balls later, the moment finally came: Overton LBW to Hazlewood after three dogged hours at the crease, and for Australia the time had finally come. For England, a short turnaround to next week’s fifth Test at The Oval and a shot at squaring the series: one last engagement in an epic, absorbing, gruelling summer that may finally have broken them.
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