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Australia turn up the heat as England's Ashes reaches its sweat-soaked nadir

England 346 & 93-4; Australia 649-7d: The tourists are facing a 4-0 series defeat after taking a beating on the hottest day in Sydney's history

Jonathan Liew
Sunday 07 January 2018 08:59 GMT
England are staring a 4-0 series defeat in the face
England are staring a 4-0 series defeat in the face (Getty)

As Bill Woodfull famously put it, there were two teams out there, but only one of them was playing cricket. At a sweltering SCG on the hottest day in Sydney’s history, England’s Ashes finally reached its sweat-drenched nadir in a flurry of sun-stricken confusion. As temperatures passed 40 degrees out in the middle, Australia were putting the finishing touches on a 4-0 series defeat that will be confirmed on Monday, and possibly in some hurry. And as they trudged from the field following the penultimate day of an exhausting series, England looked cooked. Ready for the big fork and a long lie down. For those not playing in the forthcoming one-day series, salvation is almost at hand.

It has not been a classic Test match, which is to take nothing away from Australia. They have taken the fullest advantage of favourable batting conditions and an opposition who they have ruthlessly and systematically seasoned and tenderised over the last seven weeks. In a sense, their hard work had already been done, and so here again they simply poured out all the runs they could get, Shaun and Mitchell Marsh both following Usman Khawaja to three figures. Amusingly, for a pair much maligned in these parts of late, the Marsh brothers have scored more centuries between them this series (four) than England’s entire squad (three).

Joe Root may yet level the scores on day five. As England’s frazzled batsmen clattered one by one, Root alone showed the requisite resolve to resist. A first Ashes century on foreign soil would be a fitting reward for his ardour and toil. It wouldn’t be much. But it wouldn’t be nothing, either.

Steve Smith, for his part, finally called a halt to Australia’s marathon innings with a lead of 300 secured. Australia’s score of 649 was their third highest in a home Ashes Test - their highest was in Perth a few weeks ago - and by the end you could have set England’s bowling figures to black-and-white newsreel footage and maudlin cello music. Moeen Ali, 2-170. Mason Crane, 1-193, the most expensive analysis by an England player overseas. Stuart Broad, 1-121, and now stranded on 399 Test wickets for at least another two-and-a-half months. Tom Curran, 1-82, you lucky thing.

The exception was James Anderson, whose 1-56 off 34 overs will be long forgotten by the time it comes to assess his career legacy, but who in inert conditions, with aching joints and in a futile cause, was again magnificent. He was almost unplayable with the third new ball, and will end his career in Australia defeated but respected.

Shaun Marsh made a second century of this series (Getty)

Mitchell Marsh reached a vaguely farcical century, celebrating with his brother in the middle of the pitch before realising he was in danger of being run out. The next ball he was out, cleaned up by a snorter from Curran. Shaun Marsh, who has enjoyed a transformative series, reached 156 before being run out by Mark Stoneman jogging lazily for a single. The sight of Pat Cummins swinging Crane for four through fine leg - as in, literally through Stoneman at fine leg - was the tipping point for Smith. England, having spent 193 overs in the field, now had to bat 150 for a draw.

Brother Mitchell followed him to three figures (Getty)

Even on a turning pitch against a bouncing Nathan Lyon, a fresh and lucid England might have had a hope. But this is a team whose spirit has been broken many times over. Even Stoneman’s T-sign to call for a review of his LBW decision looked weary and forlorn. The ball was smashing into leg stump: a duck for him. Alastair Cook had an eventful little cameo, bringing up 12,000 runs in Test cricket in the third over, dropped at slip in the fourth, comprehensively bowled by a brilliant quicker ball from Lyon in the sixth.

Stoneman was sent on his way without troubling the scorers (Getty)

James Vince survived until tea before falling for 18, in a manner that has become so spellbindingly familiar he should really patent it, copyright it, trademark it and start selling commemorative merchandise. Souvenir mugs. T-shirts and DVDs. James Vince action figurines, featuring our hero in his distinctive pose: playing an unnecessarily expansive shot outside off-stump and gifting a catch behind. The James Vince board game - which slip will it go to this time? Time is running out for Vince at international level, and so what better way to measure it than with these beautiful his-and-hers James Vince watches? (Warning: may break down after about an hour.)

Joe Root remains unbeaten on 42 not out (Getty)

At least there was Root, the last beachhead, who for perhaps the first time on this tour looked like a player who was genuinely digging in, rather than trying to score his way out of trouble. He was more judicious with the pull and hook, less inclined to force the pace against Lyon. One of the more damning Root statistics is that his impressive rearguard 73 on debut in Nagpur in 2012 remains his seventh longest innings in terms of time. Only once has he batted through an entire day. There is lamentably little left to play for this series, but Root at least still has an opportunity to leave his mark.

Which is something, at least. And whatever indignity does transpire here will still not come close to their Sydney capitulation four years ago, when they were bowled out in little more than a session, a disintegration on the field that neatly mirrored the disintegration taking place behind closed doors. And if there is some small morsel of solace to be extracted by England from this protracted beasting, it is that even under the harshest degradations, they have continued to fight, continued to play for each other. Again, it’s not much. But it’s not nothing, either.

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