A defeat which should rankle and reshape England’s attitude
Missed opportunities will haunt Root’s men Tourists’ tactical nous outsmarted their hosts
History’s page is amply stocked with examples of gallant defeats of England’s Test cricketers, and of fine hours when they have held on for a draw. Less numerous are examples of ruthless victories, which why England have won 109 Tests against Australia, whereas the victory which enabled the tourists to retain the Ashes was their 146th.
England could take a degree of satisfaction from keeping Australia waiting for 91.3 overs out of the 105 they had to survive to draw the fourth Test and go to The Oval on Thursday with a chance of regaining the Ashes. But if England are ever going to erase their historic deficit against Australia, it is a defeat which should rankle and reshape attitudes.
Rather than satisfaction, England should kick themselves for failing to take their opportunities in the fourth Test and this series, starting when Australia were 122 for eight at Edgbaston. Australia have been the stronger side in two main respects – they have Steve Smith and superiority in their fast bowling – but England could have run them closer with more ingenuity and a hungrier attitude.
Spirited on the fifth day, England were dispirited on the first. It had been much the same at Headingley, when England failed to seize the moment on the first day in pluperfect seam-bowling conditions; and, after failing to bowl out Australia cheaply and dismissed themselves for 67, needed the Ben Stokes miracle to drag them over the line.
In this Test, day one was also the time for Dunkirk spirit, when the gale was chilling and Australia raced to 170 for three off only 44 overs. By scoring so quickly in their first innings, Australia made up for the loss of half a day and gave themselves 105 overs – 25 of them with a second new ball – to dismiss England a second time. So having missed the boat when it mattered, England were left with no more than a one-in-six chance of a draw at the start of their second innings, and one in eight after failing to deploy their exceptionally well-qualified nightwatchman, Jack Leach, on the fourth evening.
There is no accounting for Smith, and genius, while only Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer have rivalled the three fast bowlers Australia have had in every match, led by the superlative Pat Cummins. But, inexcusably, England’s fielding has been worse than Australia’s. Had the chance offered by Tim Paine been held by Jason Roy at second slip, Australia would have been 245 for six; whereupon Smith added 145 speedily with his captain to eliminate any hope of England winning.
As England’s captain, Joe Root was brave, but artless, in offering to put his neck on the block for Cummins on the fourth evening. All of England’s surviving batsmen put in a shift on the final day, except for Stokes who lasted 17 balls as this summer’s excessive scheduling finally caught up with him and Archer; but none could survive so long as three hours. To preserve
Root, who is best equipped to bat all day, Leach should have opened – for the third time in Tests – and, instead of Rory Burns, taken the first over from Cummins, thereby reducing the risk of losing those two prime wickets in that dire half-hour. It seemed the right option at the time, and when Leach survived the fast bowling with the second new ball.
Joe Denly and Roy battled together through most of the morning. Roy, having gone nowhere as an opener, began growing into his role at No4. The determination was admirable, the technique in defence less so: when he was bowled, Roy’s bat and pad were anything but together. He deserves one more chance, at The Oval, for his improvement here. Denly made a fine fist of opening, with no more than a couple of high-risk cover drives, and was not subjected to the bouncer barrage he had suffered at Headingley. He has booked himself a place, somewhere in the top order, in England’s two-test autumn series in New Zealand. It was not until the second half of the day that Nathan Lyon found the right line, a foot outside off stump, which had Denly gloving a catch to short-leg.
At the halfway stage of England’s innings, the 53rd over, they had lost five batsmen, their top five batsmen. If Australia’s bowlers were flagging, the full house was not. After tea, Australia changed tactical tack. Paine posted fielders around the bat, and it worked immediately, the obvious now containing the element of surprise.
With a silly point under his nose, Jos Buttler was loath to push forward in case he popped a catch. But this was the quasi-second ball, the old one having been changed after 58 overs, and its livelier successor jagged in to brush his off stump when he shouldered arms. Encircled by five fielders, and the odd ball bouncing steeply, Archer could not push forward, so he played back and was trapped LBW by a grubber.
Overton had been miscast as third seamer, but he had grown up scrapping with his twin brother Jamie in the family garden, so an Ashes battle was an extension of his childhood. Every ball Overton and Leach survived was greeted, and celebrated; so too every stoppage, in the hope that bad light might intervene and shave off a few minutes.
Leach lasted more than an hour, until a leg-break from Marnus Labuschagne spat out of the rough and Leach had no time to drop his wrists, only pop a catch to short-leg. Overton lasted more than two and a half hours, before Hazlewood pinned him around 6.15pm on an autumnal evening and Australia went 2-1 up.
The best England can do is to win the Oval Test and square the series at 2-2. It is not going to be English cricket’s finest summer, therefore, and the World Cup will have to suffice.
Winning moments: Australia’s players wait for the review of the wicket of Craig Overton, then celebrate victory in the changing room (far left); Nathan Lyon leads the victory song before push-ups on the outfield (below)