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Supreme Smith Ensures the Ashes Stay Down Under

Both sides will have taken some time to digest the events of the Headingley Test, as they crossed the Pennines for the fourth Test at Old Trafford. Australia made two changes to their line-up. Steve Smith had recovered from his concussion spell out of the side, and it was Usman Khawaja who lost out; Smith’s replacement, Marnus Labuschagne, being moved up the order to three. There was one other change, as Mitchell Starc finally came into the side, James Pattinson being rested, as the Australians continued to ring the changes among their pace attack.

 

For England there was also a change to the bowling line-up, though not the one they had hoped to make, as James Anderson continued to struggle with his calf injury and was finally ruled out for the rest of the series. Chris Woakes had not quite hit his usual high levels in home series, so Craig Overton was brought in to offer height and bounce on a flat-looking track. With much scrutiny of the batting order, it was decided to swap Joe Denly and Jason Roy, taking the latter out of the firing line as an opener. He could perhaps consider himself lucky to have retained his place.

 

Tim Paine won the toss and had no hesitation in batting first on a chilly, blustery morning, but got off to a poor start when Stuart Broad induced an edge from David Warner, second ball, and he was out for a duck. Broad didn’t have to wait much longer before he had a second, trapping Marcus Harris LBW. That brought Smith to the crease after just seven overs, with Broad and Jofra Archer fresh and ready to make life as difficult as possible.

 

Smith and Labuschagne soon got on top of the bowling. A big inswinger from Ben Stokes, against the breeze, nearly had the latter LBW, but England’s review said it was umpire’s call and he just survived, so by lunch they were 98 for two. The weather then intervened, and play didn’t resume until about four o’clock. Over the next hour, the pair took their partnership beyond a hundred as England’s bowlers struggled to find the right lengths and rhythm.

 

Finally, Overton struck with a beauty, the ball nipping between bat and pad to remove Labuschagne for 67. Having been the first man to 1000 runs this summer, he has brought that form into the Ashes, completing his fourth successive half-century: 144 for three. Travis Head began nervously, which got the crowd excited, but was still there at the end of Day One with the score on 170 for three. Far more significantly, one felt, Smith was still batting on 60, and England needed to get him out early on Day Two.

 

They came close, beating the bat a couple of times, then he hit one straight back at Archer at catchable height, but he couldn’t get to it. Instead, it was Head who was LBW to Broad. Matthew Wade then tried to launch Jack Leach, only to send one into the heavens for Joe Root to catch – at 224 for five, with the out-of-form Paine on his way in, England had a sniff of getting Australia out for a reasonable total. But by lunch, Smith had reached his third century of the series and his 11th against England (his lowest score in his last eight innings against England being 76) and the score had moved on to 245.

 

Straight after the lunch break, Broad got Paine to chase a very wide one and it was dropped in the slips by Roy. Then, with Smith on 118, Stokes took a good low catch at slip off Leach only for the decision to go to the third umpire to check if he had overstepped, which he had – just. It was a truly criminal error from a spinner, and England’s two mistakes would cost them dear.

The new ball came and went without success, and to make matters worse Stokes left the field with a sore shoulder. Next, Paine was dropped again, on 49, by substitute Sam Curran off Archer’s bowling – by then, Australia were 338 for five. England finished the session wicketless, when they’d had three chances, while Australia added 124 runs. It felt like England were already fighting to save the match so they could go to The Oval with the Ashes still in the balance.

 

England needed something, and Overton delivered it with the first ball after, inducing an edge from Paine (58) through to Jonny Bairstow. Soon after Leach had Pat Cummins caught and, at 387 for seven, England were into the tail. But Starc came out positively, looking to set a declaration. Finally, it was Root who dismissed Smith, attempting a reverse sweep, for 211. It was his third double century, all coming against England, with one in each of his last three series against them. Only Walter Hammond (4) and Bradman (8) have more in Ashes cricket.

 

Starc continued to slash the flagging England attack to all parts, and he reached his half-century off just 49 balls. He and Lyon took 44 balls to add fifty together – it was the final humiliation, and so Paine declared with his side on 497 for eight to give his side 40 minutes of batting to see out. But replacement opener Denly was unable to make it through to the close, brilliantly caught by Wade at short leg – highlighting another difference between the sides, with Australia taking their half-chances and England missing their full ones. Overton came in as nightwatchman. There were no more problems and England closed on 23 for one.

 

Overton didn’t last long the next day, with England being relieved that play couldn’t begin until 1.30, so Root was soon in to join Burns. The pair have often proved to be England’s most solid batsmen this series, and they withstood all that was thrown at them, with Burns in particular the target of a lot of short stuff, as the Australians feel he is vulnerable there. But the opener gritted it out, and reached his half-century.

 

England progressed relatively calmly – though not without some damage to Root’s box from a Starc inswinger – as they put on a century partnership by tea. After the break, Root passed his fifty; an edge from him went through the gap between Paine and Warner; Lyon seemed rattled by the crowd’s barracking over his missed run-out at Headingley; Australia wasted an LBW review. All seemed well, but you can never write off this attack; with Cummins bowling brilliantly, the pressure was relentless. But, as so often, it was Hazlewood who did the damage in the end. Burns edged to Smith and was out for 81: 166 for three.

 

Once they open an end, this attack is onto you, and with Roy low on confidence, there was every chance another would fall. In fact, it was Root who was LBW to Hazlewood for 71 soon after. Roy couldn’t make it to the close, as Hazlewood sent one between bat and pad to bowl him for 22. It was a great ball, but he’d pushed hard at it, opening the gap. England closed Day Three on 200 for five, knowing they needed to score nearly a hundred more to save the follow-on.

 

The next morning, England lost three wickets and Buttler was left with the tail, last man out for 41, but they had saved the follow-on and reached 301 all out. Trailing by 196, England were unlikely to pull off another miraculous comeback, but when they reduced Australia to 44 for four before tea, there was a flicker of hope. Broad completed a pair for Warner (the sixth time he’d fallen to Broad this series, it was his first Test pair) and also removed Harris, then Archer took the wickets of Labuschagne and Head. There was no surprise to see Smith still there.

 

After the break, Root decided to bowl Leach and Overton, which removed the pressure that the openers had been creating. But Wade (34) and Smith put on 105 for the fifth wicket. Smith was eventually out for 82, going for the declaration, it was his ninth successive Ashes fifty – a record. The former skipper has 671 runsthis series, at an average of 134.50. Australia declared on 186 for six, setting England a target of 383, with seven overs to see out before close. But in the first over, bowled by the world No 1 Cummins, Burns got in a tangle and gave a catch to Paine, then Root was bowled first ball to a cracker. No more wickets fell, and England went into the final day on 18 for two.

 

A huge crowd turned up, hoping to see a famous rearguard action. Denly and Roy saw off the first hour, but after 80 minutes Cummins was brought back for a second spell and that over had Roy bowled for 31. The ball came back to hit the top of off stump, but Roy’s defence was stiff-legged with a big gap for the ball to go through. It was the fifth time this series he has been bowled – at that point, as many as the rest of the top seven combined. The hero of Headingley, Stokes got the faintest edge trying to pull the bat away and walked for 1: 74 for four. England got through to lunch at 87 for four, and in deep trouble.

 

Twenty minutes into the afternoon, Lyon got one to spit up and caught the glove of Denly, who could do little about it, and was out for 53. After the drinks break, Bairstow was LBW to Starc for 25, opening one end by bringing in the bowlers at the other end. Buttler and Overton saw England through to tea on 166 for six, but with the new ball just 11 overs away Australia remained favourites. Buttler then left one that nipped back and clipped the top of off.

 

The end was nigh: Archer was LBW to one that kept low from Lyon, and they were two wickets from retaining the Ashes. Leach and Overton batted out 14 overs between them, before Paine took the imaginative decision to bring on leg-spinner Labuschagne and he struck first over to remove Leach, who’d battled for 51 deliveries. Not long after Hazlewood got one to keep a little low against Overton, and he was LBW after sticking it out for 105 deliveries – his longest innings since 2016. All out for 197, England had been beaten by 185 runs with 13.3 overs remaining.

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It was a superb effort by Australia to retain the Ashes, who head to The Oval knowing a draw would make it their first away Ashes series win since 2001. There’s no doubt that Smith has proved the difference between the two sides, but the pairing of Cummins and Hazlewood has also been crucial. Both teams have gaping holes in their top order, which has meant that the series, for all its remarkable drama, can’t be considered to rank alongside the 2005 version. But, after the excitement of the World Cup, this has truly been a special summer for cricket fans.