Ghosts of Leeds are laid to rest as the urn is retained
Justin Langer reflects on 'the most challenging week of his coaching career' and how he and Tim Paine lifted Australia off the canvas to retain the Ashes urn
Andrew Ramsey at Old Trafford
9 September 2019, 08:23 AM AEST
If ever there was a group of cricketers to be justifiably spooked by the portents they met with regularity across an historic Sunday in Manchester, it must be Tim Paine's men.
From the moment they awoke to another sunny Sunday with their Ashes rivals supposedly no chance of staving off defeat, to the time that expectation was eventually realised approaching dusk, Australia's men's team confronted ghost after ghost.
And not once - outwardly at least - did their belief wobble, nor their nerve cave in the face of painful recent history and the constant reminders from baying fans and their own haunting memories.
So many moments across the preamble to day five at Old Trafford and the 91.3 overs then required to secure victory and retain the Ashes brought direct comparisons with Headingley two weeks earlier.
That, too, was a Sunday bathed in unseasonal sunshine on which England were supposed to crumble under history's weight and the most formidable bowling unit Australia has assembled in years.
While being forced to confront a similar scenario – a full day on which to bowl out England to claim victory - so soon after Headingley might have helped allay some elements of post-traumatic stress, it also carried the risk of debilitating flashbacks.
“I’ve been coaching a while now, this has been the most challenging week of my coaching career," Justin Langer admitted at day's end, after his team had won by 185 runs to take an unassailable 2-1 lead in the five-Test series.
"And now it's the most satisfying.
“We could have easily been sooks and had our tail between our legs.
"But we worked really hard, we got everyone together.
"The feeling in the camp was so bad (after Headingley) we actually had to face it head-on.
"We’ve been away for four months, and the boys could’ve dropped their bundle, but they didn’t.
"That’s what I’m most proud about this week."
That process was aided by the subtle differences between the final day at Old Trafford and that bloody Sunday a fortnight earlier in Leeds.
England were never a chance to chase down the 383 runs to win the fourth Test, and the Old Trafford pitch was a day older and far less true than the day-four surface at Headingley.
But the more advanced state of the game meant time posed a greater threat to Australia than did the scoreboard and, with each dogged England partnership that stretched on, those barely repressed memories surely stirred.
There was the morning's first hour, when opener Joe Denly and the man he had replaced at the top of the order, Jason Roy, navigated 14 overs with barely a false stroke.
Then came the mid-afternoon defiance from Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler, followed by an even more resilient union between Buttler and Craig Overton who, in turn, built an alliance with fellow tailender, Jack Leach.
"With the character of this group, we always believe and we always feel like we've got a chance as long as two guys are out there," England's shattered but proud captain Joe Root said post-match.
"That was certainly the feeling in the dressing room.
"I thought the guys fought extremely bravely, really dug in and made it very difficult for Australia.
"They put a real strong price on their wicket and that almost makes it a little bit harder to take.
"But at the same time, I couldn't be more proud of how we fought today."
Under usual Test match circumstances, the regular fall of a wicket or two amid that brave England resistance would have reinforced to the bowling team they remained on track for victory, given the sheer task the dwindling supply of batters faced.
There's a reason not many Test teams bat an entire last day to save a Test, especially when facing bowlers of Australia's current calibre.
But those pesky partnerships were forming against the backdrop of Headingley, by a team that had already plucked two miraculous wins from the gullet of defeat earlier in this hectic and historic summer.
Paine had copped his whack of criticism after the defeat at Leeds, but acknowledged in its aftermath that he'd made mistakes from which he'd gleaned harsh lessons.
And it was from the heat of that lost battle that the resolve to trust their strategies, to maintain patience, to keep believing and to remain calm was forged.
"There were a few nervous moments there, coming off Headingley," Paine said after the match.
"That was a loss that would break a lot of teams, but we turned up here and did our job like good sports teams do.
"The group has clearly been through a bit of adversity, some more than others.
"But the guys that sat in that change room have been through what happened at Cape Town, and at times like that you find out what sort of people you have got.
"You find people who can give up or keep fighting, and I think we have got guys who have come back and kept fighting.
"They are wanting to get better, and keep wanting to be in situations like we got at Headingley because those games, when you do win, feel very special.
"Headingley's loss make this all the more sweeter after a lot of people wrote us off."
Two weeks after most of Australia's playing XI had been rendered numb - and some lay prostrate and distraught on the turf - at Headingley, the foibles exposed on that Sunday afternoon were not revisited.
Paine marshalled his bowlers adroitly even as Overton and Leach stretched their union beyond an hour, and almost into the final 16-over stretch of the match.
The fielders who had been dispatched to the dominions as Ben Stokes went on his match-winning rampage at Leeds were instead clustered around the batters, with runs of no consequence in the hunt for wickets at Old Trafford.
And the flash of inspiration that eluded Australia at Headingley came when Paine called upon occasional legspinner Marnus Labuschagne to bowl an over, and he duly delivered the vital wicket of Leach.
When Josh Hazlewood landed the final blow, which was rubber-stamped by the third umpire following Overton's final desperate call for a review, the Australia players erupted into unrestrained celebration.
It was a victory dance repeated with far greater gusto later in the evening, as the team song was belted out by Nathan Lyon arm-in-arm with player of the match, Steve Smith.
"You are going to see emotion when you get a bunch of people together who have a common goal and have worked so hard for it for a such a long time," Paine explained.
"This has been two years in the planning, so to carry it out over here under pressure and with everything we've had thrown at us ...
"It's a nice place to play cricket, but it is bloody difficult in England, if I am honest.
"I couldn't be more proud of the way our group have handled everything thrown at them.
"At the end, it was just a bit of raw emotion when you have a little bit of success, particularly on the back of last week and the last eighteen months.
"We haven't had a lot of success and not a lot of happy times.
"But we are beginning to get them, and that is awesome.”
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jack Leach, Craig Overton, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia won by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: Match drawn at Lord's
Third Test: England won by one wicket at Headingley
Fourth Test: Australia won by 185 runs at Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval