Smith masterclass, Cummins burst put Ashes within reach
England two down chasing 383 with a day to play, after Steve Smith piled on yet more runs and Pat Cummins delivered a late wonder over
Andrew Ramsey at Old Trafford
8 September 2019, 07:00 AM AEST
Test cricket's top-ranked batter and bowler – Steve Smith and Pat Cummins – lived up to their lofty status to take Australia to the brink of retaining the Ashes in Manchester.
Another exhibition of batting genius from Smith in the face of adversity allowed Australia to declare their second innings with half an hour spare on day four, holding a formidable lead of 383.
Then Cummins struck twice in the first of the handful of overs available in the Lancashire gloaming to have England on the ropes at 2-18 and needing to force a draw at least to prevent Australia leading the five-Test series 2-1 and thereby retaining the urn.
Smith, with able assistance from Matthew Wade, carried Australia from a worryingly wobbly 4-44 having banked a first-innings lead of 196 to set up the late-day declaration.
Even against the backdrop of the 359 they scored at Headingley to make history, the hosts' hopes of saving the Test and keeping the series alive were rocked by Cummins' stunning first over.
In consecutive deliveries he removed the campaign's best-performed opener Rory Burns - caught at mid-off via a leading edge - from the third ball, and then knocked back captain Joe Root's off-stump next delivery.
Having not previously scored a golden duck in Test cricket, it was Root's second in three Tests (while he was also dismissed second ball in the first innings at Headingley) but he can rarely have received a better ball first-up than the Cummins cracker that angled in and nibbled away to beat the skipper's plaintive bat.
Even Manchester's habitually dank weather looks unlikely to save England's survival battle on Sunday, with sun forecast for the morning and no rain expected until Monday.
For those asking - and we don't want to jinx it - the weather forecast for day five in Manchester suggests "plenty of sunshine" and it should feel "pleasantly warm" 🤞☀🤷♂ #Ashes pic.twitter.com/WYITPqBHOu— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) September 7, 2019
Australia had entered their second innings nursing the dual reassurances of a sizeable lead and knowledge they had posted by far their biggest total of the series on the pitch at Old Trafford in the preceding days.
Within an hour, they had been reduced to high anxiety as first Stuart Broad – who tightened his choke-hold on Australia's openers – and then a fired-up Jofra Archer, who produced his most ferocious spell since Lord's, again reduced the top-order to rubble.
Even allowing for their overall lead of 240, there was more than a whiff of Trent Bridge 2015 in the clatter of wickets and the wave of euphoric crowd support the England bowlers were riding.
They had been whipped into a Saturday afternoon frenzy by the now familiar sight of Broad removing opener David Warner, who posted his third consecutive duck and his sixth dismissal to Broad in the past eight innings.
After his seventh single-figure score from eight starts, Warner was left with no response other than to smile ruefully as Broad took off on his well-rehearsed victory gallop.
That celebratory run was wheeled out again at the start of Broad's fourth over when Warner's opening partner Marcus Harris (six) perished in the same manner, but took one of Australia's two reviews with him.
Marnus Labuschagne, who behind Smith had shown the greatest propensity to withstand the bowling storm that was so ominously brewing, became Australia's third lbw victim when beaten by Archer's pace.
Labuschagne sought hopeful reprieve in the video review process which only rubber-stamped his fate, and his parting exchange with the delighted England team huddle brought only a salutary wave from Broad.
As he's been wont to do this series, Travis Head decided he would fight fire with a blow torch and blazed a couple of boundaries in a gallant attempt at landing a counter-punch.
But it proved no more effective than firing an air rifle at an advancing armoured vehicle which – invariably – drove clean through the beckoning gap in Head's defensive line and laid waste to his wicket.
But that's where the bold advance ended, upon encountering the bulwark that is Smith.
The former captain found an able ally in Wade and together they saw off Broad and Archer at their most potent and then took aim at subordinates Craig Overton and Jack Leach.
With Ben Stokes absent from the bowling crease due to a shoulder injury that meant he would not be called upon unless the need was dire, the Australia pair survived seven fraught overs before tea for the addition of 19 runs.
After the break, the latest ever-changing chapter in wildly oscillating series took another unexpected twist.
As Root resumed with Overton and Leach rather than risk over-using his gun duo, Smith and Wade launched a brazen assault that brought 84 runs from 16 overs.
Smith was at his most eccentric and belligerent, darting around the crease, waving his bat like a scimitar, advancing down the pitch and occasionally falling on his back.
Having reached his fifth half-century from as many innings in this series for which he will be forever associated, Smith went into T20 mode and eventually holed out to long-off for 82.
His self-inflicted demise means England's bowlers have effectively only claimed his wicket once this series by inducing a mistake – in the second innings at Edgbaston, where he nicked off against the second new ball for 142.
Otherwise, he's been bowled trying to chase quick last-wicket runs, out lbw not offering a shot soon after resuming from a neck blow, and twice caught off extravagant shots at Old Trafford with Australia in the ascendancy.
England will also know they have not defeated Australia with Smith in their ranks throughout this campaign, as much as the stunning win at Leeds saw their confidence soar.
As the hosts employed every available measure to chew up time – fatuous video reviews, lobbing the ball over heads of fielders en route to the bowler – Tim Paine lost patience and called a halt to the innings.
If setting England a similar target to the third Test – albeit on a more challenging pitch and from far fewer overs – brought initial anxiety, it had eased somewhat by day's end.
If Australia were to experience a recurrence of the Headingley nightmare, it seemed the availability to them of the second new ball early after play's resumption on Saturday might act as a more obvious trigger point.
Been a big day for fans of photos showing stumps/bails going everywhere #Ashes pic.twitter.com/byS4lgaMbl— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) September 7, 2019
It was, after all, when that supposed panacea was taken at Leeds that England pair Stokes and Jonny Bairstow found the momentum that ultimately produced a most unlikely victory.
The coincidence of the same two players at the crease when the replacement ball became due after half an hour's play on day four might therefore have quickened the tourists' pulse, even if England remained 285 runs in arrears at that juncture.
The angst would have therefore eased less than five overs after that pivotal moment arrived and Mitchell Starc was getting it to swing.
After battling for rhythm and control in his return to Test bowling on Friday, Starc looked immediately dangerous with the new ball and broke the potentially dangerous partnership.
He was aided in that quest by an airy drive from Bairstow that saw his middle-stump tilted back and his career record show 12 times bowled in his past 28 Test innings.
But as Australia learned so painfully at Headingley, England's spirit remains indomitable when Stokes is involved.
So when Starc was unable to clutch a reflex return catch when the allrounder was 19, a shudder ran through the visitors and the full house at Old Trafford dared to dream they might be in for another remarkable rearguard.
However, Starc put paid to that threat with a gem of a delivery that swung away from the left-hander, who had pushed forward and was aghast to see the edge fly into the reliable hands of Smith at second slip.
The deserved backslaps that Starc wore in Australia's celebratory huddle were evidence not only of the value they placed on Stokes' wicket, but also recognition of the service the left-arm quick had performed in his comeback Test.
By removing the duo who appeared most capable of somehow getting England back into the game, Starc had paved a path to the lower order.
Archer, who might have been run-out from the first ball he faced, seemed decidedly uninterested in hanging around for any length of time with bat in hand.
It was therefore hardly surprising when he wafted at a short ball from Cummins that yielded only a fine edge.
When Broad joined Buttler, England's deficit was 242 and the notional prospect of being asked to follow-on was alive, even though the proximity of a fifth Test next week meant Australia were not seriously entertaining the idea.
However, the faux target added to the theatrical occasion for the throng in Old Trafford's temporary western stand and revived vague ghosts of the run chase at Leeds in which Australia admitted they repeatedly erred.
The most glaring manifestation came via yet another botched review, when skipper Paine called for adjudication of an unsuccessful lbw appeal against Buttler on 16.
The England batter, who had reached double figures just twice in six previous innings this series, had offered no stroke and been struck high on the thigh, which indicated the ball was likely bouncing over the stumps.
That was confirmed by the video review which meant Australia – as they had been during those final frantic overs at Headingley – were without access to further reviews as England approached their notional target.
It took Australia's lamentable record with the DRS technology to six successful reviews from 26 attempts in fewer than four completed Tests.
Starc rendered the problem obsolete when he flattened Broad's off-stump, but with No.11 Jack Leach again remaining as the final obstacle, the profligacy returned to haunt them.
Starc's vehement lbw shout against Leach (on four) when England remained seven runs shy of avoiding the follow-on was declined and – with no remaining right of review – Australia's frustration escalated when it was shown the ball would have hit the stumps.
The innings ended 10 runs later when Buttler tried to belt Cummins over long-on, and while the decision of whether or not to bat again had been taken from their hands, Australia must have felt a 196-run lead was comfortable.
That sense of satisfaction proved short-lived at the start of their second innings, but slowly returned through their two world-beaters, Smith and Cummins.
England XI: Rory Burns, Joe Denly, Joe Root (c), Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Jos Buttler, Craig Overton, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach
Australia XI: David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Matt Wade, Tim Paine (c, wk), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
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: September 4-8, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval