There was a time during the second session of the third day when the English batsman looked comfortable and a draw appeared the most likely outcome. Rory Burns and Joe Root where in a middle of a good partnership and there was very little help for bowlers from the wicket.
In the space of four session since, Australia managed to dismiss both of them twice. If they were close to regaining the Ashes at the start of the fourth day at Headingley, they are even closer now at the end of the fourth day at Old Trafford.
Asked to chase 383 in one day and 30 minutes, England’s worst fears were realized when Pat Cummins made up for all the bad luck he encountered in the first innings. It took him just four balls to send chills down the English spine as he dismissed their best performers in the first innings Burns and Root in back to back deliveries.
Bowling round the wicket to Burns, a strategy that was not used often in the first innings, Cummins found a leading edge that went straight to short cover. Root then received perhaps the ball of the match. It pitched on length and moved slightly away to kiss top of off. Root stood in disbelief as he heard his stumps rattled. Root is now the only England captain ever to have three ducks in a Test series.
Reeling at two for none and still 25 minutes to go, the two batsmen perhaps struggling the most in the series, Jason Roy and Joe Denly, ensured no further damage was done.
Restarting their first innings at 200/5 at the start of the day, England’s batting was derailed by Mitchell Starc who found rhythm and movement with the second new-ball. Having bowled Jonny Bairstow through the gate, he got Ben Stokes to nick one off to the ‘safe-house’ Smith in the slips. Getting Stokes out was perhaps one of the main factor behind Starc’s inclusion in Test. By removing him, he made up for a lethargic spell yesterday.
Jofra Archer’s 19-ball stay was filled with a lot of noise from around the wickets especially from his Hobart Hurricane teammate Matthew Wade at short leg. He and Stuart Broad were dismissed soon. Jos Buttler hit some good strokes towards the end including one sumptuous cover drive to avoid the follow-on. But soon, he missed a slog off Cummins that knocked his stumps over, leaving Australia with a lead of 196 in the first innings.
It needed a first innings deficit of 196 runs or the sledging he received while batting to fire up Jofra Archer again. On the first day he bowled five overs in the first spell with an average speed of 134.5 kmph. In the first spell of the second innings, Archer bowled nine overs with an average speed of 142.7 kmph.
Broad continued his form with the ball as the duo reduced Australia to 44/4.
David Warner’s woes against Broad continued as this time he was beaten on the inside edge as he was trapped in front of his wicket. A wry smile on Warner’s face symbolized the helplessness he felt. Out five times in his career to Broad before this series, his tally has been swelled to eleven now.
Marcus Harris’s dismissal initially appeared a highlight from the first innings but the review confirmed that this time the ball was hitting the stumps and was not just an umpire’s call.
Archer then got into the act as he trapped the gritty Marnus Labuschagne and then cleaned up Travis Head.
Another round of questionable tactics and decision-making post Tea helped Australia come out of a tricky situation. Surprisingly neither Archer nor Broad bowled after Tea. The field placement suggested that England just wanted to not let Australia score quick runs. The plan did not reap much dividends as Australia managed to score at around 5.5 runs an over after Tea.
Smith appeared to be having fun at the crease as he maneuvered the ball to gaps regularly. Aussies were particularly severe on Leach who went for 58 runs in his nine overs.
A shot that brought upon Smith’s downfall in the first innings nearly cost him his wicket again. The chance was created due to the brilliance of Stokes who anticipated the reverse sweep and quickly moved from slip to gully but could not hold on to the ball that came at a quick pace.
The Leach-Stokes combination finally brought about Smith’s dismissal as he skied one to long-off in his search for quick runs. This happened after Smith notched up his ninth consecutive Ashes 50+ score, the most in Ashes, the most for a batsman against an opposition.
Matthew Wade ably supported Smith and surprisingly was batting at a better control percentage than Smith during their partnership.
Tim Paine, who came after Smith’s dismissal scored an 18 ball 23*. England opted to review a caught behind more in an effort to waste time than to get a wicket. Their tactics triggered Paine to declare. He ran off towards the dressing room while there was still one ball to go in the 43rd over of their innings.
A sleepless night lie ahead for Joe Root and his team as they wish for yet another miracle to help them save the Ashes before the series is over.